And as it happens I’ve found the perfect book to accompany me on my travels: Graham Robb’s fabulous new work The Discovery of France. Robb’s area of specialisation is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, but thus far he has always threaded his interest in social history through literature: his books on Rimbaud and Balzac are among the finest contemporary examples of the genre of literary biography.
His new book takes the reader into the mental and physical universe of the millions of faceless people who, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were at the work of “discovering France” – gradually working their way into a sense of a world larger than that of their immediate village and province. The word pays, Robb observes, is translated today as “country” but it derives from pagus, or the area controlled by a tribe, and refers not so much to the abstract nation but to a smaller region that people thought of as home: "A pays was the area in which everything was familiar...To someone with little experience of the world, the pays could be measured in fields and furrows."
The France of this time was not "French" in any recognizable sense (just as people living on the Indian subcontinent had no sense of what the term "Indian" might mean). People's affiliations were to local places and traditions, local deities and saints, dialects highly specific to their town or village, local laws and strictures. People lived in a world where life spans were far shorter than they are today, yet the sense of time passing was far more burdensome and made life feel longer.
The limits of their universe were by the standards of our times highly circumscribed. "Until the invention of cheap bicycles," writes Robb, who himself went across France on a bicycle for his book, "the known universe, for most people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles." News of the wider world arrived on the tongues of pedlars, pilgrims, and smugglers; people lived at the mercy of disease, poverty, epidemics and catastrophes. “Life for most people was a game of snakes-and-ladders with very short snakes and very long ladders.”
Even where there were broadly shared traditions of heritage and culture, these were more obvious to outsiders than to the people themselves. France was in effect a country waiting to be discovered by its own citizens, each one of whom knew a part intimately but had only the dimmest conception of the whole.
The human relationship with the divine inspires some of Robb’s best observations. Although most of the country was nominally Roman Catholic, religious practices (as in, say, Hinduism) owed as much to pagan rituals and local customs as to any overriding theology. And the god or saint who resided in the village church or shrine was seen as a personal, embodied deity not interchangeable with those of neighbouring villages. Heavenly beings in this world, writes Robb, “were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers.”
Robb's refulgent book reminds us powerfully of the attractions of the regional and the local in our age of globalism. Its highly detailed account of patterns of trade and migration, pilgrim routes and smuggling networks, religious traditions and proverbial and folkloric wisdom, burrows out a world loosely stitched together in motley colours, on the cusp of earthshaking changes (the railways, the telegraph, the newspaper) that would alter its sense of itself for good. It is very easy to import an Indian (or some other personal) parallel into hundreds of observations that Robb makes: his loving attention to the French past rouses us to think about our own remote familial and regional past. I'll just quote a paragraph in closing to give some sense of the richness of detail of his text. This passage seems to me to beautifully marry fact with feeling:
These seasonal migrants were once a more obvious presence, in towns as well as the countryside. On certain days, the main squares of towns and cities filled up at dawn with hundreds of families who had walked through the night with their sickles wrapped in spare clothes. The markets were known as loues or louées. Harvesters wore ears of corn, shephers sported tufts of wool and carters hung whips around their necks. Domestic servants wore their best clothes and carried a distinctive bouquet or some foliage to serve as indentification. The employer would make them walk up and down to prove that they were not crippled and inspect their hands for the calluses that showed that they were hard workers. A coin placed in the hand sealed the contract. As the day wore on, the crowd of hopefuls became smaller, older and more decrepit. Those that remained at the very end of the day might follow the harvest anyway as gleaners, covering hundreds of miles in a month or two before returning home.
Update, July 18, 2008: Claire Armitstead on The Discovery of France after it was awarded the Ondaatje Prize ("The unifying concept of the book is mobility - or, in many areas of provincial France and for most of its history, the lack of it. Therein lies the irony of being a cyclist historian of the 21st century: in its early days, the bicycle was all about speeding things up, about making distances seem smaller, and communities closer. Now, in the era of transnational autoroutes, its great virtue is slowing things down, enabling the researcher to note the particularity of people and places...")