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La France profonde, as it never was in the traditional histories: Breton sex torture and year-old bread.

Book Review: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb

A Frenchman I happen to know has lived all of his 73 years in one small hamlet of around 100 houses, except for a couple of unhappy years of national service in North Africa. He’s now half surrounded by the holiday homes of assorted Dutch, English, and other nationalities, which he tries very hard to adjust to by trying to educate those who are amenable into the ethos and behaviour that he considers appropriate, and traditional. He’s friendly and keen to chat, but loses interest as soon as the topic moves beyond the hamlet.

Having read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, I now understand him a great deal more — for its thesis is that France, at least until the First World War, was not a nation, or at least was many, many nations, payes, which might be best defined as an area in which you could hear one church bell. Anyone with an interest in history knows that Germany was very late in European terms in forming as a “nation”, yet in Robb’s account France was scarcely more of one.

To set the scene he looks at the experiences of a series of intrepid mapmakers, some of whom paid with their lives for their efforts, not because of natural accidents but because their “foreign” status and “strange” tools made them targets. So the first mapster to see Le Gerbier de Jonc, 350 miles south of Paris on the watershed dividing the Med from the Atlantic, after trekking for three days through rugged, bare rock, in the early 1740s met his end: the locals took him for a sorcerer, and hacked him to death. Even in Murray’s Handbook for Travellers (1854), while it was suggested that this was a fine region for viewing by balloon, the writer added that this was “only if the aeronaut can remain out of range of a rifle”.

Beyond the main roads, there was wilderness and total isolation. So a girl of eight could get lost in the Issaux Forest, in the Basque Country, and only be found eight years later by shepherds in 1730, having lost her speech. In the mid-18th century a 300-strong band of smugglers roamed one-fifth of France, evading three regiments for a year and half, only captured when the leader, Louis Mandrin, was betrayed by his mistress. It was a land of tiny communities. In the late 18th and early 19th century, almost a third of the population, about 10 million people, lived in isolated farms, or hamlets with fewer than 35 inhabitants. “The known universe, for many people, had a radius of less than 15 miles and a population that could easily fit into a small barn.”

The established church too, had little real hold, Robb contends. The “pagan” gods – from pagus or pays – were still around, and saints were regarded much as they had been: “the Church was important in the same way that a shopping mall is important to shoppers: the customers were not especially interested in the creator and owner of the mall; they came to see the saints, who sold their wares in little chapels around the nave”. And the idea of hierarchy among the “congregation” may well not have matched that of the priest. Robb quotes a lovely case from 1872 in Chartes of a woman asked to move out of the way of “le bon Dieu” in a procession. “She retorted, ’Huh! I didn’t come here for him, I came for her, pointing at the Virgin.’”

The Discovery of France is filled with such delightful asides and anecdotes. There’s a thesis here, and a coherent account of a whole world that is invisible in traditional political and social histories centred on Paris. But that never gets in the way of delightful tale-telling.

And in the great divide of France – between the “snooty” Parisiens and the French (still alive today – I’ve had many French people in Burgundy say they prefer “real” foreigners — Dutch, English etc, to the Parisiens) there’s no question on which side Robb’s sympathies lie. With the brave, poor, unknowns who made such incredible journeys now mostly lost to history. He says: “It seems to be a law of social history that the greater the number of people with a particular experience, the less evidence remains of it. There are hundreds of pointlessly detailed accounts of banal coach journeys made by tourists, but the odysseys undertaken by migrants have vanished like most of the routes they walked.” (Although Robb does outline the account of Martin Nadaud, who left a Limousin hamlet in 1830 at age 14, dressed by his tearful mother in a top hat, new shoes, and a stiff sheep’s wool suit — the type of wool is now used for rough rugs. When he lost sight of the “Druid stones” that stood near his village, he’d left his payes.)

Robb makes the important point — something still very often ignored today — that curiosity was one of he main forces behind even the poorest people‘s travel, even though “the desire to discover the country is usually associated with explorers, scholars and tourists, not with migrant workers”. He explains how the first “Tour de France” was that of apprentices. The phrase originated in the early 18th century, but Robb says the practice was much older. Starting in Provence and Languedoc but eventually spreading in a rough hexagon around the Massif Central, it had a network of “Mothers” who provided lodging and arranged jobs. So would apprentices learn different techniques, different materials, different skills, over a period of four or five years. “An Ordinary Route of the Tour of France”, published by a baker in 1859, included 151 towns.

