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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

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While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He re While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn how France was explored, charted, and colonized, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.The Discovery of France explains how the modern nation came to be and how poorly understood that nation still is today. Above all, it shows how much of France—past and present—remains to be discovered.


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While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He re While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn how France was explored, charted, and colonized, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.The Discovery of France explains how the modern nation came to be and how poorly understood that nation still is today. Above all, it shows how much of France—past and present—remains to be discovered.

30 review for The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    This isn't an armchair travel book, it's an armchair time travel book. The use of the singular in the title is potentially misleading. It is the result of the author's discovery of France on bicycle and in the archives (but not both at the same time I hasten to add to reassure any anxious library lovers). It is also a book about how many times and how many ways France has been discovered. So we have the two men who tried to discover the boundary between the Langue d'Oc and the Langue d'Oil, one d This isn't an armchair travel book, it's an armchair time travel book. The use of the singular in the title is potentially misleading. It is the result of the author's discovery of France on bicycle and in the archives (but not both at the same time I hasten to add to reassure any anxious library lovers). It is also a book about how many times and how many ways France has been discovered. So we have the two men who tried to discover the boundary between the Langue d'Oc and the Langue d'Oil, one died and the other lost an eye in the process (I'm not sure if the discovery of the Benrather line was quite so dangerous). We have the explorers of caves and caverns, Cassini's mapmakers (one of whom is murdered while surveying in the first pages of the book), the first tourists and the sudden attention of the Parisian anthropologists to the supposedly backwards and primitive types to be found in the countryside, though to their chagrin they found that Breton skulls were larger than supposedly superior Parisian types. Then there are other discoveries. The discovery of the world beyond their villages made by generations of migrant workers who spent years working in different cities with people from particular areas dominating certain trades, and the discovery of a notion of being French thanks to universal education, mass literacy and the bicycle. The most profound discovery is that of the pre-modern ways of life that existed. A town's bread baked once a week, or harder yet all the year's baking done at once with the hard loaves softened in water, milk or wine throughout the year. People living a subsistence lifestyle slowing down into a semi hibernation during the winter months, the lives of those for whom going barefoot was a more sensible way of crossing fields than wearing shoes or the stilt wearing shepherds whose way of life disappeared with the coming of modernity. Tying the book together is the discovery of long standing prejudices. The book opens with the still mysterious persecution of the Cargots and ends with that of people of North African descent stuck in high rise suburbs. You are left with a sense of the mass of differing ways of life, habits of speech and economic networks that is hidden by the neatness and precision of a modern map. Please note: as pointed out below by Antonomasia in the comments that that the reception of this book has been most enthusiastic among those of us who know least about the social history of France. So I might offer that although this is a fun read, it would be wise not to take it too seriously, caveat lector (or auditor as applicable).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gwern

    Moved to gwern.net. Moved to gwern.net.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    Graham Robb brings a wonderful tour d'horizon of France between 1750 and 1914. Not the France that we usually know with its Sun Kings, enlightened Philosophers and Corsican emperors, but quite the contrary of it: the closed village communities, with their incomprehensible dialects, their superstition and their distrust of all what was strange, and with their precarious survival economy. Robb stresses that France in this period was no unit, French was spoken in a limited area and by a limited gro Graham Robb brings a wonderful tour d'horizon of France between 1750 and 1914. Not the France that we usually know with its Sun Kings, enlightened Philosophers and Corsican emperors, but quite the contrary of it: the closed village communities, with their incomprehensible dialects, their superstition and their distrust of all what was strange, and with their precarious survival economy. Robb stresses that France in this period was no unit, French was spoken in a limited area and by a limited group of people, the enlightenment and modernity were still not so far penetrated and the residents of most parts of France saw themselves not as Frenchmen. But he also outlines how very gradually the modernity broke through, 'discovered' the country (hence the title), conquered and colonized it. It is clear that Robb wanted to correct the glorious image that the French present of themselves. Thus this is truly revisionist historiography, and he may have exaggerated a bit in the other direction. Anyway, the French blamed him for that (this book was only published in French in a very limited edition, and French editorialists crucified Robb). As it goes, the truth probably is somewhere in between.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paula Koneazny

