EVEN THREE OR FOUR DECADES after the Revolution of 1789, the empty spaces and silent towns with which this book began seemed to represent the normal state of affairs. Returning from Madrid to Paris in 1826, the economist Adolphe Blanqui passed through cities where life was either 'languishing for lack of momentum or actually going backwards': Angoulême, with its paltry river that only small boats could negotiate, Poitiers, with its twisted medieval streets, and Tours, where convents and seminaries outnumbered factories. The only real signs of life, as far as Blanqui could tell, were 'in the centre, by which I mean Paris, and at a few points on the perimeter': Rouen, Bordeaux and Marseille. All the other towns were like tiny asteroidal systems in the early universe:
At Blois as in many other places . . . either nobody changes place or else they feel compelled to orbit the planet sent from Paris. The rural policeman revolves around the mayor, who revolves around the subprefect, who revolves around the prefect. These various bodies each have a considerable number of satellites. The result is monotony such as anyone accustomed to life in Paris can scarcely comprehend.
In Orange, Jal was appalled by the botched restoration of the Roman arch. He wrote in his diary, referring to the new government inspector of historic monuments, Mérimée, and the polymath historian and critic, Claude Fauriel: 'What must be the opinion of M. Prosper Mérimée, who has just passed us in the stagecoach, chatting with M. Fauriel?'
The significance of this trivial encounter is its triviality. Jal thought nothing of seeing two familiar faces passing in a carriage window, four hundred and fifty miles from Paris. He mentioned it only because he happened to be thinking of historic monuments. The coincidences that novelists devised to stitch together their plots and sub-plots were not necessarily implausible to their original readers: coincidences were a normal part of life. While the average peasant's world rarely had a diameter of more than a dozen miles - about twice the size of nineteenth-century Paris - the world of a wealthy traveller was, in effect, not much bigger. A peasant might move in circles, radiating from a single point. A bourgeois - if he moved at all - was more likely to move in straight lines along fixed corridors. If he wanted to disappear, he could simply leave the system of corridors and slip away into a different dimension.
The following passage from Les Marana refers to the sleepy provincial island in the heart of Paris, whose silence was preserved by toll bridges until the mid-nineteenth century:
Do not ask after the whereabouts of that mysterious telegraph which transmits to all places at once, in the wink of an eye, a story, a scandal or a piece of news. Ask not who operates the telegraph. An observer can merely note its effects. That telegraph is a social mystery. Some incredible examples can be cited. One will suffice: the murder of the Duc de Berry, who was struck down at the Opéra [in 1820], was reported, ten minutes after the crime, in the depths of the Île Saint- Louis.
These speeds were effectively unattainable by conventional transport over long distances. Until the mid-nineteenth century, long-distance speeds over 10 mph usually indicate some form of remote transmission, such as the pigeons used by a few stock-market speculators to transmit share prices, or the stationary messengers who shouted the news of Caesar's victory at Cenabum (Orléans) all the way to the land of the Arverni, a hundred and fifty miles away - a speed in excess of 12 mph. (An experiment conducted in the nineteenth century showed that, using this method, only three hundred and fifty-two people were needed to transmit a message from Orléans to the frontiers of the Auvergne.)
With an inexhaustible supply of data, logical explanations could be found for exceptional speeds. To bring the news of the King's arrest to Quimper, a fast rider must have set off from Paris as soon as word came from Varennes. He must have ridden through the night twice or been relayed by other night-riders. The roads, for once, were presumably all passable and all the bridges intact. Relay horses other than the small Breton breeds must have been available, fed and harnessed at every stage.
This is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The truly remarkable thing about the dissemination of news is its unpredictability and its apparent independence from known transport networks. In 1932, Georges Lefebvre studied the spread of the 'Great Fear' that gripped two-thirds of the country in late July and early August 1789. The Revolution sparked rumours in half a dozen places of invading foreign troops and bandits paid by vengeful aristocrats to destroy the harvest. It was the sort of panic that could - and did - make a rational person mistake a herd of cows for a marauding gang of cut-throats. When Lefebvre charted the course of each rumour, he exposed the previously unsuspected arteries of a gigantic ants' nest.
