Saturday, November 20, 2010
The discovery of France
I've been trying of late to improve my knowledge of French history, because although I took a paper on the French Revolution at uni and several general ones on European history, I've always felt a bit fuzzy on some of the particulars of French history, especially the whole Napoleon-Louis Napoleon-Revolution-Republic-another Revolution-Monarchy bit of it (unfortunately I still am majorly confused on all that, so if anyone knows a good book or something to brush up on it, let me know!)
So first I listened to an excellent Open Yale podcast course on the History of France Since 1871, taught by John Merriman - more info here. Unfortunately, this started after the whole confusing mess mentioned above, but it was still really interesting on the recent history of France. Good to learn who all those 'hommes politiques' every bloody street in France is named after are! Jean Jaurès, for example, who has a major square where the two main axis routes of Tours named after him, was the guy who united the French socialist parties back in c. 1905. He was assassinated on the eve of WWI due to his unpopular pacifist stance.
Anyway, I am currently reading The Discovery of France by Graham Robb (best 1p I ever spent, thanks Amazon! FYI for those reading from France - I always compare prices on amazon.fr and amazon.co.uk - English books on amazon.fr are almost always shipped from England anyway, and althoug the cost of shipping from England is a bit more, often the prices of the books will be much lower and thus offset the shipping & currency conversion differences) and I'm enjoying and learning so much that I thought I should share with any other francophiles who may be reading.
Essentially it's an exploration of France before France i.e. teasing out the 'real' France that existed before everything got centralised and homogenised. I think most people know that France used to be a patchwork of different languages and cultures, but the amount of differences and how long they endured were a real surprise to me. It's billed as a sort of travelogue - one guy exploring France on a bicycle - but it's actually not at all. While the author, a former Fellow at Oxford, really did go around France on a bike, there's very few mentions of this in the book and no sort of 'wacky encounters' or anything like that, just a historic account of what "pre-modern" (i.e. up to the 20th century and sometimes even beyond) France was like.
The first section, which basically describes life in some of the regions and maps out the cultural and linguistic differences, is especially interesting. Did you know, for example, that there used to be a hated minority group in many parts of France called the cagots (or a variant thereof)? They weren't a linguistic, religious, or ethnic subset, just a sort of caste that was shunned and restricted to living in certain areas and working in certain trades, for reasons unknown to even those who were persecuting them. I found it particularly poignant that, when the Revolution came, the cagots tried to take advantage of the situation by burning the records that identified them as outsiders, but this initiative failed because their names were memorised and passed down in the rhymes of the village children. The Wikipedia article on cagots is largely sourced from Robb's book.
After the many fascinating 'did you know' moments in the first third, I found the middle third dipped a little bit, with an over-emphasis on tracing the development of transportation in France and how it opened up the provinces to change and 'discovery', but it's still interesting. I'm currently on the last third (these are my divisions rather than the actual structure of the book) which is describing the impressions of tourists from the Ile-de-France in the regions. One interesting point that is made is that many of the hallmarks of regional identity - cuisine, costume etc. are actually either quite recent - whatever fashions etc. these tourists found at the exact moment they arrived in a region in the 19th century became the 'traditional' costume of the region, even if it had actually been at one a wide-spread fashion throughout France that had just hung on in the slower-changing provinces, or not really representative of traditional life in the province at all e.g. the sorts of rich, meat-filled regional cuisines we know today, which may be native to an area but would have been far out of reach of most of its subsistence-level inhabitants before the modern era.
To sum up, I found (am finding) this a fascinating alternative to the typical Paris-centric, great man sort of history that you normally read about France or anywhere else, full of interesting tidbits and insights into a bygone world. Highly recommended!