A Discovery of France - Excerpts and Notes

These are my notes and review for this book. For other reading notes see tag: books

I first came upon this book among Gwern’s book reviews, and decided to give it a try since he gave it five stars. I found the first half to be very interesting, full of anecdotes and stories about France’s mostly rural population, and painting a broad-stroked image of several aspects of the average French life, during medieval and mostly early modern periods. I loved that first half, and most of the quotes below come from it. I feel like I left this book with a better sense of what a peasant’s life may have been like, and a lot of ideas for more vivid and accurate descriptions for D&D sessions and such.

The second half, from the 19th century onwards, deals with the nation’s modernization and it was a bit duller. I found the last two chapters, on tourism and bikes, to be quite boring, to the point where I read them quite quickly and with lots of skimming. Sue me.

Below are most of the quotes I found highly interesting. Most fit the criteria of “I sent them to at least one friend or thought of them afterwards at least once”.

“The two hundred thousand square miles of Europe’s biggest country were still magnified by medieval time. On the eve of the French Revolution, France was three weeks long (Dunkirk to Perpignan) and three weeks wide (Strasbourg to Brest). Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans, when wine-merchants could reach the English Channel from the Mediterranean ports in less than a month. ”

“After the Revolution, almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight. A peasant girl who went to work in Paris might, when looking through the scullery window at the street, see more people at a glance than she had known in her entire previous life.”

“The common cultural heritage of certain regions was more obvious to outsiders than to the people themselves. Brittany would have to be subdivided several times before an area could be found that meant something to the people who lived there. Bretons in the east spoke a dialect of French called Gallo or Gallot; Bretons in the west spoke various forms of Breton. The two groups almost never intermarried. In the west, the people of Armor (‘the Land by the Sea’) had little to do with the people of Argoat (‘the Land of Forests’). And in Armor alone, there were sub-populations so diverse and antagonistic that they were assumed by various writers to have their origins far beyond the granite coast, in Semitic tribes, in ancient Greece or Phoenicia, in Persia, Mongolia, China or Tibet.”

Church bells as a rallying cry

“The area in which a church bell can be heard more distinctly than those of other villages in the region is likely to be an area whose inhabitants had the same customs and language, the same memories and fears, and the same local saint. Bells marked the tribal territory and gave it a voice. When the bell was being cast by a travelling founder, villagers added heirlooms to the metal – old plates, coins and candlesticks – and turned it into the beloved embodiment of the village soul. It told the time of day and announced annual events: the beginning and end of harvest, the departure of flocks for the high pastures. It warned of incursions and threats. In the 1790s, recruiting sergeants marched across the Sologne through overlapping circles of sound to find, when they arrived in each village, that all the young men had disappeared. Bells were thought to dispel the thunder and hailstorms that destroyed the crops, which explains why so many people were electrocuted at the end of a bell-rope. They chased away the witches who piloted storm clouds and summoned angels so that prayers said while the bell was ringing – as in Millet’s painting L’Angélus – were more effective than at other times. In foggy weather, rescue bells were rung to guide travellers who might be lost. The number of bells and the size of the bell tower often give a fairly accurate measure of population density. ”

Swamp people

“A few visitors who braved the fevers that came off the marshes were surprised, therefore, to see signs of a lively and well-organized society: livestock floating serenely across the flat horizon and families setting off for church in plank boats light enough to be carried under the arm. They found children whose long-legged beds were lapped by the water at high tide and who learned to sail almost before they could talk. Most surprising of all, these people, who called themselves Colliberts, seemed to be happy with their watery homes and refused to be moved when the canal-builders offered them homes ‘in the plain’. The Colliberts were also known, disparagingly, as ‘Huttiers’ (hutdwellers) because they lived in shacks that looked like half-submerged islands in the swamp. The musky smoke of sun-dried dung filtered through a roof of reeds. Tables and chairs were made from bundles of reeds and bulrushes. A network of channels connected the marshes to dry land and the open sea. Many of the Colliberts made a living by selling fish at Les Sables-d’Olonne. There were more of them than anyone supposed. In the early twentieth century, the fleet on the Poitou swamp still numbered almost ten thousand.”

