The past isn't what it seems: The more you know about France the more this quirky history will amaze you

09/18/2009 7:06 pm EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor,

When we divide the world into developed and undeveloped economies, we should remember how very recent all of what we call development is.

When we marvel at—or doubt--the speed at which China or India or Brazil is becoming developed, we should remember that what is now called the developed world did it just as quickly.

That’s the message of Graham Robb’s amazingly quirky history The Discovery of France (Picador, 2007). Robb attempts, and large succeeds, at that most difficult of imaginative acts: he makes us see a history that we think we know as the story of a strange land full of marvels. (By the way the book is just an amazing amount of fun as well.)

The past, Robb points out, isn’t filled with people just like us. Indeed while the gap in years is small—just 250 years of so—the world of 1750 and 1850 and even 1900 is often unrecognizable to those who live in the developed economies of 2009.

Robb’s subject happens to be France. As a prize winning biographer of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud, it’s a country he knows well and one he clearly loves. But the history he writes could be written of much of the now developed world.

And it’s a strange history indeed.

Consider that

  • The effort to draw first complete and reliable map of France dates back to just 1740. The first sheet of Cassini’s great map was published in 1750; the last was printed in 1815.

  • In 1777 it took 37,000 (unpaid workers) and 22,000 horses (presumably fed if not paid) seven days to build 22 miles of road in the Rouen region.


  • When the French revolution began in 1789, somewhere between half to nine-tenths of the rural population couldn’t support itself on the land that it farmed and depended on what it made from day labor to survive.

  • In 1828 France had just 14 miles of railroads.

  • In 1844 an official report from the Burgundy region of the country noted that the rural population went into what amounted to hibernation after the fall harvest, moving more slowly, sleeping longer hours and huddling together in a motionless mass to conserve heat because only by saving calories could the peasants hope to survive until spring.

  • In 1865 the average life expectancy at birth in France was 37 years and two months.

  • The Verdon Gorges, at 13 miles long the most spectacular geographic feature in France Robb says, wasn’t “discovered” by scientists and explorers until 1905. The first boat descent of the waters in the gorge took place 37 years after John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.


The France that Robb describes is just about unrecognizable to anyone who has spent time in the country today. In fact, I’d say that the more time you’ve spent in France, the less recognizable this past France will  be.

Just this morning at the breakfast table my wife Marie, who is reading the book now, said that she just couldn’t believe it is true. We’ve spent time in the villages of the southwest of France. The houses made of gorgeous local stone feel like they’ve stood on these streets forever. They speak of a past that strikingly resembles the present, where things haven’t changed for centuries. Robb’s history shreds that view. This isn’t a stable and unchanging landscape and its inhabitants aren’t pursuing some unchanging traditional life.

This is a landscape of violent change and social revolution.

I think it’s only human nature to wish the past as much like the present as possible—at least as much as is consistent with our desire for quaintness. We want to go to La Bugue, a tiny village on the Vezere in the Dordogne, and tell our kids that the weekend market is just like it must have been 100 years ago.

I actually said this on our last visit. How I reconcile that with buying spring rolls for my daughter from a Vietnamese couple working a very well-traveled food stand I don’t know. (I’m pretty sure I saw the same couple and the same food stand at another traditional market a few days later and a dozen miles down the road in another town that “hadn’t changed in 100 years.”

I go to China and I want to see the traditional scholars’ houses and gardens in Shanghai and Suzhou because they represent the continuity of the present with the past. Biking through the countryside, as I did in 1986, I marvel at the number of people still living in caves—with doors and windows, it must be noted—as they’ve always done.

And I don’t marvel at the speed with which the people who live in those cave houses are running to get out of those reminders of the past.

 Every anecdote, every travelers story, every surprising turn that Robb delivers should be a reminder that what we see in France, or China, or the United States is a construction made up out of some combination of the real geographic and human landscape and our very creative human imagination.

And that should be a reminder that the way we now divide the world into developed and undeveloped can be a useful way to organize the world but only as long as it doesn’t stop us from seeing the world.

We’ve got to pay full attention to the quirks, the dirt under the nails, the odds details of the world we live in because otherwise we won’t truly see it.

And if we can’t truly see the past, there’s no way we can hope to understand the future.
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