    Francophile that I am, I will never see France quite the same way after having read Robb's fascinating historical geography (or geographical history)of France up to WWI. Almost every page, in fact, almost every paragraph proves chock-full of interesting "facts" and authorial observations. There are chapters on languages (French having been a minority, i.e., "foreign" language a mere hundred years ago); animals (the "60 million Others" who also inhabited the Hexagon); maps, roads, travel in all i Francophile that I am, I will never see France quite the same way after having read Robb's fascinating historical geography (or geographical history)of France up to WWI. Almost every page, in fact, almost every paragraph proves chock-full of interesting "facts" and authorial observations. There are chapters on languages (French having been a minority, i.e., "foreign" language a mere hundred years ago); animals (the "60 million Others" who also inhabited the Hexagon); maps, roads, travel in all its dimensions, "colonization" of the nation, tourism and more. I am already rereading this book with a map of France spread out on the dining room table in front of me as I do so (bearing in mind that to "find" all the locales Robb references really requires a palimpsest of old and new, large and small scale, linguistic, ethnographic & topographic maps, some of which may not even exist. A few anecdotal gems: "But if all the nicknames had been adopted, the map of France would now be covered with obscenities and incomprehensible jokes." (36) "Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity. Lowering the metabolic rate prevented hunger from exhausting supplies . . . Slowness was not an attempt to savour the moment." (76) "The Virgin Mary was always more important than God . . . . He was no more important than a bishop." (130) "The century's greatest expert on gossip and pre-industrial telecommunications, Honore de Balzac, suggested that rumour could travel at about 9 mph." (141) "Any commemoration of European unity should remember the smugglers and pedlars who helped to keep the borders open." (152) "Three years later the dogs of Paris had their own ambulance." (179) "The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched ten feet in the air, they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep. People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders." (243) "France was repeatedly reconquered by French forces." (256) "it is quite possible to travel from one end of the country to the other without . . . realizing that many of the landscapes that seem typically and eternally French are younger than the Eiffel Tower." (268)

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    This was fantastically fascinating and so just my thing. Review posted in roundup of fantastic books I've read in the last few months on my blog: https://shouldacouldawouldabooks.com/... This was fantastically fascinating and so just my thing. Review posted in roundup of fantastic books I've read in the last few months on my blog: https://shouldacouldawouldabooks.com/...

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sense Of History

    It is clear to me that Robbs with this book wanted to offer a correction on the image that the French put up of themselves as a nation that already in the 18th century laid the foundations of modernity, that during and after the French revolution this modernity penetrated in all sections of French society, and at the same time France spread this light of modernity across the world. This myth has been punctured long ago, not least by French historians themselves, both by the Annales-school as by It is clear to me that Robbs with this book wanted to offer a correction on the image that the French put up of themselves as a nation that already in the 18th century laid the foundations of modernity, that during and after the French revolution this modernity penetrated in all sections of French society, and at the same time France spread this light of modernity across the world. This myth has been punctured long ago, not least by French historians themselves, both by the Annales-school as by the school of social historians in the years 1950 and 1960. But that picture apparently still is not adjusted outside of France. And so Robb can do his thing and show that France in the 19th century and early 20th century was not that unified and centralized and, above all, was not that modern state-of-the-art country it liked to present itself. I have to say: Robb does so with much gusto. He quotes elaborately from travel reports and other ego-documents and astounds us with lots of gasping examples and some surprising photographs. This book is another illustration that the history of small people can offer a very different perspective than that of great personalities and institutions. But there also is some comment to make on Robb's view. I certainly have the impression that he strictly selected his sources in compliance with his intent, and consequently that he deliberately opted for a tunnel vision. As said, his method supplies a nice picture of the pre-modern France (an image that may not be so much different from the situation in other West European countries around the same period), but nevertheless we must keep in mind that this is a distortion. The reality probably was much more complex and dynamic, an interactive combination of pre-modern and modern trends. I'm not going to claim that Robb ignores this, certainly not, but his focus lies on just one end of the spectrum.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Theiss

    My deep love for France and the French is not based on deGaulle's France as a great nation but rather on its profound diversity of its language, culture, cuisine and mode de vie. Every region, every village, is unique because of its soil, what it grows, the history of its people. While the blender of globalization has been homogenizing culture in larger cities, one can still find villages that build the Feu de St. Jean at midsummer and watch the young men leap over the flames. Ancient dances, re My deep love for France and the French is not based on deGaulle's France as a great nation but rather on its profound diversity of its language, culture, cuisine and mode de vie. Every region, every village, is unique because of its soil, what it grows, the history of its people. While the blender of globalization has been homogenizing culture in larger cities, one can still find villages that build the Feu de St. Jean at midsummer and watch the young men leap over the flames. Ancient dances, regional costumes and traditional dishes have not yet been forgotten. Robb has given a depth of understanding to the people of France in historical and geographic context. He introduces old languages, transportation routes and customs borne of economic and religious necessity. How ancient pagan spirits were transformed into local saints was especially fascinating. In Plestin-les-Greves, a town in Brittany where I have spent considerable time, we had always wondered about St. Efflam, whose primitive likeness adorns a tiny local chapel in the woods (or "coat," in the local Breton language). Reportedly, Efflam left his wife on their wedding day to become a priest. He is not a Church-sanctioned saint but more on the order of a local saint, as is the case in rural areas across France. Robb is a fine writer and an indefatigable researcher. His book is pure pleasure.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Djewesbury

