Cycling Into and Through French History


‘The Discovery of France’: Here’s a beautifully written New York Times review of “The Discovery of France,” a history of how the country’s diverse peoples and regions were knitted into one whole. The cycling interest: the author says he rode 14,000 miles on French backroads doing research.

… Written as a “social and geographical history” in which “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals,” “The Discovery of France” draws its material not just from the usual array of scholarly sources, but from the author’s own back-road explorations on his bicycle. (“This book,” Robb notes, “is the result of 14,000 miles in the saddle and four years in the library.”) Such an approach is particularly engrossing when one remembers that the very geographical concept of France was still, in the 18th century, very much in flux. “Before the revolution,” it turns out, “the name ‘France’ was often reserved for the small mushroom-shaped province centered on Paris.” What’s more, beyond that relatively small oasis, “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. (As late as the mid-19th century, it seems, “few people could walk far from their place of birth without getting lost.”) For this reason, Robb devotes some of his most impassioned pages to the adventures of France’s earliest mapmakers: those rare, brave souls who, in the decades leading up to and following the revolution of 1789, risked life and limb to “put half a million obscure hamlets on the map.”

Here’s the Amazon link: “The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War.”

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