Even for the rich and well-connected, however, travel was far from easy. Robb quotes from Mme de Genlis’s phrasebook for travellers of 1799 such gems as:

Your carriage is heavy and overloaded.
The horse is worthless. It is restive. It is skittish…. Please give me a different one.
What kind of road is it?
It is very sandy.
It is strewn with rocks.
It is full of mountains, forests and precipices.
One must avoid passing through forests at dusk or at night.

And even those who could pay would not necessarily eat well. Robb explains how the French tradition of fine dining has its roots not in tradition, but 19th-century development. Most people lived on a monotonous basic diet that could apparently barely sustain life, and stale bread was the staple. In the Alps bread was baked once a year or even less often, then hung in the sun to dry or smoked in the eaves. It was softened with buttermilk or whey – or for rich people, wine. Anything that could be eaten was: in the Alps marmots, in the Morvan red squirrel.

It barely sounds survivable as a staple diet – but Robb explains how it was, quoting from the memoirs of the socialist Proudhon, who while he described meals of roasted cornmeal, potatoes, and vegetable soup also “grazed” in the fields on poppy seeds, peas, rampion, salsify, cherries, grapes, rosehips, blackberries, and sloes. And there were in 1862 more than 3 million beehives in France, one for every 13 inhabitants.

One more huge, and now clearly almost forgotten aspect of provincial life that Robb outlines is who did the work. I thought of the Parisienne who told me “cutting wood isn’t women’s work” when reading of how “in the mid to late 29th-century, almost everywhere in France, … at least half the people working in the open air were women. In many parts women appeared to do the lion’s share of the work…. Some tasks, like fetching water, were considered exclusively female. Very little was considered exclusively male.” Often their men folk were away for long periods – working as pedlars, as fishermen, on the high pastures, so women were in charge. And often they stuck to their own lives – 19th-century census show that over a third of all women were single and 12% of women over 50 had never married.

Robb reports how women in many areas were subject to horrible abuse and treated as little more than working animals, but he also makes it clear that they didn’t always accept this, and that female solidarity could go to considerable lengths. He quotes the Breton peasant Deguignet on a custom in Brittany (an area known for its strong patriarchy) about a game played by women at midday, when the men were asleep. Four or five women would find a man on his own, pin him down, and stuff his pants with mid or cow dung. Furthermore, if the game got rougher, “the woman left free would split the end of a thick stick, then with her two hands she would pry it apart the way you open a trap, and fit it onto the organis generationis ex pace par hominis… It was done in full daylight and right out in the fields in front of everyone, in front of gangs of children clapping and screaming with laughter.”

But of course change had to, we now know, arrive. The tourists, local and foreign, did start arriving in the 19th century, with the usually messy results. “Two friends” published an artistic guide to the Pyrenees in 1835 – they noted in one village that a hospitable cobbler let them sleep on the floor of his shop. The book gave his name and address, with the results familiar to any user of a Lonely Planet guide. Sometimes, though, the benefits could be mutual: around Provence town dwellers would open a little cubicle in the corner of their house and sell the leavings to the manure collector. This spread to the countryside, where competitive signs would draw coach travellers to little huts adorned with flowers: “Ici on est bien (It’s nice in here”), Ici on est mieux (It’s nicer here).”

Robb credits the bicycle, however, for the real revolution in France, noting the popular figures showing how the height of the population increased by several centimetres as a result of the reduction in the number of marriages between blood relatives. Before the First World War there was officially one for every ten people. (But since these were taxed, there were probably a lot more unofficial ones.) So change was coming, fast, and Robb notes that with it arrived nostalgia for a past that never really was. One of the most successful books of 1913 was Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes (translated as The Lost Domain and The End of Youth), which spoke of a simple, small world in the rural Bourbonnais – clod-wearing school pupils smelling of hay, the beaten-earth floor of the general store, the silence of the countryside. The Discovery of France effectively explains how this was both true, and not true, and for anyone who wants to understand the nation beyond the streets of Paris, it is essential reading. That it’s so immensely entertaining can only be considered a bonus.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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