What is the Discovery of France by Graham Robb?
Question by Kevin7: What is the Discovery of France by Graham Robb?
Answer by Ted H
France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it’s surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized—outside the confines of sophisticated Paris, as noted biographer Robb explains in his riveting exploration of France’s historical geography, great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; much of the country had not been accurately mapped; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The author himself embarked on a 14,000-mile bicycle tour of the France passed over in tourist guides. The result is a curious, engrossing mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state.
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Robb peddled some 14,000 miles over a ten year period studying French rural culture. His original intention was to write a historical guidebook, but in the process of going off the beaten path he discovered the cultural and linguistic richness of the provinces. France’s centralizing process began before the Revolution with Louis XIV, who started to impose the cultural and linguistic norms of Paris and the Ile-de-France region on the rest of France. The Jacobins and Napoleon continued the process by extending Paris’ administrative units throughout the country. Jargon-inclined literary critics have termed this gradual takeover as the colonization of the interior.
Robb learned from his travels that the centralization process was never as rapid or as complete as previously thought. In 1800, only 11% of the population spoke French (the official Parisian version) and a hundred years later only about 20% spoke it. Aside from separate languages such as Basque and Breton, there were 55 dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects. It was not until World War I – where this story ends – that it could be said that French, as we know it today, became the universal language within France itself. This was due not only to the war, but also to roads, railways, and the telegraph.
And speaking of roads, Robb, on his bicycle travelled paths inaccessible by automobile. He found very isolated villages that still spoke archaic dialects and followed strange rituals. There were people that believed in the supernatural, witchcraft, magic mountains, and healing springs. Robb also informs us that we will learn more from regional France in the future. Just as France has declined as an imperial power, Paris is losing its hegemony over the provinces. These lesser known linguistic and cultural traditions are emerging from the shadows. In fact many Parisians are no longer claiming to be Parisian, but proudly declaring to be from the region from which they originally came. Robb’s love of his subject is obvious from his entertaining anecdotes. If you are not a francophile already, you will be after reading this book.
As someone suspicious of government and state control, I was wondering how France did so well in spite of having a big government. This book gave me the answer: it took a long time for the government and the “nation” to penetrate the depth of deep France, “la France profonde”. It was not until recently that French was spoken by the majority of the citizens. Schools taught French but it was just like Greek or Latin: people forgot it right after they finished their (short) school life. For a long time France’s villages were unreachable.
Robb offers a wide and deep approach to the “discovery” of France. From the much-maligned cagots to the multi-cultural patois of the different villages and towns, the author points out that discrimination was the life-blood of tribal France. How the country became unified is the central core of the book and Robb investigates such things as how animals were viewed, why visitors (and later, “touristes”) helped to baste the country together and even how the bicycle changed the course of modern France. It’s quite an undertaking!
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