TEN YEARS AGO, I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority. For some time, it had been obvious that the France whose literature and history I taught and studied was just a fraction of the vast land I had seen on holidays, research trips and adventures. My professional knowledge of the country reflected the metropolitan view of writers like Balzac and Baudelaire, for whom the outer boulevards of Paris marked the edge of the civilized world. My accidental experience was slightly broader. I had lived in a small town in Provence and a hamlet in Brittany next door to people whose first language was not French but Provençal or Breton, and I first became superficially fluent in French, while working in a garage in a Paris suburb, thanks to an Algerian Berber from the mountains of Kabylie. Without him, the Parisian dialect of the foreman would have been completely incomprehensible.
In the periods of history where I made my intellectual home, the gap between knowledge and experience was even wider. There was the familiar France of monarchy and republic, pieced together from medieval provinces, reorganized by the Revolution and Napoleon, and modernized by railways, industry and war. But there was also a France in which, just over a hundred years ago, French was a foreign language to the majority of the population. It was a country that had still not been accurately mapped in its entirety.
...At first, the solution seemed to be to carry a miniaturized library of modern histories, ancient guidebooks and travellers' accounts, printed on thin paper in a tiny typeface. For example, a set of the reports written by the Prefects who were sent out by Napoleon after the Revolution to chart and describe the unknown provinces could be made to weigh less than a spare innertube.
## Part One
ONE SUMMER IN THE EARLY 1740s, on the last day of his life, a young man from Paris became the first modern cartographer to see the mountain called Le Gerbier de Jonc. This weird volcanic cone juts out of an empty landscape of pastures and ravines, blasted by a freezing wind called the burle. Three hundred and fifty miles south of Paris, at a point on the map diametrically opposed to the capital, it stands on the watershed that divides the Atlantic from the Mediterranean....From the summit, he could take in at a glance several small regions whose inhabitants barely knew of each other's existence. To walk in any direction for a day was to become incomprehensible, for the Mézenc range to which the mountain belonged was also a watershed of languages. The people who saw the sun set behind the Gerbier de Jonc spoke one group of dialects; the people on the evening side spoke another. Forty miles to the north, the wine growers and silkweavers of the Lyonnais spoke a different language altogether, which had yet to be identified and named by scholars. Yet another language was spoken in the region the traveller had left the day before, and though his own mother tongue, French, was a dialect of that language, he would have found it hard to understand the peasants who saw him pass.
The vast plateau of the Massif Central was still the fortress it had been when the Arverni tribes held out against the Romans. Its rivers were unnavigable and its links to the rest of France practically non-existent. The mail coach from Paris stopped at Clermont. A branch service struggled on as far as Le Puy, two days to the southeast. After Le Puy, there was nothing but mule-tracks and open country. Asking for directions was a waste of time. Even a century later, few people could walk far from their place of birth without getting lost.
By the time the geometer reached the foot of the Mézenc range, he was two days from the nearest road....The appearance of a stranger in the landscape was a notable event. To isolated villagers, a man in foreign clothes who pointed inexplicable instruments at barren rocks was up to no good. It had been noticed that after the appearance of one of these sorcerers, life became harder. Crops withered; animals went lame or died of disease; sheep were found on hillsides, torn apart by something more savage than a wolf; and, for reasons that remained obscure, taxes increased.
Even a century later, this was still a remote and dangerous part of France. A nineteenth-century geographer recommended viewing the Mézenc region from a balloon, but 'only if the aeronaut can remain out of range of a rifle'. In 1854, Murray's Handbook for Travellers in France warned tourists and amateur geologists who left the coach at Pradelles and struck out across country in search of 'wild and singular views' not to expect a warm welcome. 'There is scarcely any accommodation on this route, which can hardly be performed in a day; and the people are rude and forbidding.' The handbook, perhaps deliberately, said nothing of Les Estables, which lay on the route, nor did it mention the only occasion on which the village earned itself a place in history - a summer's day in the early 1740s when a young geometer on the Cassini expedition was hacked to death by the natives. AS FAR AS WE KNOW, the villagers of Les Estables were never punished for the murder of Cassini's geometer...In many parts of France, even in the early twentieth century, a common prayer asked for deliverance from Satan, sorcerers, rabid dogs and 'Justice'.