Maps of the Great Fear seem to show a communication system that was strangely unreliant on any infrastructure. Paris played no role in the rumour network, nor did natural routes like the valleys of the Rhône and the Garonne. Even the road system was irrelevant. In the Languedoc hills, on a single day, the same rumour appeared in places twenty miles apart that were unconnected by road. The Great Fear spread through the Vendée and Normandy, through Picardy and Champagne with the same inexplicable speed. Riots broke out and châteaux were burned to the ground. Leaving the region of Troyes, the rumours ignored the river Saône and entered the Franche-Comté instead by the mountains of the Jura. The Vercors, perched on its plateau like a Lost World, a on the map of human migration, suddenly seemed to have lively connections with the outside world.
Higher ground slowed the rumours but did not stop them. The lofty Massif Central, bypassed by travelling apprentices, kings and theatre companies on tour, Napoleon Bonaparte, several epidemics and, until 1951, the Tour de France, was infiltrated from the north, the east and the west. From one day to the next, a rumour that the King of Sardinia had launched an invasion left Briançon and crossed the 8,000-foot Col d'Izoard into the Queyras and the Ubaye before rushing down into Mediterranean Provence and, incredibly, across the tight, plunging valleys to the west. The rumours died out only when faced with the combined passive force of sparse population and difficult terrain (the Plateau de Millevaches, some of the highest Alpine massifs, the Sologne, the Dombes and the Landes).
This mysteriously efficient network was still functioning after the fall of Napoleon. In 1816, the deposed emperor was rumoured to have escaped from St Helena and returned to Paris. One such rumour sprang up - simultaneously, it seemed - in Nemours and parts of Burgundy and the Bourbonnais. The authorities understandably suspected a well-organized plot. Agents provocateurs were active, but not necessarily in this case. News that spread like a stain instead of travelling from A to B could cover vast areas in very little time. The scattered sources of rumours reaching the little market town of Charlieu, in the hills between the Forez and the Beaujolais (reported at a public meeting on 28 July 1789), indicate a rumour catchment area of three thousand square miles. This particular area included five or six major dialects and the three main language groups of France. No pigeon, horse or locomotive could have disseminated news so quickly.
When Napoleon's statisticians first surveyed the westernmost Breton département, Finistère, they were startled to find that almost one-fifth of the total surface was taken up by 'roads and byways' - ruts, paths, cartways and great trampled swathes of land that were lost to agriculture and often unusable even as tracks. Paradoxically, this inaccessible part of France was riddled with routes. Further studies confirmed the incredible figures. Finistère was an extreme case, but many other départements turned out to be crazed with tiny roads: 12 percent of the Bas-Rhin, 4 percent of the Vienne, 3 per cent of the Nord, just under 2 per cent of the Haute-Marne, 1.4 per cent of the Pas-de-Calais. The effect can still be pictured in some parts of France. So many different roads once ran from Beauvais to Amiens that six of them still exist, all more or less the same length (thirty-five to thirty-nine miles) and sometimes close enough for a person on one road to wave to someone on the other.
The huge discrepancy between the trifling amount of traffic on main roads and the quantities of goods delivered to markets and ports suggests that three-quarters of all trade in the early nineteenth century passed through this all-encompassing web. This was the system of fragile capillaries that carried the rumours and news. Many of these paths had no visible existence, even to a person standing on one. The French word route, which means both 'route' and 'road', preserves the ambiguity.
...This labyrinth is the reason why the towns and villages of France were both cut off and connected. Wares and produce travelled through the system of tracks and tiny roads by something akin to Brownian motion, changing hands slowly over great distances. When the main roads were improved and railways were built, trade was drained from the capillary network, links were broken, and a large part of the population suddenly found itself more isolated than before. Many regions today are experiencing the same effect because of the TGV railway system.
These seasonal migrants were once a more obvious presence, in towns as well as in the countryside. On certain days, the main squares of towns and cities filled up at dawn with hundreds of families who had walked through the night with their sickles wrapped in spare clothes. The markets were known as loues or louées. Harvesters wore ears of corn, shepherds sported tufts of wool and carters hung whips around their necks. Domestic servants wore their best clothes and carried a distinctive bouquet or some foliage to serve as identification. The employer would make them walk up and down to prove that they were not crippled and inspect their hands for the calluses that showed that they were hard workers. A coin placed in the hand sealed the contract. As the day wore on, the crowd of hopefuls became smaller, older and more decrepit. Those that remained at the very end of the day might follow the harvest anyway as gleaners, covering hundreds of miles in a month or two before returning home.
