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Book Review: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography

When you realize that Saint Bernadette most likely saw a fairy and not the Virgin you’ve made a key discovery about the very core of France.

Bernadette indeed saw something in the cave that day along the roiling Gave de Pau near the village of Lourdes at the base of the Pyrenees but…

Ou pétito damisèla”, she said, in the local Bearese dialect. She described a small, thin girl in white clothing who pointed

The Discovery of Franceground and conjured up a productive little spring. The little lady returned eighteen times. The demoiselles were shy forest fairies clad in white. They lived in caves and grottos and small, mossy holes in the rock. Springs appeared where they pointed a finger and flowers appeared at their feet. They hated the rich and often took violent opposition at the abuse of the poor. When a local paper wrote that Bernadette had seen “a lady”, the girl demurred. When a painter and then a sculptor later depicted the “damisèla” as a full-grown woman draped in finery, Bernadette was furious. What she had seen was something vastly different. at the

You see, statues of the Virgin may dot southern France but French saints were more a mirror of earlier pagan gods than anything else.

“The church was important in the same way that a shopping mall is important to shoppers: the customers were not particularly interested in the creator and owner of the mall; they came to see the saints who sold their wares in little chapels around the nave.”


When most people think of France they think “Paris”. Bright lights, big city, Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries and the Sacre Couer. But having explored many of the remote areas of the country I’ve found that most of France has very little relationship with the nation’s capital.

“It is quite possible to travel from one end of the country to the other without . . . realizing that many of the landscapes that seem typically and eternally French are younger than the Eiffel Tower,” author Graham Robb tells us in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.

Distinguishing between “France” the city and “France” that is a bizarre amalgamation of multiple distinct languages and cultures quickly becomes the dominate theme of this fascinating exploration.

When you get to know Europe on a very deep level, you’re struck by just how fractious and odd a place it can be.

Once, I followed a French farmer on a moonlight hike in the Jura. I carried a shovel. In a canvas bag, he carried the head of a goat. The animal’s blood was still fresh on my pant legs. After hours of in and out of remote valleys we buried the head under a bubbling creek by the full moon. This, he assured me, would help the crops grow.

Robb nails this mysterious Europe by tackling this most mysterious and complicated of European nations. France.


I read The Discovery of France earlier this year huddled in a cold room in the Pyrenees village of Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It was an illumination.

“Before the revolution,” says Robb, “the name ‘France’ was often reserved for the small mushroom-shaped province centered on Paris.” That was it. Beyond those boundaries was a mess of peoples as different as people can be.

“France was a land of deserts” — of huge vacant spaces that had still not been accurately mapped in their entirety and that most natives never even tried to explore.”

When they did, they found the oddest of oddities.

“The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched ten feet in the air, they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep. People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders.”

Then there were the race of bear trainers in the Pyrenees and the shepherds who traversed the mountains in sleds that could reach speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour.

The Discovery of France
The Stilt Walkers of Landes from Jean Louis Gintrac (1808-1886)

The earliest of French mapmakers are the heroes of this work. These were the bravest of souls who, starting in the decades before the revolution, set off into a dangerous and mysterious countryside to “put half a million obscure hamlets on the map.” And many lost their lives. The young students drafted by the Cassini expedition were “hacked to death by the natives” because there were thought to be witches or even agents of the devil with their odd instruments.

Until the post World War I days, France was a painfully primitive and unexplored nation. An empire that had reached North America, far east Asia and throughout Africa did not even know where it’s own roads ran.

“France was repeatedly re-conquered by French forces.” Why? Because really, until recently, there was no such thing as FRANCE.


Robb is a noted expert on nineteenth century French literature. I’ve read his profile of Rimbaud which is fabulous. He is also known for his biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. This is different and this isn’t a travel book as much as it is a time-travel book.

The Discovery of Franceis absolutely one of the best books I’ve ever read.

If you’re interested in a truly deep understanding of the social, economic and political development of this most wonderful and important of nations you can’t go wrong with this book.

Here we have the stories of human beings. This is not a book about the great moments in history but rather how those text-book vital dates affected the poor farmer, barely able to eat, huddled in his cold hovel with children who may or may not make it to adulthood.

Robb hits you with a reality most moderns forget – and it’s not just true of France.

The Discovery of France
Hautes-Pyrénées by Jim O’Donnell

Empty, tragically poor, and far from “civilization” few people spoke French as their first language. Medieval rhythms dominated until well into the nineteenth century. The images of peasants who hibernated in winter to conserve energy because they didn’t have enough to eat….the cartloads of abandoned babies whose families couldn’t feed them….the dead ones dumped by the side of the road “like rotten apples”…. compelling and tragic.

Revolutions come for a reason.

Ultimately Robb wants us to know that France, like all nations founded on violence (like the USA), may yet not know itself.

“On the night of 17 October 1961, thousands of French Algerians protesting peacefully against the curfew that had been imposed on them, were rounded up by the Paris police. Though records have disappeared and though official figures still disagree with scholarly estimates, it is certain that many Algerians were tortured, maimed and stuffed into dustbins, and that about two hundred were beaten up by policeman and thrown into the Seine, where they drowned, in the tourist heart of Paris.”

A plaque dedicated to this massacre was erected in 2001. Most Parisians don’t even know it’s there.


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