The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb

The nation as a destination
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What is history? Bunk? One damned thing after another? While educationalists and politicians want it in schools, they disagree about whose past should be taught and how much colouring-in should be on the syllabus. Meanwhile, fewer of us know that Joan of Arc was burnt alive, let alone why.

Concerned observers need not despair. History, as Sellars and Yeatman's 1066 and All That demonstrated in 1930, involves more forgetting than remembering. Pierre Nora's The Realms of Memory (1984-92), a multi-volume reconstruction of how the French past, passionately, optimistically, wrongly remembered, shaped its modern identity, was based on just that principle. To the theory of unreliable memory, Graham Robb now adds the principle of discovery. He argues that the birth of the French nation was as much the outcome of the physical exploration and colonisation of la France profonde as of the modernising policies of successive regimes. To justify his thesis, he has provided an exhilarating account of how the geographical entity that has become "France" emerged out of the jumbled mosaic of its unconnected parts.

He is less concerned with tracing the rise of "Frenchness" than with explaining how a territory composed of peoples as temperamentally and physically different as Normans and Méridionaux managed to join forces and form up into a unified nation. France grew out of a diverse tract of land that harboured distinct languages (like Breton or Basque), 55 dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects. In 1800, a third of the population still lived in self-administering "village states" of fewer than 35 inhabitants, who lived their lives within a radius of 15km of their place of birth.

Conventional histories chart a rising graph of progress that shows how early-medieval "France" (essentially Paris and the Île-de-France) absorbed dukedoms and regions until it was large enough to accommodate the centralising ambition of Louis XIV, the French Revolution and 19th-century governments to create a modern state. For Robb, however, France as a grand, geocultural unit was slowly "discovered" by its people, exactly as a traveller discovers new lands. It was a process that began in earnest around the beginning of the 18th century. His graph shows slow upward movement until 1789, after which it rises quickly until by 1914 it has virtually run its course.

The case is made with gloriously apposite facts and an abundance of quirky anecdotes and thumbnail sketches of people, places and customs. Taking as his measure the speed managed by horse-drawn transport, Robb estimates that in 1700 France was three weeks long (Dunkirk to Perpignan) and three weeks wide (Strasbourg to Brest), more or less what it had been in the days of the Romans. It was not the only thing Caesar's centurions would have found unaltered. The land was still underpopulated and, away from the major highways, the landscape largely unchanged. The people, too, remained wrapped in their parochial identities. They were isolated physically, mentally and linguistically.

A measure of continuity was supplied by the paths their ancestors had walked, the work required by each season, the venerable agricultural methods and craft skills passed from one generation to the next. New religions squatted in shrines of older faiths and were a significant factor in weakening the isolation of scattered populations. As Robb remarks in one of his wry asides, the development of France "owes a great deal to the supernatural acts of inanimate objects".

Dolmens, magic mountains and healing springs became objects of veneration which created pilgrim trails, which in turn bred trade routes and eventually towns. The transhumance of animals was echoed by seasonal migration of workers. What had been stasis becomes, on closer inspection, movement.

Nor was the movement one way. Slowly, the solitude was breached by outsiders. Tax-collectors were living proof of a government beyond the horizon and representatives of the king's justice imposed his laws. Pedlars arrived selling pins and spreading news, and cartographers mastered the wilderness. Cassini's maps (1750-1814) captured France on paper, just as scientists demythologised the natural world. A telling chapter traces the fate of wild animals (exterminated) and useful beasts (domesticated), which steadily thrust nature to the edge of the new urban consciousness.

Soon, the Revolution would seek to unify the fragmented state it inherited. The Jacobins reinforced centralisation as a means of controlling the new republic, "one and indivisible". The abbé Grégoire's education reforms waged war on local languages: speaking French was a basic requirement if citizens were to participate fully in the republican utopia.

Government action (more taxes and laws and military conscription) further eroded the isolation of the regions, and with the arrival of France's late-blooming industrial revolution, peasants migrated to towns. They now travelled along the new canals and, after 1840, by the railways that made France smaller (it was one day long in 1914), spread economic activity and encouraged invasion by tourism. Secret France was revealed.

Natural wonders, like the Alps, fuelled national pride and man-made marvels such as the Pont du Gard created the idea of a "patrimony". Mountain peaks were scaled and grottos plumbed. Old cathedrals and new industrial marvels were seen by visitors who brought money, and the modern world, into backwaters. By the time the Great War began, France had been explored and possessed by her people.

Robb, on brilliant form, takes us on a stunning journey through the historical landscape of France, which steadily comes into sharp modern focus. Four years in a library provided many facts and figures. The rest, plus the sights, sounds and smells that breathe vivid life into the book, are the result of 14,000 miles of snooping on a bicycle. Robb manages to be both soberly detached and personally involved. Mixing ethnology and social history, he has written an unstuffy, fascinating and very superior historical guidebook for the unhurried traveller: altogether a book to savour.

David Coward's 'A History of French Literature' is published by Blackwell

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