In the highland half of France, the trade in human beings took more dramatic forms. Well into the second half of the nineteenth century, travellers heading east in the autumn would see large bands of little boys - and some girls in disguise - dressed in coarse brown cloth and wearing broad-rimmed hats and hobnail boots, marching towards Paris from Dauphiné, Savoy and Piedmont. Some were only five years old. In the capital, they were known as 'winter swallows' because they appeared in the streets just as the birds were flying south and the weather was turning cold.
A month before, children from different villages had gathered in the plains below the Alps. Their parents gave them a little money, two or three shirts wrapped in a handkerchief, some stony black bread, a passport and sometimes a crude map showing the location of relatives or friends along the route. They walked up to fifty miles a day, sleeping in barns and supplementing the everlasting loaf with stolen eggs and apples. On the long route from Savoy to Lyon and on to Paris and the north, they had time to rehearse their songs and street cries and perhaps some conjuring tricks. The boys from Piedmont often had a triangle or a hurdy-gurdy; others carried a marmot in a cage or a ferret for catching rats. Most of the boys from Savoy were destined to spend the next ten years scraping soot from Parisian chimneys or carrying water up to apartments in tin buckets. Many of them would also work as messengers, boot-blacks and shop-boys.
Child migration came to be seen as a form of slavery and a threat to public order, though there was no effective legislation until the 1870s. To the people themselves, it was a highly organized, respectable and necessary activity. In Dauphiné villages where land and resources were scarce, many children were rented out to employers who paid the parents between fifty and eighty francs a year. The boys had to deliver themselves to the city - Paris, Lyon or Marseille, sometimes Turin or Milan. In Paris, they found their way to the squalid area around the Place Maubert in the Latin Quarter or to the Rue Guérin-Boisseau near the Porte Saint-Denis. There, they were given a bed and instructed in the art of begging. Next morning, they went out with their marmots and begging bowls in groups of three or four. This was their life for the next three or six years, depending on the contract signed by their parents. If they returned at night to the hostel with less than a franc, they were given nothing, but for anything over a franc, they received a commission of 10 or 20 per cent. As part of the deal, every afternoon, they were given reading and catechism lessons. These arrangements were well known to middle-class Parisians who generally considered it the done thing - until immigrant workers became a political issue - to help these little creatures from the furthest corners of France.
The Savoyard chimney sweeps lived under a slightly different regime. On reaching the city, they split up into village groups. Each had its own dormitory and canteen. A spartan building in a particular street might look like a part of Paris when in fact it was a colony of Savoy controlled by a Savoyard sweep-master. The master might also sell pots and pans or rabbit-skins and keep an eye on the boys as they went about the city shouting, 'Haut en bas!' ('Top to bottom!') If a boy stole money or misbehaved, he was punished according to Savoyard tradition. Boys who fled into the back streets were always found: chimney sweeps knew the city as well as any policeman and better than most Parisians. In severe cases, the culprit was expelled from the community.
A boy who suffered this banishment within exile might be able to find work if he stood with his kneepads and scraping tool in the crowd of unemployed urchins who gathered at the Porte Saint-Denis and the Rue Basse-du-Rempart, on the site of the future Place de l'Opéra. If he was lucky, he might be adopted by a benevolent society and given a proper apprenticeship. If not, he might be trained and dressed by a pimp and turned into one of the hundreds of 'petits jésus' (rent-boys) who worked on the Champs-Élysées and other parts of the city's perimeter.
The sweeps who avoided asphyxiation, lung disease and blindness, and who never fell from a roof, might one day set up on their own as stove-fitters. Nearly all of them returned home to marry.
