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The Discovery Of France: A Historical Geography From The Revolution To The First World War (2007)

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (2007)
3.98 of 5 Votes: 5
0393059731 (ISBN13: 9780393059731)
w. w. norton & company
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The Discovery Of France: A Historical...
The Discovery Of France: A Historical Geography From The Revolution To The First World War (2007)

About book: Discovery of France charts the transition of the region covered by modern France into the unified cultural/political/geographic entity of today. This is incredibly interesting because from our perspective, we have forgotten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of taking the thousands of villages and regions differing in all sorts of ways, and crushing them into the relatively homogeneous high-tech culture of today - unifying languages, political systems, forms of transportation, religion, and so on. A theme throughout is Scott's legibility (Seeing Like A State); Robb gives all sorts of examples demonstrating local knowledge, specialized information, and resistance to outsiders.Often people dramatically underestimate this. It's easy to assume that the vast nation-states like China or America just sort of came into existence naturally, but this overlooks the amount of effort Chinese/American governments/organizations have put into unification, in aspects ranging from stamping out as many languages and other cultures as possible to simplifying existing languages (particularly striking in China) to enforcing standardized units & measures (encouraging cash crops is a good way) to standardized national educational curriculum inculcating patriotism and common beliefs. You may not think that they are 'unified', but they are far more unified than they used to be - contrast the original 13 American colonies to how large America is now, or look at historical maps of Han China with the current boundaries, and think about all the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic differences that used to exist, and how many of, say, the languages are now extinct. (To say nothing of the peoples... Tibet and the American Indians come to mind as examples unique only for the documentation and notice taken of their particular instance.) The process of homogenization and simplification happens in many large countries, for easily-understood reasons such as the convenience of the state. Besides Robb & Scott, some views of this process can be found in Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order for China. (You could also get a bit of the American process out of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States by looking at various incidents in the right way, but that's too polemical & focused on other topics for me to really recommend.)This may sound like a very grand theme, but Robb is able to give so many fascinating examples that one forgets the underlying demonstration and just basks in the knowledge of how the past is a very foreign country. (As I mention in my review of The Dark Enlightenment, a sense of distance and alienation is one of the things I prize most in historical works - while there is continuity, continuity is easy to find and it is beyond easy to portray the past as proceeding Whiggishly and comprehensibly into the present, obscuring all the ways in which we are profoundly alien from the past.)Where do I start... The extraordinary fact that until the 20th century, French was only a plurality language in France? The stiltwalking shepherds? The horrifying bits about drunken dying babies being carted to Paris by the 'angel-makers'? The packs of smuggler dogs who smuggled goods in and out of France for their human masters? (Or the dog-powered factories?) The forgotten persecution of the cagot caste? The Parisian who sold maggots to fisherman, which he raised in his closet on a pile of cat & dog roadkill collected from the streets? The wars between rival villages? The commuting peasants who thought nothing of a 50 mile walk? The strange twists of fate that lead regions to specialize in particular wares? The villages of cretins or families who regard a cretinous child as a gift from god? The mapping of the hidden communication networks that spread rumor at the speed of a horse? The corvée system of road-building, so inefficient at points that transporting the materials to build 1 more meter of a road could destroy more than 1 meter of that same road? All of this and much more is to be found in Robb's dizzying tour of France, past and present, a tour I found as entertaining as educational.I made per-chapter excerpts of parts I liked:prologue, ch1 ch2 ch3 ch4 ch5 ch6 ch7 ch8 Interlude ch9-10 ch11-12 ch13 ch14 ch15 ch16 ch17 & epilogue

Did you know that in nineteenth century France, most Frenchmen did not speak French?That Fenimore Cooper visited France and found the roads full as bad as the worst in the United States? (Which meant those on the frontier, for the US) He shrewdly observed that the corvee -- enforced labor on the roads -- was generally enforced only when the local noble came by.That at the time of the Reign of Terror most French peasants didn't even know that the king had been executed?A fascinating book, if horrifying in places. The picture of peasants that it paints is one of dull, narrow-minded, lumpish, churlish clods. Many of them spent the winter months in a kind of torpor. Food was scarce, after all. Many "peasant crafts" were practiced by very few -- if they weren't made up after the fact.In places, its polemic effect -- arguing against the common views that France was, after all, a nation -- seems to overstrain it. The things he's describing he has evidence for, but I'm not sure it bears all the weight he gives it. On the other hand, that might just be that it's unfamiliar to me. And he does have a certain tendency to describe any behavior not explicitly Christian as pagan -- some of the instances he gives are clearly superstitious but not pagan, and others are just behaving badly.The first attempt to map France started in the reign of Louis XIV. It succeeded by seventy years later -- during Napoleon's time -- despite one cartographer being murdered by locals and another being so crippled that he had to retire on a pension.Some of the pictures it paints of the countryside would not be pleasant to run across in a novel. Peasants like this would be No Fun At All. (That's a technical term, there.) I mean, they described brides as foreign, meaning not from outside France, or even outside their province but outside their pays. But some of it would leaven some world-building.And he's got some fascinating facts. Like the War of the Demoiselles. French peasants disguising themselves as the -- ehem -- Good Folk and attacking the enforcers of new forest laws. All those wonderful little quirks of history that are so useful to steal.
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A fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters and skimmed others, but on the whole I was surprised at how readable, charming, engaging, and well-written this was. Granted, I came to it with low expectations, since anything with the word "geography" in the title I automatically assume will be a slog to get through. But the author knows how to tell a story, and he weaves together a fabric of strikingly detailed anecdotes rather than organizing the material didactically point-by-point. The overall effect for me was feeling myself transported back in time, immersed in the motley patchwork of tiny villages and dialects and myths and religious practices of provincial France of centuries past. I loved this book and strongly recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in French history and culture.
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)
'When stars and planets were still a noticeable source of illumination and cloudy, moonless nights were as black as abandoned coal mines...'An incredible history of France and the French as told through it's natives and when the nation of 'France' didn't exist. Small towns and villages dotted all throughout existed, speaking thousands of different languages from Breton to Flemish - to indistinguishable 'patois'; lived in their own very distinct cultures, and raised families in their own small circles for centuries. From area to area, sweeping description and immersion into the past of these seemingly unremarkable areas opens up moments of astonishment. How did children live? How did travellers and geographers and cartographers map the country before technology? All of these and more are answered and written with such incredible detail and atmosphereThis book describes how the beginning of travel culture opened up France and begun the standardisation of language, culture, dress and even food. How the villagers were swept away; how the children had the words of their family for generations beaten out of them in school; how many recruits for WWI had no idea what they were fighting for, and how the revolution helped forward the push towards 'France for the French' - and what the good things and pitfalls of this were. A positively enjoyable book that I would recommend to all history lovers with a sense of wanderlust.
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