France: An Adventure History 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 527 pp., £25, March, 978 1 5290 0762 6
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Formuch of the 20th century, geography and history were treated as separate subjects: ‘maps and chaps’, as the saying had it. It is an anomalous distinction, but oddly persistent. While human perception does not divide time and space along the lines of academic disciplines, attempts to bring them together often have a disruptive effect on the institutions concerned with organising information. The impulse to understand the past through place comes and goes, but when it comes it often has a countercultural bent. The antiquary William Camden called it ‘a new kind of learning’ when he published his topographical history the Britannia in 1586, in a bid to remake local and historic connections severed by the Reformation. A Society of Antiquaries was duly formed, but it was abruptly closed down by James VI and I, who found its inquiries disturbing. The Situationists, proponents of among other things ‘psychogeography’, were a moving force behind the événements of May 1968, while in England the earth mysteries movement reawoke interest in ley lines, causing considerable annoyance to the Ministry of Works with its activities at Stonehenge. Graham Robb’s archaeo-psycho-geographical-antiquarian bicycle tour of France has something of all of these about it. Like Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Space (1997), which pursues the ‘problem of England’ through the eyes of an unseen narrator travelling in the spirit of Daniel Defoe along paths since obstructed by nuclear power stations and motorways, Robb covers French space and time simultaneously. He passes through them like a ghost through walls, and drifts across intellectual frontiers.

Robb is the author of well-received, scholarly biographies of Balzac and Victor Hugo, published with the usual apparatus of notes and bibliographies. His more recent book, The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe (2013), dispensed with the conventions of academic history: in it he claimed to have discovered a secret map ‘forgotten for almost two millennia’ which revealed the highly sophisticated astronomic knowledge developed by the druids. Reviewers were respectfully cautious; ‘remarkable’ and ‘important if true’ was the general tone. In itself The Ancient Paths was not so revolutionary. It belongs squarely to a tradition dating back to John Toland’s History of the Druids. Toland, who seems to have invented the term ‘pantheism’, believed he had uncovered ‘the philosophy of the Druids concerning the Gods, human souls, Nature in general and in particular the Heavenly Bodies’, but died bankrupt and disillusioned, his work published only posthumously in 1726. It was taken up by William Stukeley in his Stonehenge of 1740, which presented the monument as the creation of a sophisticated proto-Christian druidic society. He went on to do the same for Avebury. Since then it has become apparent that Stonehenge predates the Iron Age druids by thousands of years and that information about druids in the written sources is scant and open to interpretation, yet the myths persist. Antiquaries and mystics continue to measure stone circles and azimuths and to scour Tacitus and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and every few decades someone rediscovers the astonishing scientific sophistication of the Celts.

Robb’s adventure history of France opens therefore on familiar if shaky ground with an account of the druids as ‘a priestly caste of scientists and intellectuals’. He also invokes an even hazier but more dramatic theory, popularised by Aylett Sammes in his Britannia Antiqua Illustrata of 1676. Extrapolating wildly from Caesar, Sammes’s book features a spectacular illustration of a giant wicker man in flames, filled with human sacrifices. His contemporaries mostly wrote him off as a fool, and a ‘girning and pedantical coxcomb’, but it made no difference. The image proved indelible, right up to the remake of The Wicker Man in 2006. Robb ignores recent studies of the druids, the most important of which is Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe (2009). While Hutton is concerned chiefly with the druids in Britain, the primary sources are the same and his scholarly and balanced account of the history and the myths deserves at the very least respectful disagreement. Robb, however, prefers his own Ancient Paths as his principal source.

From this slippery starting point he continues to veer unpredictably between history, psychogeography, autobiography, speculation and travel writing. The results are mixed. While it is true that mere chronology ‘with its unstoppable baggage-train of documents’ is sometimes a ‘poor guide to the past’, a historical narrative that relies principally on intuition and imagination has its own drawbacks. Robb himself is sometimes keen on dates and facts, but only, in keeping with the Stukeleyesque tradition, when they suit. At its best, his overlay of the present onto the deep past is illuminating. Following Caesar’s Gallic campaign he finds a point in the streets of Hautmont that gives a clear line of sight to the Roman position, where the Nervii were winning and impaling their opponents ‘on their own spears’. It was from somewhere near this spot, he calculates, that Caesar’s second in command, Titus Labienus, sent help in the form of the Tenth Legion, who, ‘sacrificing everything to speed’, charged down the hill and up the other side. Today it is cars that career into the steep street, but the landscape is the same and the traffic makes it possible to imagine the ‘fear and the force of the charge’.