Every year, until the 1870s, thousands of colporteurs (pedlars) left mountain villages with hundred-pound baskets or pine-wood chests strapped to their backs. A stick at the rear allowed them to rest without removing the load. Inside, the merchandise was arranged in smaller baskets and covered with spare clothes. Weight was obviously critical. The pedlars' baskets were masterpieces of packing. One man's basket in 1841 contained 9,800 pins, 6,084 bobbins, 3,888 buttons, 3,000 needles, 36 thimbles, 36 combs, 24 lengths of cotton, 18 snuffboxes, 96 pens and pencils, 200 quills, 40 pairs of scissors and an assortment of hooks-and-eyes, knives, notebooks, suspenders and cakes of soap. Other popular items included religious trinkets, herbal remedies, anything made of silk and, once botanizing tourists had shown there was a market for them, Alpine plants and seeds. A colporteur from lower Normandy who died at Longpont in the Perche in 1788 had left his trunk with the curé for safe keeping. It measured three foot by one and a half and was fitted with leather backstraps. The trunk was divided into seven boxes and seven drawers, containing three hundred and eighty-two samples of forty-one different items (two of the drawers were empty), including watch-chains, scissors, seals, earrings, spectacles, razors, knives, ribbons, gloves, stockings and an IOU for a silver watch...They pierced ears, extracted teeth and told fortunes. Even after the practice was outlawed in 1756, Bearnese pedlars in Spain castrated boys whose parents hoped to secure them a place in a cathedral choir...One form of deceit, known as 'la pique', was a major industry. A sympathetic village priest would sign a letter explaining that the bearer had suffered terrible calamities and was a worthy object of charity: his farm had burned down, his animals were diseased, his wife was on her deathbed and someone had stolen all their money. The person who wrote the letter took a share of the proceeds. Apparently, old women made the best pique writers. A priest who was questioned after the arrest of two pedlars on the pique freely admitted that he had signed the bogus document. Even if the details were false, the poverty was real, and a man who was prepared to walk hundreds of miles to make a living from sympathy was at least relieving pressure on village resources.
The frontier between France and Spain was like a sieve. In the west, the hills of the Basque Country were crisscrossed by the smugglers' paths that were later used by guerrillas, Résistants and Basque terrorists. In the east, Catalans and Roussillonnais ran a thriving criminal economy. A report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1773 complained that 'you can't put one foot in front of the other without running into a band of armed smugglers'. These were not furtive figures creeping about in the undergrowth. They moved in platoons of fifty, with another platoon behind to provide backup. They were fed, paid a salary and divided into ranks like soldiers.
In Brittany, thousands of heavily laden women carrying cakes of salt and over-salted butter poured into Maine, pretending to be pregnant. More than twelve thousand children were tried for smuggling at the salt court in Laval in 1773. This figure included only children who were caught with contraband weighing fifteen pounds or more. When they grew up, some of them would join what was practically an Anglo-French common market. Breton sailors carried brandy to Plymouth while Cornishmen brought tobacco to Roscoff.
Today, thirty-six départements, representing 40 per cent of the surface of France, have fewer inhabitants than they did a century and a half ago. Seasonal migration may have involved less than 2 per cent of the population but it had a vital effect. It prevented the haemorrhaging of the land by allowing wealth to reach less productive parts. The results can still be seen in some parts of France: the twostorey 'maisons de lait' (milk houses) in Burgundy villages that were built with money earned by wet-nurses; the summer villas of retired water-carriers in the remote Cantal; the incongruously grand mansions that began to appear in Barcelonnette and Aiguilles when umbrella salesmen returned to the Alps from South America and when local cheeses began to reach the Mediterranean and even crossed the Atlantic in lead-lined boxes.
Migrants spent as little money as possible while away from home. Mentally, they never left their pays. They were insulated from the lands through which they passed and, once they reached the city, they lived, like the chimney sweeps, in miniature versions of home. In certain Paris streets, the sounds and smells of villages and provincial towns drowned out the sounds and smells of the capital. For many, their street cry was the only French they spoke. Tinkers and scrap-metal merchants from a particular valley of the Cantal were concentrated around the Rue de Lappe near the Bastille. Water-carriers and labourers from the neighbouring valley lived in the same quartier, divided from their compatriots by a street instead of by the river Jordanne. All the people involved in the conspiracy on which Alexandre Dumas based The Count of Monte Cristo came from the same part of Nîmes and lived in the same quartier of Paris, between the Place du Châtelet and Les Halles. They met and exchanged news of home in a cafe run by a compatriot in the Place Sainte-Opportune. Traces of these urban villages are still visible, especially near the big railway stations: the name of a cafe or restaurant, a regional dish, a waiter's accent or a photograph of a cow in a mountain meadow. France itself was like a giant city in which every district had its own specialty. Horse-dealers came from Normandy, mole-catchers and their apprentices from the Orne, lace-makers from Caen and Beauvais. Chambermaids came from Brittany and Guyenne. In the eighteenth century, the sculptural, starched head-dresses of Norman women were a common sight around the Bureau of Wet-Nurses in the Rue Sainte-Apolline in Paris; in the nineteenth century, they were replaced by the black hoods of Burgundian women who followed the timber that was floated down from the Morvan.