Cagot: The pariah caste in France

“Most cagot doors are found to the left of the porch: the cagots were supposed to slip into church and sit on benches along the cold north wall. They were not allowed to sit with the rest of the congregation. At communion, they received the host on the end of a stick. They were forbidden to walk barefoot in public and to touch the parapet of a bridge with their bare hands. Until the seventeenth century, they paid no taxes because their money was considered unclean and they were excused military service because they were not allowed to carry arms. (…) The only trades that male cagots were allowed to practise were carpentry and rope-making. A trace of this enforced specialization can still be found in the town of Hagetmau, which was once the focal point of several cagot communities, where almost half the populationworks in the chair industry. Many of the women worked as midwives and were thought to know secret remedies and spells. Since the cagots were skilled carpenters, they were treated as a valuable workforce by some nobles and educated people who found the prejudice absurd. In 1681, the parliament of Rennes made it illegal to persecute anyone on the grounds that they were a cagot. This made little difference to their daily lives. In the early eighteenth century, a wealthy cagot in the Landes was seen taking water from the font for ‘clean’ people. His hand was sliced off by a soldier and nailed to the church door. In 1741, a cagot from Moumour who had dared to cultivate the soil had his feet pierced with red-hot iron spikes.”

Most French people didn’t speak French

“The Abbé’s figures [where 88% of the population didn’t speak French] are almost certainly an underestimate. Seventy years later, when official statistics treated a few days at school or the merest smattering of French as evidence of an ability to speak the language, many or most of the communes in fifty-three out of eighty-nine départements were said to be non-French-speaking. In 1880, the number of people who felt comfortable speaking French was estimated to be about eight million (just over one-fifth of the population). In some parts, prefects, doctors, priests and policemen were like colonial officials, baffled by the natives and forced to use interpreters.”

French whistling language

“Even if a place was known to outsiders, its language might remain a secret. The Pyrenean village of Aas, at the foot of the Col d’Aubisque, above the spa town of Eax-Bonnes, had its own whistling language which was unknown even in the neighbouring valleys until it was mentioned on a television programme in 1959. Shepherds who spent the summer months in lonely cabins had evolved an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language that could be understood at a distance of up to two miles. It was also used by the women who worked in the surrounding fields and was apparently versatile enough in the early twentieth century to convey the contents of the local newspaper. Its last known use was during the Nazi Occupation, when shepherds helped Jewish refugees, Résistants and stranded pilots to cross the border into Spain. A few people in Aas today remember hearing the language, but no one can reproduce the sounds and no recordings were ever made. If such a remarkable language escaped detection, many other quieter dialects must have died out before they could be identified.

18th century death causes: melancholy

“At the end of the eighteenth century, doctors from urban Alsace to rural Brittany found that high death rates were not caused primarily by famine and disease. The problem was that, as soon as they became ill, people took to their beds and hoped to die. In 1750, the Marquis d’Argenson noticed that the peasants who farmed his land in the Touraine were ‘trying not to multiply’: ‘They wish only for death’. Even in times of plenty, old people who could no longer wield a spade or hold a needle were keen to die as soon as possible. ‘Lasting too long’ was one of the great fears of life. Invalids were habitually hated by their carers.”

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy at birth now seems depressingly low: in 1865, it was a few months over forty years in only twenty départements; in Paris and Finistère, it was under thirty; the national average was thirty-seven years two months. Life expectancy at five was fifty-one. Despite this, complaints about the brevity of life are far less common than complaints about its inordinate length. Slowness was not an attempt to savour the moment. ”

Underground cities (cave dwellers)

“In Arras and other towns in Flanders, up to one-third of the population – artisans as well as labourers – lived in underground cities carved into medieval quarries. These ‘boves’ (an old French word for ‘cavern’) were later used as sanctuaries, bomb-shelters, secret routes to the front in the First World War and eventually as candlelit restaurants and tourist attractions. Little is said or known today about their use as normal residential areas.”

Hunting Rights before the revolution

“Hunting rights were the sorest point: to see a furry feast scampering across a field and to know that catching it might mean death by hanging was more than a hungry peasant could bear. If the local lord spent all his time in a city or was not very keen on hunting, the area might be overrun by deer, boars, hares, rabbits and pigeons. To many foreign travellers, the characteristic sound of the French Revolution was the constant crepitation of muskets in the countryside exterminating the animals that had once enjoyed aristocratic immunity.”

