Posts filed under ‘Ethnology’

Book Envy

Every so often I read a book that makes me wish I was the one who wrote it. This usually isn’t because the book is brilliant (although it likely is) and I wish I had written something so perfect. Most often the author has had some interesting adventure that I wish I’d had. Or I imagine that the research must have been just ridiculously fun to do. My most recent case of book envy falls into this latter category.

Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France traces the history of France before it was France: when people outside Paris spoke hundreds of regional dialects and each remote village was a law unto itself. Robb describes how, from the Revolution until World War I, French geographers, ethnographers, scientists, engineers and tourists moved out into the hinterlands to colonize their own country.

In the first chapter, Robb recounts how a young cartographer mapped the area around the village of Les Estables near the Gerbier de Jonc mountain in what I believe is now the Ardèche. Just five pages into the book, I came across this passage:

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….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….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

How can you not wish you were the person to come across that story in some dusty archive?

10 November 2007 at 23:14 1 comment


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