There is no apparent logic to the map of migrations. Once a route had been pioneered, a colony established and a clientele created, these trades had a momentum that ensured their long-term survival. Customers came to associate the product or the service with a particular style of regional dress and a particular accent. But there are few signs of sensitivity to economic change. In the late eighteenth century, cities on the edges of Lorraine - Strasbourg, Troyes and Dijon - were inundated with starving cobblers, most of whom had no raw materials and few skills. Poor regions like the Vercors and the 'pré-Alpes' from Digne to Grasse, which might have benefited from migration, remained cut off until the late nineteenth century, when their populations suddenly began to flow away forever. No one knows why thousands of stonemasons and building labourers left the Limousin every year. There was no shortage of land and their skills were needed in the region. The only obvious reason is that men who had lived away from home made better husbands: they had more money, more prestige and, above all, more interesting stories to tell.
A typical tour lasted four or five years, covered more than fourteen hundred miles, usually in a clockwise direction, and included a hundred and fifty-one different towns (to judge by an 'Ordinary Route of the Tour de France' published by a baker from Libourne in 1859). Certain towns were obligatory and, for masons and carpenters, certain works of art in abbeys and cathedrals. During the Tour, the apprentice was inducted into the guild. He then became a 'Compagnon du Tour de France' and was given a second name which reflected his official worthiness: 'Lyonnais-la-Fidélité', 'L'Estimablele-Provençal', 'Angoumois-le-Courageux', etc. Agricol Perdiguier, a cabinetmaker from the suburbs of Avignon who published his memoirs of the Tour in 1854, was named Avignonnais-la-Vertu. The Compagnon was also presented with a special walking stick festooned with ribbons to make him recognizable on the road. When he completed his Tour and returned home, he was awarded a certificate and remained a Compagnon for the rest of his life.
With the Tour de France, village rivalries and feuds took to the road. Members of the different orders would try to beat each other senseless when they met on the road or when one guild tried to set up a new 'Mére' in a town. Apprentices quickly learned to use their tools as weapons. A handbook of laws and regulations for workers, foremen and Compagnons published in 1833 devoted seven of its thirty pages to seditious assemblies, insults and defamation, perjury, threats, bodily harm and homicide. When the baker from Libourne interrupted his tour in 1840 to visit the venerable bearded hermit on the Sainte-Baume massif, the hermit understandably had a few sharp words to say on the subject of the Tour de France.20 He saw this sectarian aggression as a sign of backwardness and cited the fact that three out of every four Compagnons who had visited his grotto had been unable to sign his visitors' book.
...By the time they reached Bordessoule on the borders of the département, the young masons' feet were sore and bloody: Nadaud's father helped him peel off his stockings and rubbed his soles with fat. The inn was a typical migrants' dosshouse - cheap, hospitable and filthy. The innkeepers along the route put fresh sheets on the beds in November and changed them in March. The trick was to slip into the envelope of grime, fully clothed, and to wrap one's head in a cloth. Sleep came quickly, despite the fleas...Liveried employees turned their noses up at the smelly peasants from the south. There were never enough carriages to take them all. Instead, they were piled into tiny coaches known as cucous - probably because they looked like giant cuckoo-clocks. The coucous, which were also known as 'chamber pots', were notorious for their asthmatic horses and sarcastic drivers. They bumped about so much that passengers were sometimes thrown out. Most of these death-traps raced along the roads near Paris and cluttered up the Place de la Concorde. It was unusual for a coucou to make such a long journey. Orléans was seventy-five miles from Paris, and on a good day, the mail coach took eight hours. In a ramshackle contraption like the coucou, with a mulish driver who stopped to drink at every inn and refused to be rushed, the masons would be lucky to leave at dawn and arrive before dark. Like the matatus of modern Kenya, a coucou was never considered to be full. Extra passengers were crammed onto the driver's seat and attached to the rear of the coach. The former were known as 'rabbits', the latter as 'monkeys'. The Orléans coucou was even more accommodating. Four young masons travelled together in the coucou equivalent of steerage: a wicker basket slung under the body of the coach, supposed to be used for luggage.