Provisionally, then, pre-Revolutionary France can be described as a nation composed of several feudal provinces or 'généralités'. Some of these provinces, known as 'pays d'état', had their own regional parliaments and imposed their own taxes. Others, known as 'pays d'élection', were taxed directly by the state. Many of them have been a part of France for less than four hundred years (see Chronology, p. 359). To historians who tried to describe the entire kingdom, the chaotic effects of the division of Charlemagne's empire in 843, and even the tribal divisions described by Julius Caesar, were still apparent in the maze of internal customs barriers and legal discrepancies.
A HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS had passed since Louis XIV's chief minister, Colbert, had dreamt of a road system that would unite and energize the kingdom, yet, in June 1837, when Henri Beyle - later known as Stendhal - stepped out of the public coach to stretch his legs at a tiny staging-post called Rousselan, thirteen miles from the city of Bourges, he was struck by a sense of 'complete isolation'. (This was a man who had trudged across the endless Russian steppes with Napoleon's retreating army.)...At the gates of Châteauroux began a region of marshes and moors known as the Brande. Some of the younger inhabitants of the Brande had never seen a paved road, let alone a four-wheeled carriage lurching through the countryside like an enchanted house. Renegade priests who had marooned themselves in the Brande during the Revolution had freely given themselves up after a few days...When the Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny expressed the seemingly un-Romantic wish 'Never leave me alone with Nature', he was writing as a man who had travelled widely in France.
As late as 1867, after more than a century of agricultural improvements, a national census estimated that 43 per cent of land that could be cultivated was 'dominated by the forces of nature': grasslands, forests and moors. Wolves were still a threat in several central regions, including the Dordogne, at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1789, when the Revolutionary parliament discussed the division of the old provinces into départements and communes, there was some concern that they were creating phantom districts in which a hypothetical population would be governed by a non-existent mayor.
This disconcertingly spacious world, whose inhabitants will begin to emerge in the following chapter, is almost unimaginable without a drastic recalibration of the scale of populousness and isolation. The two hundred thousand square miles of Europe's biggest country were still magnified by medieval time. On the eve of the French Revolution, France was three weeks long (Dunkirk to Perpignan) and three weeks wide (Strasbourg to Brest). Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans, when wine-merchants could reach the English Channel from the Mediterranean ports in less than a month. When speeds increased in the late eighteenth century, they did so only for a handful of rich people, and luck still played a big role. Marseille was less than two weeks from Paris, but only if certain conditions were met: perfect weather, a recently repaired road, a modern coach with full suspension, healthy horses, and a fast but careful driver who was never thirsty and never had an accident. These times, moreover, refer only to the transport of human beings. Goods transport was even slower and less predictable. In 1811, overseas produce entering France through the port of Nantes would not be expected in Paris for another three weeks. A merchant in Lyon would be surprised to receive it in under a month.
...France was, in effect, a vast continent that had yet to be fully colonized. No one who crossed the country on minor roads would have found it hard to believe that Julius Caesar had been able to march an army for several days through Gaul without being spotted by the enemy. Fugitives made journeys that now seem incredible. In 1755, during the official persecution of Protestants in Languedoc, the pastor Paul Rabaut, who was one of the most wanted men in France, travelled from Nîmes to Paris and then to L'Isle-Adam for a secret interview with the Prince de Conti. He returned to the south without being captured or seen. During the royalist reprisals known as the White Terror, a republican lawyer fleeing for his life left the Paris-Lyon road and walked into the hills and forests to the west of the Rhône. From there, he made his way safely back to Paris on the main road from the Auvergne. His route would have taken him through the forest of Bauzon, which was practically a separate principality, ruled for several centuries by a succession of robber kings known as the 'capitaines de Bauzon'.
The appalling isolation in which some feral human beings managed to exist gives some idea of how lonely a remote area could be. In the wooded hills of the Aveyron, where only an occasional column of smoke might betray a human presence, the boy who came to be known as Victor de l'Aveyron lived alone for several years before he was captured by peasants in 1799 and put on display as a freak of nature. The 'wild girl' of the Issaux forest, south of Mauléon in the Basque Country, had been playing with friends when she got lost in the snow. She wandered in the gloom of the green desert for eight years before she was discovered by shepherds in 1730, alive but speechless. Further west, on the edge of the Iraty forest, a naked, hairy man who could run like a deer, and who was later thought to be the remnant of a Neanderthal colony, was spotted several times in 1774, indulging in his favourite pastime: scattering flocks of sheep. On the last occasion, when the shepherds tried to catch him, he ran away, giggling, and was never seen again.
