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  • The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War
  • Paul Maltby
Robb, Graham . 2007. The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. New York: Norton. $27.95 hc. xvii + 455 pp.

Thanks to a 14,000-mile bicycle journey, which retraced "transhumance trails, Gallo-Roman trade routes, pilgrim paths, river confluences" and "four years in the library" (xvi), Graham Robb "discovered" France. Or, perhaps, the quotation marks should enclose "France," for the discovery turned out to be a chaotic patchwork of ethnically distinct pays, unfamiliar to most insofar as they have been invisible to the typical "Paris-centric" view of France. Indeed, as Robb feels compelled to point out, "the provinces [are] not just the hinterland of Paris" (198). Prior to this latest publication, he had authored several studies of French writers; yet, he admits, "My professional knowledge of the country reflected the metropolitan view of writers like Balzac and Baudelaire, for whom the outer boulevards of Paris marked the edge of the civilized world" (xv). Thus, as though in reparation for this oversight, Robb's "historical geography" brings into focus in rich ethnographic detail an astonishing diversity of provincial microcultures, which remained "unfrenchified" for at least a century after the Revolution.

Robb chronicles the disruptions of everyday life in these deeply settled communities as successive central governments, from the first National Assembly onwards, sought to integrate them into a cohesive polity, shaped by the nationalist aspirations and interests of Paris bourgeois elites. However, his book is far from a nostalgic lament for folk cultures and ancient landscapes transformed or eradicated by modernization. To be sure, he finds much to commend in the pre-capitalist rhythms of daily life in the pays, where "there was little reason to work more than was strictly necessary" (79) and many of these communities managed to function as democratic self-governing "village states," in spite of the centralizing efforts of administrators in Paris. Yet, alongside these merits, Robb's history encounters the pervasive violence of village rivalries, the continual menace of famine, desperate faith in saints and shrines, interminable boredom, and such hardship as to instill a deep-seated pessimism: "When you've made a good soup, the Devil comes and shits in it," says a proverb from the Franche-Comté (92). Robb also notes a widespread xenophobia whereby—given the force of pays-centered identity, of a narrow [End Page 215] esprit de clocher—outsiders, even visitors from a neighboring village, would be perceived as suspect. Mapmakers sent forth from Paris often felt at risk from the natives of uncharted regions. In the 1740s, a surveyor from the first Cassini expedition was hacked to death by the villagers of Les Estables, Haute-Loire (5). In 1893, fifty Italian immigrants employed at the salt works in Aigues Mortes, Gard were shot and bludgeoned to death by a local mob (343).

Robb's guiding theme is that until the late nineteenth century for most living in the Hexagon—as French schoolchildren were taught to draw the six-sided national territory—home was pays before it was France. The challenge for central governments, from the time of the Convention down to the early decades of the Third Republic, was how to transform paysans into Frenchmen. The scale of the problem can be seen in Robb's map (58-59) of the fifty five major dialects and hundreds of local dialects belonging to the thirteen principal language groups (Oïl, Occitan, Breton, Francoprovençal, etc.). The statistics are remarkable: at the time of the Revolution, around only 11% of the population was competent in French; by 1880, that percentage had barely doubled. In 1794, the Abbé Grégoire issued his report on "The Necessity and Means of Exterminating Patois and Universalizing the Use of the French Language." For the nationalist abbé, the extirpation of the sub-dialects was imperative if French patriotism was to flourish. This concern persisted for generations and became a cornerstone of the Third Republic's education policy—a policy that, for some, amounted to "a colonial campaign to erase local cultures" (326). Yet, linguistic repression was just a...


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