Monday, April 14, 2008

Starr Reviews - The Discovery of France

My "French" cousin visited us for Easter; I always enjoy questioning him and hearing his stories about traveling the world, so when I saw this new book, The Discovery of France: a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War (944 R631D) by Graham Robb, at the library I had to grab it.

It is a fascinating read about how they mapped France, settled political and military officers, and schoolteachers where they often had not even had a priest before, built roads and railways, and then enforced a uniform language on top of hundreds possibly thousands or so regional languages.

The degree of poverty, ignorance and isolation of most of the territory in the 1700s and even 1800s is amazing, as is the former variety of lives and livelihoods, as reflected in today’s’ land of a thousand kinds of cheese.

France, rather than thousands of largely independent--5 or 10 mile square village, republics--was the creation of the very small Paris-based elite.

I enjoyed the description of village life and have started on the heroic age of cartography, when they made the first platinum meter-stick. (They were within .02 mm in it being 1,000,000th of the distance equator to pole.) I doubt I’ll ever be that good a surveyor, and the old boys in the 1700s were climbing steeples and goatpaths with dime telescopes, risking assault and murder for witchcraft or spying. British and even American travelers in France were astounded at the condition of roads and paths, and at the isolated village cultures, well into the 1800s.

Starr Reviews are done by current Northwest student Mary Evelyn Starr. Please stop by for more during the semester.

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