The Discovery of France

by Graham Robb

Rating: ★★★★

An excellent dive into the social history of the region we now call France, covering everything from religion and work to geography, travel and animal life -- this last I remember particularly as being especially fascinating. Robb writes with the confidence of thorough research and a keen eye for the provocative or amusing detail.

The overwhelming message of the book is that statecraft -- or indeed, crafting a state -- is hard in ways that citizens of the modern world struggle to even comprehend. We may think of France as a singular entity upon which a monarchy or revolutionary government may attempt to impose change, but in reality this applied very little outside of Paris and its immediate environs. France was a myth subsuming a reality of hundreds and thousands of localities, the inhabitants of which had radically dissimilar languages, ethnicities and beliefs. As Robb puts it, as late as the 18th century, much of the country was still recovering from the collapse of the Roman Empire.

A Connecticut Yankee figure sent to the France of this time might as a first step idly suggest something like 'producing a map of the country', to reap the many benefits of good cartography and more reliable internal travel. Robb details the overwhelming practical issues that the cartographer Cassini ran into when attempting just that. Even equipped with written royal authority and suitably educated manpower, cartographers will trudge down uncertain paths, and have to overcome suspicious local populations who do not speak any French, and who are inclined to believe that this stranger with his odd instruments and sigils is some kind of sorcerer come to visit misfortune upon them -- for which they will attack and even kill him. Structures built as navigation aides will be torn down for lumber, locals will tell mapmakers what they intend for the land rather than what is there. There is no simple delineation between 'road' and field, and few people have ever gone more than a few miles from their place of birth. The map will be expensive, time-consuming, and, inevitably, be horribly wrong before it is even complete. Statecraft is hard.

I have no particular interest in France or the French, and I still found this book highly enjoyable. Robb's focus on the detail of life in France -- both in the near-stationary past and under the changes of the past three or four centuries -- is gripping to read, and provides a great deal of fascinating context to the traditional historical highlights of monarchy, revolution and emperor.