    This is a fascinating book, full of the perfectly unexpected. It is possibly the best piece of social history I've ever read. The accepted version of modern French history relies on a linear story of gradual and natural centralisation: the organic creation of a nation conceived of, in its essential form several hundreds of years ago, and striving ever since towards its own self-realisation. Robb overturns this view and demonstrates again and again that it is a miracle that modern France ever cam This is a fascinating book, full of the perfectly unexpected. It is possibly the best piece of social history I've ever read. The accepted version of modern French history relies on a linear story of gradual and natural centralisation: the organic creation of a nation conceived of, in its essential form several hundreds of years ago, and striving ever since towards its own self-realisation. Robb overturns this view and demonstrates again and again that it is a miracle that modern France ever came into existence at all. Little more than a hundred and fifty years ago, the vast majority of the 'French' were quite unaware that they were French at all, did not speak the French language and had never travelled outside their region. The latter is hardly unusual, but when one adds to this the fact that large areas of France remained unmapped, and completely unknown to outside eyes, until the mid-nineteenth century; that official knowledge of some regions did not extend fifty metres from the side of the main coach road; and that travel of any kind was tortuously slow and uncomfortable, we can start to see the French state as a rather more modern invention than we would ever have supposed. Indeed, it would be fair to say that it didn't really begin to emerge in a recognisable form until the educational and other reforms of the Third Republic, in the 1870s. Robb treats his subject in themed chapters which are not straightforwardly arranged in an overarching chronology, although that chronology does frame the book as a whole (and the contemporary conclusion provides a fitting point of departure for further investigation). Unlike other 'themed' histories (I'm thinking particularly of Peter Ackroyd's long, dry 'biography' of London, which often reads like an unedited, self-indulgent list of lists) Robb's succeeds in giving life to the many dimensions of his subject, in order that we might start to view it more convincingly as a whole. He considers the many cultural, social and technological changes that might be thought of as central to a history such as this - innovations in cartography and in transport, regional identities, linguistic and topographical diversity, and so on. But he is also keen to reclaim those dimensions that often pass out of the record, the historiographical gaps and silences: in a chapter describing the passage of the year in pre-mechanised rural France, he asks his modern readers to try and comprehend the inactivity that dominated more than half of the agricultural year. How, he wonders, can history-writing describe the sheer boredom of these months? To eke out provisions between the reaping of one harvest and the sowing of the next, ordinary people would, more or less literally, hibernate, and the countryside would fall quiet throughout the whole of winter, but nowhere in existing literature is this really adequately described. In his desire to make tangible the pace of actual life, Robb evokes both Henri Lefebvre and E.P. Thompson, whose 'Making of the English Working Class' sometimes seems to be a template for this book (and who also famously concentrated on the birth of modern conceptions of time). Other reviews have quoted at length the startling facts that Robb excavates, and which he stitches through his narrative: the stilted shepherds of the Landes, the whistling language of the Pyrenees, and so on. All these certainly provide colourful illumination but the book is ultimately far more than just a collection of wonderful details. Robb is a sensitive and rigorous investigator, but whilst he makes the synthesis of hundreds of sources appear effortless, he never takes his eye off the larger story - the emergence of a contemporary France which is as much made by this collection of neglected, intimate, disparate and often suppressed histories, as by the epic, forward-thrusting narrative it more often tells of itself.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mackay

    Three point five stars, really, because I have the same sort of love/irritation with this book that Robb himself seems to feel for France. This is not a traditional history--it's not the story of grand men doing great and terrible things, thinking new and surprising thoughts, or inventing the Culture of the West that France, in large part, created from the 17th century onward. In some ways, it's a folk history, told through the small places in the heart of la France profonde. As such, it's a nece Three point five stars, really, because I have the same sort of love/irritation with this book that Robb himself seems to feel for France. This is not a traditional history--it's not the story of grand men doing great and terrible things, thinking new and surprising thoughts, or inventing the Culture of the West that France, in large part, created from the 17th century onward. In some ways, it's a folk history, told through the small places in the heart of la France profonde. As such, it's a necessary and timely work. But often, Robb makes sweeping statements, which seem unsupported by the text (despite extensive, erudite notes and a full bibliography). He tends to let one example, one incident, speak for too much he is trying to explain ... which bends history as much as concentrating only on, say, Louis XIV or Napoleon or Jean Jacques Rousseau. From reading this, I found I learned quite a bit, and the prose is beautiful and compulsively readable. But if this were the only history of France one read, one would be hard-pressed to figure out why France matters, how it led the Enlightenment, how it was the pivot of so much European history. Indeed, one would be staggered to learn that France mattered so much in fact as it has. Yet, just reading about Cassini the Third's tremendous effort to map the whole of the Hexagon is a thrilling and moving story, and it's not the only one; the chapter that traces some legends and folktales is wonderful, too. So, love/irritation, because this book's story, and the story of France-in-the-World, seem nearly irreconcilable. (As an aside, I wondered, at reading the encomiums from the press and reviews in the front of the volume, if the book won such praise, such awards, from the British because it made them feel so superior to their old enemy. Hmm.)