Moving on and placing his trust in ‘inspiration’ rather than a guidebook, Robb proves his dictum that ‘topography and terrain’ will lead the traveller into genuinely ancient tracks that tourism and motorways have forgotten. For most of human history, motion was the measure of time and distance: France itself was ‘22 days wide and 19 days long’. Robb’s projected cycling route, as he moves south and into the Middle Ages, takes him along a course that also appears in the records of the Papal Inquisition because it connects the settlements of the heretical Cathars. At this point he adopts a more critical view of the historical evidence, which bears only a loose relationship to the popular Cathar trail followed by modern tourists. The legend of a lost treasure, and the fact that the Cathars (though they never used the term to describe themselves) were vegetarians who ordained women priests, have made them increasingly appealing to the present. Robb points out, however, that the so-called Cathar castles on the route date from a later period and that the myth of Montségur, the ‘holy mountain’ from which the Cathars supposedly spirited the unspecified treasure, dates only from the 19th century. That the treasure would come in time to be identified as the Holy Grail was, as he says, ‘inevitable’, though it’s not clear why this elaboration of facts should matter to Robb when he is satisfied with his mythic account of the druids.

The first part of the book slides rapidly up and down the methodological scale in this way from archival research to quasi-mystic intuition, but it all comes together in the section’s final chapter, on ‘the Tree at the Centre of France’, in which antiquarian fieldwork combined with intuition apparently emerge triumphant. The ‘tree’ is a drawing of an enormous elm that appears on a map of France from 1624 and might seem to be a simple cartographic flourish, of the same species as the ornamental sea monster and galleons in full sail. It piques Robb’s interest, however, with its combination of ‘the real and the symbolic’, because it is precisely situated in the centre of France, at the source of six rivers. He traces the tree’s appearances back to 1560 and on to 1637, at which point it disappears, so he goes back to the earliest approximation to a guidebook to France, Charles Estienne’s Guide des chemins de France. Published in 1552, it was a valiant first attempt, prefaced with copious apologies for spelling mistakes in place names and warnings about brigands. Estienne makes two references to the tree, which he describes as a real elm that stands with a stone marking either a crossroads or the meeting point of four provinces, a parting or joining of ways at the heart of France.

Preparing to investigate by bike, Robb finds, as he plots his route using Estienne’s guide, that it dictates a peculiar course. It bypasses ‘almost every place of interest’, avoids river crossings and makes no use of the extant Roman roads, threading its way obscurely instead ‘as though some terrible calamity had occurred’ and left a shattered post-apocalyptic landscape through which the nervous traveller must pick their way with caution. There had indeed been a disaster, Robb concludes: the Hundred Years War. This is a point scored against the baggage-train approach to history, according to which the war is long over. Estienne’s Guide itself makes no reference to it, but historical sources rarely make explicit reference to circumstances that are obvious to contemporaries. His curious route reflects facts well known to his original readers, the poverty and unrest and the ‘mosaic of kleptocratic feudal statelets’ that prevailed for more than a century in the aftermath of war. Following the trail on the ground, where a day’s cycling conveniently coincides with a 16th-century traveller journeying by horse and foot, Robb finds (or at least satisfies himself that he has found) all that remains of the elm, ‘a pallid, bone-coloured column’ on which the elm bark beetle has left its deadly trace, though there is no sign of the stone. The tree’s historic significance remains ambiguous but he photographs it, suggesting that this is perhaps ‘the first ritualistic act’ to occur on the spot since the late Middle Ages. It is not a dramatic moment – it has, as he sees, an element of bathos, this twig at the heart of France – but it is ‘history in the raw’.

There is also a coda. A century after Estienne, when cartography had put away childish things and the tree was no longer included on maps, a new feature with even less material reality appeared. This was the Paris Meridian. Established officially on Midsummer’s Day 1667, it held out against Greenwich until 1884, when the International Meridian Conference in Washington, having been carefully lobbied, came down on the side of the British, a decision ignored by the French for navigational purposes up to the eve of the First World War. The map that caught Robb’s eye was drawn in 1763 and covered the central provinces of France. The meridian was represented by a thick black line, which ran straight through the meeting point of interlocking provinces where once the tree had stood. In order to achieve this alignment, the cartographer had moved the tree’s position 24 kilometres east. Like Stukeley, who kept on measuring the stone circle at Avebury until he found the ‘serpentine’ temple, laid out in the form of an Egyptian hieroglyph, that he was looking for, so the French royal censor, who published the map, had adjusted the geography to fit the ‘psychohistory’.