Most people had a side-gig

“Every town and village was a living encyclopedia of crafts and trades. In 1886, most of the eight hundred and twenty-four inhabitants of the little town of Saint-Étienne-d’Orthe, on a low hill near the river Adour, were farmers and their dependents. Of the active population of two hundred and eleven, sixty-two had another trade: there were thirty-three seamstresses and weavers, six carpenters, five fishermen, four innkeepers, three cobblers, two shepherds, two blacksmiths, two millers, two masons, one baker, one rempailleur (upholsterer or chair-bottomer) and one witch (potentially useful in the absence of a doctor), but no butcher and no storekeeper other than two grocers. In addition to the local industries and the services provided by itinerant traders, most places also had snake collectors, rat catchers with trained ferrets and mole catchers who either set traps or lay in wait with a spade.

A quarter of the young population were invalids and cripples

“In the mid-nineteenth century, over a quarter of the young men who stood naked in front of military recruitment boards were found to be unfit for service because of ‘infirmity’, which included ‘weak constitution’, a useless or missing limb, partial blindness and eye disease, hernias and genital complaints, deafness, goitre, scrofula and respiratory and chest complaints. In a typical contingent of two hundred and thirty thousand, about one thousand were found to be mentally defective or insane, two thousand were hunchbacks and almost three thousand had bow legs or club feet. A further 5 per cent were too short (under five feet), and about 4 per cent suffered from unspecified complaints which probably included dysentery and virulent infestations of lice. For obvious reasons, people suffering from infectious diseases were not examined and do not appear in the figures.”

The village priest

“The beloved village priest, that staple figure of Romantic fiction, was a very rare breed. In most people’s minds, the man in black was supposed to be useful, like a doctor, a snake-catcher or a witch. He should be willing to write inaccurate letters of recommendation, to read the newspaper and to explain government decrees. He should also be able to pull strings in the spirit world, influence the weather and cure people and animals of rabies. (This partly explains the godlike status of Louis Pasteur, who developed a vaccine for rabies in 1885.) Naturally, this put the priest in a tricky position. If he refused to ring the bells to prevent a hailstorm, he was useless. If he rang the bells and it hailed anyway, he was inept. In 1874, the curé of the Limousin village of Burgnac refused to join a ‘pagan’ harvest procession. It duly hailed, the harvest was lost, and the curé had to be rescued from an angry crowd. To the poor sharecropper who led the crowd, this sort of behaviour made no sense at all: ‘Why would a priest who preaches religion try to do away with it?’.

Capillary routes were more important than main roads

“The huge discrepancy between the trifling amount of traffic on main roads and the quantities of goods delivered to markets and ports suggests that three-quarters of all trade in the early nineteenth century passed through this all-encompassing web. This was the system of fragile capillaries that carried the rumours and news. Many of these paths had no visible existence, even to a person standing on one. The French word route, which means both ‘route’ and ‘road’, preserves the ambiguity. Some routes, like smugglers’ paths in Brittany and the Basque Country, were little more than memories passed on from one generation to the next.”


“Every year, until the 1870s, thousands of colporteurs (pedlars) left mountain villages with hundred-pound baskets or pine-wood chests strapped to their backs. A stick at the rear allowed them to rest without removing the load. Inside, the merchandise was arranged in smaller baskets and covered with spare clothes. Weight was obviously critical. The pedlars’ baskets were masterpieces of packing. One man’s basket in 1841 contained 9,800 pins, 6,084 bobbins, 3,888 buttons, 3,000 needles, 36 thimbles, 36 combs, 24 lengths of cotton, 18 snuffboxes, 96 pens and pencils, 200 quills, 40 pairs of scissors and an assortment of hooks-and-eyes, knives, notebooks, suspenders and cakes of soap.

Luxury industry in France

“Unlike British industry, French industry was devoted predominantly to the production of so-called articles de Paris – luxury goods such as clocks, jewellery, furniture, fashion accessories, domestic utensils and artificial flowers. As the Larousse dictionary boasted in 1872, France may lag behind Britain and Germany in heavy industry, ‘but it has no equal in all industries which demand elegance and grace and which are more concerned with art than with manufacture’.”