  10. 5 out of 5

    peg

    Winner of the 2008 Royal Society Ondaatje Prize, an Award given annually to the written work that best evokes the spirit of place. I went from knowing absolutely nothing about the French countryside and history to feeling like I had taken a trip on foot through time in French small towns!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rick Skwiot

    According to author Graham Robb, a scant few hundred years ago France consisted largely of suspicious and superstitious pagan peasants who spoke discrete tongues (none of which was French), ate unpalatable and malnutritious food, and seldom ventured beyond a day’s walk of their homes. (Even today, Robb notes, some 86 percent of French people have never flown on an airplane.) However, in the intervening years France has somehow come to be known as a rational, monolinguistic land of art, sophistic According to author Graham Robb, a scant few hundred years ago France consisted largely of suspicious and superstitious pagan peasants who spoke discrete tongues (none of which was French), ate unpalatable and malnutritious food, and seldom ventured beyond a day’s walk of their homes. (Even today, Robb notes, some 86 percent of French people have never flown on an airplane.) However, in the intervening years France has somehow come to be known as a rational, monolinguistic land of art, sophistication, learning, the highest gastronomic achievement and a chic worldliness, all to the delight of tourists. That is, the world has adopted a limited Parisian view of the nation—which, as Robb documents, still deviates from the provincial reality. In “The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War” (though the book extends beyond those two events), Robb presents a witty and well researched exposé of our misapprehensions about France. That research includes his bicycling some 14,000 miles along the back roads that crisscross the country and “four years in the library” delving into its art, artifacts, folkways, physical history and literature. The result is a compelling portrait of the daily lives of the French before the advent of high-speed trains, superhighways, cinema verité and tourisme.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Henri Tournyol du Clos

    This is to French history very much like what British tabloids are to journalism: implicit or explicit generalizations from a collection of out of context senstionalist anecdotes, with a nearly total disregard for established facts and statistics. The main thrust of this book is that the French are not French but a collection of isolated tiny tribes (the word "tribe" itself is repeated over and over again, occurring a good thirty times in the text) of violent, illiterate and dirty peasants, nearl This is to French history very much like what British tabloids are to journalism: implicit or explicit generalizations from a collection of out of context senstionalist anecdotes, with a nearly total disregard for established facts and statistics. The main thrust of this book is that the French are not French but a collection of isolated tiny tribes (the word "tribe" itself is repeated over and over again, occurring a good thirty times in the text) of violent, illiterate and dirty peasants, nearly none of which spoke French. To anyone that has even remotely studied the European Middle Ages, this "tribal" thesis is utter nonsense, as the main action of the Church in the dark ages, which indeed founded European civilization, was the break-up of tribal ties via the interdiction of marrying one's cousins, even remote ones. In the ninth century, the Church even went as far as prohibiting weddings between seven times removed cousins. Waves of Germanic and other Eastern invaders were thus assimilated and tribes made way for families, which did not hinder the rise of modern states as tribes would have.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    This is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book. We have come to see nation states as monolithic entities, unified by language, culture, and history. Regional variations exist, but appear just as local color. The process of unification was in fact much messier, and bringing order out of chaos, sometimes by economic manipulation, sometimes by force, was a long and fraught process. In the United States we see the strong regional accents fading, and everyone seems to use a kind of homogenized M This is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book. We have come to see nation states as monolithic entities, unified by language, culture, and history. Regional variations exist, but appear just as local color. The process of unification was in fact much messier, and bringing order out of chaos, sometimes by economic manipulation, sometimes by force, was a long and fraught process. In the United States we see the strong regional accents fading, and everyone seems to use a kind of homogenized Midwestern-speak, as if we all grew up in Minnesota. However much the early politicians might have dreamed of unifying all parts of their countries, it was only with the advent of radio, television, and overarching educational policies that it became possible. France’s journey into modernity can be seen as one long process of extending Parisian language and culture to the farthest ends of the country. Considering their starting point, it is not surprising that the job took a century and a half. The hinterlands of France might as well have been not just another country, but from another millennium as well. Since most people never traveled far from their village of birth, it was not surprising that a single day’s journey could take a person to a region where the language, and perhaps the culture and religious practices as well, were completely incomprehensible. France may have been nominally a Christian nation, but away from the cities it was far from orthodox. Out there Christianity was just an overlay on top of ancient pagan beliefs. The book is full of strange and amazing stories largely lost to history. There were dogs that acted like homing pigeons, ferrying packs of smuggled goods back and forth across the borders. There were young children from the rural areas who made long journeys to Paris to work for a few years as professional beggars. Their handlers provided them room and board, gave them some nominal bits of religious education, and allowed them to keep any money they took in over their required daily minimum. There is the reminder that up until a hundred years or so, the vast majority of people living in France did not speak French (meaning Parisian French); some of what was spoken was more or less intelligible, like English and Scottish, and some were entirely different languages. We tend to think of Germany and Italy as emergent nations, only taking shape in the mid nineteenth century, but France was no less fragmented, it just had a central government that outshone all the regional districts. There is something to learn on almost every page of this book. It is an amazing story of a country slowly coming together, of ancient, almost stone age villages entering the modern world, of cultures being suppressed and then re-emerging as what is recognizably modern France.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Hester

