One should perhaps begin by examining the title of this most appealing book. Graham Robb, the author of much-praised biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Rimbaud, tells us how he decided it was time for him “to explore the country on which [he] was supposed to be an authority.” For the angle of vision of the writers he had studied—of almost all major French writers, indeed—was Parisian; and whatever else Paris is, it is not France in miniature. Thus he got onto (he “rediscovered”) that “miraculous machine” his bicycle and, with a friend, went once or twice a year for several years on a voyage of discovery. This in turn set his mind running on how, over the years from the death of Louis XIV to the outbreak of the First World War, the French themselves discovered France. His journeys became “a complex puzzle in four dimensions.” He wanted to know what he was missing and what he would have seen a century or two before. Hence to 14,000 halcyon miles in the saddle there had to be added—what was more physically grueling—four years in the library.
During his travels a large and confusing question seemed to demand an answer: Who were “the French”? Geographically or politically speaking the answer was plain enough: it was, for instance, the French who, by the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659, extended their borders and began to dominate Europe. But what did the treaty mean at that time, or even two hundred years later, to the rural inhabitants of France? According to a famous report by the Abbé Grégoire, published in the year of the Terror, more than six million French citizens were unable to speak or understand the national language, and another six million could barely conduct a conversation in it. “The official idiom of the French Republic,” writes Robb, “was a minority language.”
Nor had things changed radically by the middle of the next century. France was still a mosaic of tiny pays, each speaking its own patois or dialect. Just how tiny, Robb is at pains to bring home to us. It might be the area within which its own church bell could be heard more distinctly than those of other villages; and on the other bank of the local river people might very likely speak an altogether different dialect and have quite different traditions and manners. Educated visitors found this most baffling; though it is true, patois-speakers themselves were often able to understand and be understood by the speakers of other patois.
If the inhabitants of France were to have asked themselves who they were, the answer would have been simple: they took their sense of identity from one of those aforementioned tiny communities or pays, and with an attachment more powerful, so writes Robb, than any later sense of being French.
The paysans had no flags or written histories, but they expressed their local patriotism in much the same way as nations: by …