Pyrenean brown bears

“The most spectacular creature to share the lives of human beings was the Pyrenean brown bear. Visitors to the remote valleys of the Couserans region were often alarmed to see children playing with bear cubs. The cubs were always orphans. The hunter would wrap himself in a triple layer of sheepskins and arm himself with a long knife. When the bear reared up and hugged the woolly human, the hunter pushed its jaw aside with one hand and stabbed it in the kidneys with the other, remaining locked in the embrace until the bear collapsed. The cubs were taken to the village where they grew up with the children and the livestock until they were old enough to be trained. A captive bear never hibernated but it ate surprisingly little and was cheap to maintain. The bears in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, having been trained by a cosmopolitan crowd, performed an amazing variety of tricks. The Pyrenean dancing bears had a smaller repertoire. ”

“An old woman in need of charity. She and her husband had raised a dancing bear, but bears are prone to fits of anger and the husband had been mauled to death. ‘I have nothing, sir, nothing at all – not even a roof for me and my animal.’ ‘Your animal? You mean the one that ate your husband?’ ‘Oh, sir, it’s all I have left of the poor man.”

The inefficiency of public (forced) road building

“In 1777, in the Généralité of Rouen (equivalent to the Seine-Maritime and parts of the neighbouring départements), thirty-seven thousand unpaid workers and twenty-two thousand horses worked for seven days each and produced twenty miles of road. This was fast. In the Landes, where carriages sank in the sand up to their axles, the engineer Chambrelent calculated that once a road had reached a certain length it would be destroyed by the process that built it: ‘In travelling to the point where it will be used to prolong the road, one cubic metre of stone or gravel wears out more than one cubic metre of road.’ In this case, physical reality was equal to the most perverse superstition: the more work done on a road, the shorter it became.

Canals as a basis for transport

“Horse-drawn barges carrying oranges, wine and oils from Italy and Spain, grain and cotton from Languedoc, and drugs and spices from the Levant and the Barbary Coast were unloaded at Toulouse onto smaller river boats that negotiated the watermills and shoals of the lower Garonne. At Agen, they took on prunes and other dried fruit for the Atlantic ships at Bordeaux. They returned from Bordeaux with sugar, coffee and tobacco from the Americas. The dream was that, one day, the French isthmus would enjoy the advantages of an island. ”

Napoleon III’s ascense to power

“The Duchesse de Berry’s small invasion was not unique. It seemed ridiculous only because it failed. Eight years later, in August 1840, Napoleon’s nephew also made himself a laughing-stock by chartering a pleasure boat in London and sailing to Boulogne-sur-Mer with sixty men and a caged vulture masquerading as an imperial eagle. He proclaimed himself the new head of state, was arrested after accidentally shooting a man in the face and sent to prison at Ham, in the swampy part of the Somme. Yet two years after escaping from prison disguised as a labourer with a plank of wood to hide his face, Louis-Napoléon was elected President of France. Three years after that, he conducted a coup d’état and, as Emperor Napoleon III, founded the Second Empire, thus proving, according to Baudelaire, that ‘the first person to come along can, by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, govern a great nation’.”

Tourist guides in the 18th century

“The book was to be sold all over the country, in every town that had a postmaster. Third, it redefined the sights that a patriotic tourist should want to see. Instead of gloomy old cathedrals, it praised factories, public promenades and new housing developments. The remarks on Nancy are typical: The barracks are magnificent, the hospital is beautiful. . . . The other buildings – the churches, for example – are contemptible. The Bishop was better lodged than the God he feigned to honour.”

Modern inns and hospitality

“Meals were commonly served in the bedchamber, the walls and floor of which might be ‘black with the accumulated filth of years’ and teeming with fleas. Mrs Cradock’s maid killed four hundred and eighty in a single room. Dogs were seen wrestling with intestines in the kitchen. In the courtyard of an inn near Lyon, Philip Thicknesse was surprised to see spinach being laid in a flat basket, apparently for the dogs to eat. Later that day, he saw the serving girl deliver it to his table. (‘I turned it, dish and all, upon her head.’)”

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04 Jul 2022 - importance: 9