    This is one of my favorite books ever. It changed the way I viewed history and the way I viewed France. Every page was surprising and exhausting. Did you know they had dog-powered machinery in France? Where the dogs trained other dogs how to use it? That one of the first geographers of France was killed as a sorcerer? That there were orgies in Notre Dame? That Paris has always been a polyglot city, since people from different provinces did not speak the same language? That the government did not This is one of my favorite books ever. It changed the way I viewed history and the way I viewed France. Every page was surprising and exhausting. Did you know they had dog-powered machinery in France? Where the dogs trained other dogs how to use it? That one of the first geographers of France was killed as a sorcerer? That there were orgies in Notre Dame? That Paris has always been a polyglot city, since people from different provinces did not speak the same language? That the government did not know about France's largest canyon until a little before the turn of the century? A beautifully written, important book that covers French history ignored by the Parisian elite. Fantastic. This book also has a special place in my heart since this was the last Christmas present my father gave me and the last book we really discussed before he died. My brother and I took turns reading it to him in the hospital.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    This is a very nteresting book, but it is not at all how I imagined it after reading the Barnes & Nobles review. So beware! The facts presented in the book do NOT seem to be collected from the author's extensive bicycling throughout France, but rather reaped from extensive library research. It is primarily a history book, albeit filled with lots of interesting information. Lots of information on mapping. At times I was drowned by all the facts - a bit of editing would have definitely helped. You This is a very nteresting book, but it is not at all how I imagined it after reading the Barnes & Nobles review. So beware! The facts presented in the book do NOT seem to be collected from the author's extensive bicycling throughout France, but rather reaped from extensive library research. It is primarily a history book, albeit filled with lots of interesting information. Lots of information on mapping. At times I was drowned by all the facts - a bit of editing would have definitely helped. You do NOT travel around France from area to area. The book does NOT systematicly study different regions. It does NOT attempt to point out the particular cultural characteristics of different regions nor how these characteristics differ from region to region. That is what I thought I would be getting! So yeah, I am a bit disappointed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Henry Sturcke

    My takeaway from this book is that there is more to France than Paris. As true as that is today, it was even more the case in earlier times, when in vast regions people spoke in Basque, Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Flemish, and other non-French languages and had no concept of living in a country called France. The land was a quilt of a thousand or more pays. Graham Robb chronicles this neither with a sense of nostalgia nor of being a collector of the quaint. Before writing this book, he was already My takeaway from this book is that there is more to France than Paris. As true as that is today, it was even more the case in earlier times, when in vast regions people spoke in Basque, Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Flemish, and other non-French languages and had no concept of living in a country called France. The land was a quilt of a thousand or more pays. Graham Robb chronicles this neither with a sense of nostalgia nor of being a collector of the quaint. Before writing this book, he was already acclaimed for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Rimbaud. He counted as an expert. His bicycle tours of the countryside revealed to him much he didn’t know. He supplemented the first-hand knowledge his trips gave him with years of research in many libraries and archives. This combination of first-hand observation and digesting hundreds of old guidebooks, maps, and postcards yields the insight that “the more accurate the map, the more misleading the impression” (p. 6). This sentence is an example of his love of tersely antithetical sentences. Here is another: “Even before it was finished, it was clear that the map of France, with its standardized spellings and consistent symbols, would be considerably more coherent than the country itself” (p. 196). At times the narrative threatens to become a collection of oddities, but even then, the reader is sustained by the author’s taut, lively prose. The book is organized more carefully, however, than readily apparent. The first half uncovers a France that has disappeared, the second deals with “forms of life that are more recognizably modern” (p. 138). I especially enjoyed the interlude between parts 1 and 2, on the animal population of France in the 18th and 19th centuries. Merely to conceive of writing such a chapter shows the imagination of the author. The material Robb integrates into his narrative could have easily bloated to a book twice the size in the hands of a less-disciplined writer. This is a book that repays attentive reading. A very good read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carrie Chappell