Even in apparently civilized parts, it was possible to cover large distances undetected. In the mid-eighteenth century, the bandit Louis Mandrin and his three-hundred-strong band of smugglers roamed over an area one-fifth the size of France, from the Auvergne to the Franche-Comté, attacking large towns and successfully evading three regiments for a year and a half. He was eventually captured only because his mistress betrayed him.
THE SEEMINGLY RIDICULOUS QUESTION then arises: where was the population of Europe's most populous country?
Despite the impression of many travellers, most French people did not live in towns. At the time of the French Revolution, almost four-fifths of the population was rural. Over half a century later, more than three-quarters still lived in a commune of fewer than two thousand inhabitants...After the Revolution, almost a third of the population (about ten million people) lived in isolated farms and cottages or in hamlets with fewer than thirty-five inhabitants and often no more than eight. A peasant girl who went to work in Paris might, when looking through the scullery window at the street, see more people at a glance than she had known in her entire previous life. Many recruits from the Dordogne in 1830 were unable to give the recruiting sergeant their surnames because they had never had to use them. Until the invention of cheap bicycles, the known universe, for many people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles and a population that could easily fit into a small barn.
Even before it became the goal of most internal migrants, Paris seemed to drain the country. In 1801, more people lived in Paris (just under 550,000) than in the next six biggest cities combined (Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Rouen, Nantes and Lille). In 1856, Paris could have swallowed up the next eight biggest cities, and in 1886, the next sixteen. Yet Paris accounted for less than 3 per cent of the population until 1852 and, until 1860, covered an area of only 3,402 hectares (thirteen square miles), which is not even twice the size of the Eurodisney site.
Victor Hugo's description of the west of France might look like science-fiction anthropology, but Hugo had covered more miles on foot than any historian of France and he knew how to read a landscape:
It is difficult to picture those Breton forests as they really were. They were towns. Nothing could be more secret, silent and savage than those inextricable entanglements of thorns and branches. In those vast thickets, stillness and quietness made their lair. No desert ever appeared more deathlike and sepulchral. Yet if those trees could have been felled at a single blow, as if by a flash of lightning, there would have stood revealed in those shades a swarming mass of men.
Some curious statistics make it possible to comprehend the powerful organization of the great peasant revolt. In Ille-et-Vilaine, in the forest of Le Pertre . . . there was no sign of human life, and six thousand men were there under the leadership of Focard. In Morbihan, in the forest of Molac, not a soul could be seen, and there were eight thousand men. Those two forests are not among the largest in Brittany.
Jacques Cambry, who explored Brittany in 1794-95 ('for no one, I believe, has ever gone to Brittany in order to study it or to satisfy their curiosity'), claimed that only a few hunters had ever seen 'those houses that lie hidden behind ditches, in tangles of trees or bushes, and always in the lowest parts so that water will collect and help to rot the straw, scrub and gorse that they use for manure'. Settlements could be isolated by mud and thorn as effectively as by canyons and cliffs. South of the Loire, in the Vendée, unmapped tracks ran for hundreds of miles through deep tunnels of vegetation. An aerial view would have shown a typical bocage landscape of fields marked off by trees and bushes. On the ground, it was a muddy labyrinth sunk in a limitless wood. On a sunny day, a traveller could walk for hours and emerge from the bocage as pale as a ghost. Openings in the hedgerow were closed with hurdles made from the same material as the hedge. A peasant could slip into his field, close the leafy door, and leave no trace of his passing. [see also accounts of the hedge-to-hedge fighting in WWII.]
This explains why the extermination of Protestants in the Cévennes at the end of the seventeenth century was such a long and arduous task, requiring a large army and the biggest road-building programme since the Roman conquest. It also explains how the royalist rebels in the Vendée were able to hold out for so long against the republican troops who were sent to 'cleanse' the west of France.
One of the quotations most frequently used to evoke this mass of population is Jean de La Bruyère's depiction in 1688 of the 'wild animals that one sees in the countryside' - sun-blackened beasts, both male and female, 'attached to the earth that they stubbornly dig': 'They make sounds that resemble articulate speech, and when they rise up on their feet, they show a human face . . . At night they creep away into lairs where they live on black bread, water and roots.'