From the​ Middle Ages onwards (the book goes up to the present day) Robb has little fresh to offer by way of historical material: it is his particular view of the ground he is covering, the relations of time and space, that propel him and his meditations. France is a foreign country, they do the past differently there. His suggestion, however, that French ‘reverence’ for pristine historic structures is ‘a fairly recent development’ is not entirely fair. Since 1789 the French have treated their historic buildings differently from the British, but the contrast is not so much a matter of reverence as theory: Classical versus Romantic. In France it is still possible to find medieval churches which are tumbling down amid an agglomeration of ‘shops, sheds, garages, parking spaces and public urinals’, but there are more instances of the opposite. The French were quicker than the British to institute state protection for historic buildings, many of which were nationalised in the Revolution. The Commission des Monuments Historiques was established almost exactly a century before the Ancient Monuments Act struggled through a British Parliament reluctant to inhibit private property rights or, for that matter, to imitate the French. Even then the philosophy was fundamentally different. There was no French equivalent of William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which campaigned for picturesque decay to take its course. France still cherishes the rationalist tradition of the scholar priests Jean-Louis de Cordemoy and Marc-Antoine Laugier, with their emphasis on correct proportion. Victor Hugo summarised it in Notre-Dame de Paris: in a great building all is harmony, ‘consistent, logical … to measure the toe is to measure the giant.’

In Britain, the Victorians, too often criticised for their sometimes ham-fisted ‘restoration’ of medieval buildings, were usually trying to recreate the original and they had an enthusiasm for accident and asymmetry. In France, the purpose was to improve and where necessary to correct. Viollet-le-Duc imposed order on medieval buildings with results that often strike the British visitor as chilling. It is this same respect for uniformity that underlies one of Robb’s modern bêtes noires, the Plus Beaux Villages de France scheme. This now embraces or, as Robb would have it, suffocates 164 villages, which are required to satisfy thirty specific criteria including ‘harmony and homogeneity’ of building fabric, street furniture and lighting, concealment of cables and telephone wires, traffic management and ‘florification’, after which, trussed up like poussins, they are ready to be photographed for glossy magazines and devoured by tourists.

Arriving in the mid-18th century, Robb takes as his guide Jacques-Louis Ménétra, a Parisian glazier who travelled around France between 1757 and 1763 and produced a ‘misspelled, unpunctuated but very neatly written’ account of his tour. It wasn’t intended for publication, but French social history is even less well supplied than British with direct working-class accounts of this sort and so reluctantly, in the spirit of a person accepting a lift from a dodgy stranger because the location is remote and the hour is late, Robb decides to follow Ménétra, despite the fact that he might be ‘untypical and untruthful’. Once again the reader wonders why this should be a problem when Robb is willing to lean so trustingly on Caesar, who was certainly untypical and told his own, highly politicised truth. Ménétra’s was a working trip and, following him to the cathedral at Auch, Robb finds a stained-glass window on which he worked. It shows the Garden of Eden and is one of a famous set of eighteen, made by Arnaud de Moles over six years between 1507 and 1513. The 18th century was not so respectful of Renaissance stained glass as either later or earlier ages, and the repairs were mostly clumsy. Leads cut across the figures with little regard for the pictorial effect – ‘Saint Peter had been lobotomised, Christ’s head was sliced in two’ – but on the window where Ménétra’s journal records him working, Eve has been handled with more delicacy, the ‘spidery leads’ telling the story of the repair without spoiling the original.

Ménétra was, it seems, a sensitive restorer and this knowledge brings Robb closer to his guide, but the encounter was some years ago. Since then the angle from which past and present converge at Auch has shifted again. The 21st century admires Renaissance glass and deplores the 18th century’s artisanal approach to repairs, on top of which, since Ménétra’s day, time and air pollution have caused more damage. In 2013 the cathedral announced ‘a major restoration’, a phrase to strike a chill into the heart of any historian. The leads were duly taken out, though their positions are recorded in pixelated form, and the Eve to which Ménétra ministered with such relative tact has as Robb puts it ‘recovered her virginity’ – except of course that she hasn’t, she has merely been changed again.

These days it is rare to talk about ‘restoration’, ‘conservation’ being the preferred term. But while approaches change, the central problem of entropy remains. If you want to preserve an artefact the one thing you can’t do is leave it alone. The only alternative is Morris’s approach, to accept decline and death in objects as in people. This rarely appeals to national institutions and a series of charters, produced under the auspices of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, has set out guidelines. The French approach sometimes jars with the Venice Charter of 1964, which states that ‘the valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration.’ Macron, however, was deemed to have gone too far in the opposite direction when, after the fire at Notre Dame in 2019, he announced an international competition to replace the cathedral’s famous flèche, a 19th-century construction by Viollet-le-Duc, with a ‘modern architectural gesture’. The cathedral is the property of the state and so Macron was within his rights, but the idea caused uproar, much waving of the Venice Charter and the subsequent Krakow Charter of 2000, and threats to remove the cathedral’s World Heritage status. He backed down. There is no right answer, only the compromise that looks best to the present and, ideally, makes no irreversible commitments on the part of the future. At Auch, aesthetics and unity have won over embodied history, but it is impossible not to sympathise with Robb’s regret on behalf of his old acquaintance Ménétra.

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