    Robb's theory, so far as I can see it, turns on the notion that in the process of discovery one eventually knows destruction as well. As soon as an area is mapped, charted, understood by its resources, then there are the people wanting to move to it, use it all up, and charge others to see it. Then, it becomes a politic, and whether it's tourism or daily life, a whole space is lost to what was either found by people looking to expand their reach or some gentle ego wishing to understand better hi Robb's theory, so far as I can see it, turns on the notion that in the process of discovery one eventually knows destruction as well. As soon as an area is mapped, charted, understood by its resources, then there are the people wanting to move to it, use it all up, and charge others to see it. Then, it becomes a politic, and whether it's tourism or daily life, a whole space is lost to what was either found by people looking to expand their reach or some gentle ego wishing to understand better his/her world. In addition, so much of this book for me was connected to larger concerns around history-telling, the differing spaces that scholars, politicians, and the public inhabit in thinking of their past and present. For me, the book clarified a sense I had already—that history is usually more laden with stories of erasure than preservation. But then also the reminders that 'erasure' and 'preservation' are necessary to progress but dangerous to our senses of origin, to the life of certain populations. I guess now I want to think about what is important, as we look at the U.S. and the history she wants or needs to preserve or erase to make room for truer accounts, a long history of 'undiscovered' (<--no, that's not right?), of suppressed voices.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    This effortlessly-flowing narrative explores the historical geography of France with fascinating anecdotes and enlightening facts. I learned so much from this book--it's the kind of thing I can really geek out over. Topics range from regional dialects to historical side hustles (get paid to be an alarm clock!) to how to fake injuries for begging to fairy lore and saints galore to the evolution of transportation in the past few hundred years to the 'lost territories' in the 19th century and how t This effortlessly-flowing narrative explores the historical geography of France with fascinating anecdotes and enlightening facts. I learned so much from this book--it's the kind of thing I can really geek out over. Topics range from regional dialects to historical side hustles (get paid to be an alarm clock!) to how to fake injuries for begging to fairy lore and saints galore to the evolution of transportation in the past few hundred years to the 'lost territories' in the 19th century and how they became part of an escalation in national identity. This is a book I'll keep on my shelf for reference from here onward.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Luc De Coster

    A history of France from roughly 17th century to 20th century with battles, Kings and politics rather as a background. France discovering itself, its landscape, its population and finally its own unity. The birth of a nation stretched over three centuries. The story of map makers, road builders, canal diggers and railway engineers. The evolution of travelling and the origins of French Tourism as a patriotic duty. The tension between Paris and the Province, patois and French. Great story teller, A history of France from roughly 17th century to 20th century with battles, Kings and politics rather as a background. France discovering itself, its landscape, its population and finally its own unity. The birth of a nation stretched over three centuries. The story of map makers, road builders, canal diggers and railway engineers. The evolution of travelling and the origins of French Tourism as a patriotic duty. The tension between Paris and the Province, patois and French. Great story teller, no linear timeline but back and forth according to theme.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tamara

    This is a delightfully eclectic book, with piles and piles of surprising information about just-pre-modern daily life. The way distance shifted between eras and technologies, the way food and work and money functioned or didn't in this vast landscape before the state came along to make sense of them, the oddness and diversity of the way people moved and lived before, well, more practical universal solutions became available. It's a bit meandering and tended to lose my attention for weeks at a ti This is a delightfully eclectic book, with piles and piles of surprising information about just-pre-modern daily life. The way distance shifted between eras and technologies, the way food and work and money functioned or didn't in this vast landscape before the state came along to make sense of them, the oddness and diversity of the way people moved and lived before, well, more practical universal solutions became available. It's a bit meandering and tended to lose my attention for weeks at a time, but overall perfectly fascinating.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    Excellent book recommended to me by my BFF Frannie! If you're at all interested in France I would tell you to get and read this book - Aubri, are you listening? I was amazed reading about France. It wasn't anything like I had ever imagined. Thanks for the reference Frannie.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Karen E Carter

