Gwern's Reviews > The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb
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it was amazing

Discovery of France charts the transition of the region covered by modern France into the unified cultural/political/geographic entity of today. This is incredibly interesting because from our perspective, we have forgotten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of taking the thousands of villages and regions differing in all sorts of ways, and crushing them into the relatively homogeneous high-tech culture of today - unifying languages, political systems, forms of transportation, religion, and so on. A theme throughout is Scott's legibility (Seeing Like A State); Robb gives all sorts of examples demonstrating local knowledge, specialized information, and resistance to outsiders.

Often people dramatically underestimate this. It's easy to assume that the vast nation-states like China or America just sort of came into existence naturally, but this overlooks the amount of effort Chinese/American governments/organizations have put into unification, in aspects ranging from stamping out as many languages and other cultures as possible to simplifying existing languages (particularly striking in China) to enforcing standardized units & measures (encouraging cash crops is a good way) to standardized national educational curriculum inculcating patriotism and common beliefs. You may not think that they are 'unified', but they are far more unified than they used to be - contrast the original 13 American colonies to how large America is now, or look at historical maps of Han China with the current boundaries, and think about all the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic differences that used to exist, and how many of, say, the languages are now extinct. (To say nothing of the peoples... Tibet and the American Indians come to mind as examples unique only for the documentation and notice taken of their particular instance.) The process of homogenization and simplification happens in many large countries, for easily-understood reasons such as the convenience of the state. Besides Robb & Scott, some views of this process can be found in Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order for China. (You could also get a bit of the American process out of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States by looking at various incidents in the right way, but that's too polemical & focused on other topics for me to really recommend.)

This may sound like a very grand theme, but Robb is able to give so many fascinating examples that one forgets the underlying demonstration and just basks in the knowledge of how the past is a very foreign country. (As I mention in my review of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, a sense of distance and alienation is one of the things I prize most in historical works - while there is continuity, continuity is easy to find and it is beyond easy to portray the past as proceeding Whiggishly and comprehensibly into the present, obscuring all the ways in which we are profoundly alien from the past.)

Where do I start... The extraordinary fact that until the 20th century, French was only a plurality language in France? The stiltwalking shepherds? The horrifying bits about drunken dying babies being carted to Paris by the 'angel-makers'? The packs of smuggler dogs who smuggled goods in and out of France for their human masters? (Or the dog-powered factories?) The forgotten persecution of the cagot caste? The Parisian who sold maggots to fisherman, which he raised in his closet on a pile of cat & dog roadkill collected from the streets? The wars between rival villages? The commuting peasants who thought nothing of a 50 mile walk? The strange twists of fate that lead regions to specialize in particular wares? The villages of cretins or families who regard a cretinous child as a gift from god? The mapping of the hidden communication networks that spread rumor at the speed of a horse? The corvée system of road-building, so inefficient at points that transporting the materials to build 1 more meter of a road could destroy more than 1 meter of that same road? All of this and much more is to be found in Robb's dizzying tour of France, past and present, a tour I found as entertaining as educational.

I made per-chapter excerpts of parts I liked:

prologue, ch1
ch17 & epilogue
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Reading Progress

July 16, 2012 – Shelved
October 13, 2013 – Started Reading
October 24, 2013 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Paulo (new) - added it

Paulo Ribeiro What an interesting coincidence. I'm going through a book about the branch of Rothschild dynasty in France and I'm shocked how little I know about them.

By the way, they're crazily socialist, with a tax income of 75% to anyone over 2millions/year. They "attacked" the Rothschild property too.

Can you tell, from the book, whether this socialist tendency comes from before WW I, some sort of reminiscent revolutionary government of the people from the Revolution?

Gwern The book doesn't deal much with transfers of wealth or taxation, since its focus is on the common people, not wealthy landlords or merchants or the bourgeois.

That said, pretty sure it comes from before WWI: a lot of wealthy were expropriated during the Revolution. I don't know to what extent it's a French phenomenon - Paris may have had its Communards, but perhaps it's only chance that English groups like the Diggers never got real power in England, for example.

message 3: by Tushar (new) - added it

Tushar Saxena A fantastic review. Not sure why it's showing up on my Goodreads feed in 2016 but I'm grateful!

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