    Some good anecdotes, but an example of bad history.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    On my most recent trip to France, my friends and I decided to spend our last night in Tours at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant-- where one could get home-cooked meal. There we were feted by a local man, who had already seen the bottom of a wine barrel and who was happy to hear that we loved Tours but baffled by our love of Paris. "Paris is shit!" he repeated. We argued about charms, or lack thereof, of the City of Light throughout the evening, but he also graciously offered to pay for our meals. T On my most recent trip to France, my friends and I decided to spend our last night in Tours at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant-- where one could get home-cooked meal. There we were feted by a local man, who had already seen the bottom of a wine barrel and who was happy to hear that we loved Tours but baffled by our love of Paris. "Paris is shit!" he repeated. We argued about charms, or lack thereof, of the City of Light throughout the evening, but he also graciously offered to pay for our meals. The next day my friends and I left, taking two trains to Gare de Montparnasse and hiking what seemed to be five miles of tunnel to catch a Metro to Gare du Nord to board the EuroStar to London. Both were interesting events to note in a travel journal: Why did the man hate Paris so much? Why do all of the main train lines go through Paris (if you ever tried to map an east-west route, no matter what you try, you end up going though Paris) and why in the bloody hell it doesn't have one main station? These questions, plus many more that I didn't even know I had, were answered by Graham Robb's "The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography". Boring title? Yes. Wildly informative, enlightening, interesting, and entertaining? Absolutely. Robb lets his readers discover the France that none of us knew existed. It turns out that what we typically know of French history and culture is not reflective of the country and its people, but rather it is Parisian history and culture that we learn. What lay outside of that city's walls is a different story all together. This is best represented when he discusses the poet Alfred du Vigny in 1844, "He lived in metropolitan France whose express roads and canals were universally admired as engineering marvels, but not in the other France, which was still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire" (216). In another well-placed jab against the National Front, he explains how there is no "pure" Frenchman and how France was invaded by numerous groups such as the Romans, Gauls, Celts, Vikings, and Normans, all who helped shaped the different regions. Culture and language, like the terroir of wines, varied within short distances. Someone from a village three miles away could have a completely different language and would be seen as a foreigner. Robb explains how much of France was terra incognita even up to WWI, when most citizens did not know what Alsace-Lorraine was or that it had been taken by the Germans. Robb shows what regular life was like in France and how "France" was discovered by traders, mapmakers, canal and railroad builders, migrants, adventurers, and the monarchy who made sure that all roads (and eventually trains) lead to Paris. He explains how most regions did not know what made them "regional" until they went to Paris and tasted their "regional cuisine" for the first time. How Parisians viewed each region was very different from the reality, and the idea of regional culture was exported from that city. Paris also exported its arrogance and snobbery. Part of their snobbery was tied to how most French people did not know how to speak to French, using a local patois instead. Robb describes this process as colonization; at the same time as Paris colonized Algeria and Indochina, it slowly took over its country and unknown regions. It wasn't until the late 19th century that a complete map was finally made. Robb's research is impeccable and extensive. Much of the fun that comes from reading this is all of the journal, diary, and travelogue entries he includes. Couple that with his storytelling, wry wit, and obvious love of France, this is the perfect book for any Francophile or anyone who is interested how culture is made. It will enliven my next trip to France and, yes, even shitty Paris.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ian Mapp

    An uncategorizable book really and not what I was expecting. I was hoping for a beginniners guide to the geography, people and psyche of France. The blurb on the front seemed to indicate that this is a travelogue by the author, making his slow progress around France on a bike. I incorrectly guessed it would be a bit Bill Bryson. Its much more than that and based more by years in the Library than first hand observations. You can tell how serious the book is, more than a 1/3 is dedicated to footnotes An uncategorizable book really and not what I was expecting. I was hoping for a beginniners guide to the geography, people and psyche of France. The blurb on the front seemed to indicate that this is a travelogue by the author, making his slow progress around France on a bike. I incorrectly guessed it would be a bit Bill Bryson. Its much more than that and based more by years in the Library than first hand observations. You can tell how serious the book is, more than a 1/3 is dedicated to footnotes and further references/reading. Its organised in chapters that are more about themes than locations or time periods and this results in a meandering voyage but mainly based on C18th to pre world war 1 France. It does a good job of getting beneath the surface of the French and I took quite a bit from it. The size of country and how different the peoples from the south are to the north and east. The removal of Patios speech and adoption of French as a common language. The distributed population. The transport system and how little of the outside world the average French peasant saw. Also more family type learnings - the treatment of the elderly and the very young. "As happy as a corpse" is a phrase I am going to have to try and use. It didn't quite work as well as I hoped, as the regions were just names, rather than providing a clue as to where they are located. Interesting and educational but I need to keep looking for the book that I am after.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Zandra

    If many histories of France focus too much on kings, emperors and revolutionaries, to my mind this one goes too far the other way in describing La France profunde. It is a nice idea to give a voice to forgotten peoples, and Robb has attempted to do so in enormous detail, but I am left feeling that there is a good reason why such people are normally forgotten. Robb's basic idea, that France has only really been 'discovered' as a unified nation since the time of the French Revolution, is an intere If many histories of France focus too much on kings, emperors and revolutionaries, to my mind this one goes too far the other way in describing La France profunde. It is a nice idea to give a voice to forgotten peoples, and Robb has attempted to do so in enormous detail, but I am left feeling that there is a good reason why such people are normally forgotten. Robb's basic idea, that France has only really been 'discovered' as a unified nation since the time of the French Revolution, is an interesting one, but to my mind he spends far too long 'proving' that France did not exist in any coherent form prior to this time, while he does not spend enough time explaining how, why, when and who sought to bring the diverse regions into one French-speaking national entity. There are a lot of weird, curious details about peoples of the past in this book, but it gives the reader only the shock of the novel; I wanted a more details account of how change came to the provincial people. I was also disappointed that Robb did not reflect more deeply on the role of literature in the making of the nation. From someone who has written biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud I expected much more than brief references to these writers' travels in provincial parts. This book was interesting to skim read, but too lacking in focus to engage me fully.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Summers-Stay

    This is a history of how all the little pays in France became one country. I hadn't realized how many independent little cultures there were all over France. Two images in particular stuck with me. One was how members of guilds, forbidden to carry weapons because they weren't gentlemen, developed combat techniques unique to their profession. One pictures chimney sweeps learning broom fu or masons learning ancient mysteries of combat with the trowel. The other was how shepherds used to go about o This is a history of how all the little pays in France became one country. I hadn't realized how many independent little cultures there were all over France. Two images in particular stuck with me. One was how members of guilds, forbidden to carry weapons because they weren't gentlemen, developed combat techniques unique to their profession. One pictures chimney sweeps learning broom fu or masons learning ancient mysteries of combat with the trowel. The other was how shepherds used to go about on long stilts, with a third stick that let them rest as a tripod. They could travel faster than running by walking on stilts.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    Lots of great stuff here--from language to maps to railroads and more, the book tells the story of the various populations "discovering" that they are French, as well as later tourists discovering the France of reality and invention. I loved it!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dillon Butvin

    I really enjoyed this book. Honestly at times it was truly boring as hell, but Robb still managed to pull me through with enjoyment the entire way. That's kind of how it felt. Like enjoyably being drug through the mud for a long time. I guess that means the writing was good! Really though, a lot of fun with a lot of great information. Helped that I read it while tramping around France, Give it a go though. I enjoyed it much more than other French historicals.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sonja Tyson

    What a wonderful book! I learned soooo much about France. I knew a good deal about the revolution and Napoleon, but that was about it. Now I'm much more interested in learning more.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Elzinus

    The Discovery of France gives the reader an account of the discovery and creation of the modern nation France from the multitude of different small communes with a strong tribe identity. Graham Robb, professor of French literature, researched this non-intellectual history for four years. These four years have proven to be productive, because there is a vast number of themes passing by. From language to tourism, from religion to the organisation of work and infrastructure. According to Richard Eder The Discovery of France gives the reader an account of the discovery and creation of the modern nation France from the multitude of different small communes with a strong tribe identity. Graham Robb, professor of French literature, researched this non-intellectual history for four years. These four years have proven to be productive, because there is a vast number of themes passing by. From language to tourism, from religion to the organisation of work and infrastructure. According to Richard Eder of the Boston Globe all these themes distract from the main team Boston Globe. I disagree. Graham Robb is able to give a wide array of information in an image provoking language and at the same time still turn back to the theme, that is: that France was a diverse country with closed communities. The structure of the book is mostly chronological. The story starts just before the revolution, but will give you some background on i.e. the Romans if needed. The chapters are thematic. What was a big surprise for me was the chapter about language. Most of the French countryside was hard to reach. People lived in small communities with their own system of law and customs. There was a lot of rivalry between villages and every ‘mini state’ spoke their own dialect. For a lot of regions it was not until the introduction of the train and bike that people moved regular out and into the villages. Before French was enforced on the people there where at least 10 different languages with hundreds of dialects. French, a Paris dialect of the Oïl language group was the main language in the North with Bretons, Flemish, Frankish and German being spoken on the borders. In the South OC was the main language next to Basque, Catalan, Corsican and Gallo Italian. In the center people spoke Franco Provençal and Marchions/Creusot. The French government had an active policy in removing all barbarian languages (read: non-Parisian). To achieve the unity of brotherhood they dreamt of. This was a slow process, as even in 1863 the communes in the south had no more 10% till 0% French speakers. It is sad that so much of these languages are lost in a couple of decennials. The modernisation and colonization of the different regions was slow. ‘Pedagogical’ intellectuals complained about the wintersleep that was common in some regions after a summer of hard work, where human energy was wasted by whole families laying in bed for months. There where still feasts at old the old stones that accounted for prehistoric beliefs. A lot of the information Graham Robb collected comes from observations of tourist and geographers. Both came in contact with people that do not write history. I got the impression that tourism, mainly from the UK, accounted for the invention of modern day France. Tourists searched for pittoreske scenes, local food (invented by local store owners) and good roads. Later French tourists followed, and still the countryside is depended on Europeans coming to see the ‘local’ specialities. Robb’ research is good he is able to draw from a lot of available sources. The only aspect missing was how the different people make sense of their world. There is some good information about the sighting of Maria at Louvre where the belief in ghosts collides with Christian beliefs. But overall, there is not much information about the ‘worldview’ of different people groups in France. I understand that this is hard to do, since there are no written accounts, but I've would have liked if Robb left the accounts of tourists and politicians sometimes to go into a more speculative account about the ways people believed. How much is lost in the passage of time! I've read this book with so much different emotions. Sometimes my romantic half took over and enjoyed the diversity of all those different (archaic) cultures. Although this feeling never lasted long. The sheer horror of rough living, bad food, repression of women, gang behaviour all made me think the European past was barbaric indeed. This book is a good counterbalance against all the Liberté, égalité, fraternité of great intellectual man. The book is well researched, consciously written an image provoking. The Discovery of France won the Duff Cooper Prize in 2007 and the RSL Ondaatje Prize in 2008 and I can understand this. The book is quite an adventure.

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