In the year 486, Clovis, the leader of the Franks, one of the barbarian groups that had settled in the territories of the Roman Empire as its centralized structure weakened, gained control of most of the lands the Romans had called Gaul. With Clovis’s reign, these lands became an independent kingdom separated from the empire, with its capital in Paris—a new name for the city the Romans had called Lutetia. In addition to founding a Frankish or “French” kingdom, in 496 Clovis embraced the Catholic religion. Clovis’s kingdom became the ancestor of the modern French state, making France “the oldest nation of Europe.” Over the centuries, the boundaries of the territory ruled by Clovis’s successors changed many times. Under Charlemagne at the start of the Middle Ages, and again under Napoleon a thousand years later, France ruled much of the rest of Europe; at other times, the territories controlled by the kings of France shrank to the “île de France,” a small region surrounding Paris. The political entity Clovis had created never disappeared, however, and its core always remained the territories along the Seine and Loire rivers that had been the center of the original kingdom.
By 1750, the European territories of the kingdom of France had taken on a shape fairly similar to that of the country today. Although the kingdom’s boundaries were the result of centuries of conflict with neighboring states, by 1750 they had become established in positions where natural features appeared to have dictated five of the sides. In the west, the English Channel, which the French call “la Manche” (the sleeve), forms a slanting diagonal, running southwest from Dunkerque to the tip of the Brittany peninsula. There, France’s Atlantic coast turns sharply inward, forming a great arc called the Bay of Biscay, which ends abruptly where the mass of the European continent meets the Iberian peninsula.
Separating France from Spain, a high chain of mountains—the Pyrénées—forms a straight line from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, where France’s southern coast begins. The coastline runs east past the mouth of the Rhône river until it meets the southwestern corner of the Alps. The eighteenth-century French border then turned north, twisting and turning through the mountains east of the Rhône; the annexation of Nice and Savoy in 1860 has moved the present-day border with Italy further to the east. North of Switzerland, Louis XIV’s conquests, relatively recent in 1750, had extended the kingdom into German-speaking territory along the Rhine river. North of this region of Alsace, the frontier turns sharply to the northwest. The hazards of centuries of wars left an irregular line through the hills of the Ardennes and the plains of Flanders to the Channel coast. This is the only part of the French border not defined by any prominent geographic feature.
These boundaries defined a territory marked more by its diversity than its unity. In the west, three large rivers—the Seine in the north, the Loire in the center, and the Garonne in the south—form natural highways leading to the ocean, but their basins have few natural interconnections. The projection of the Brittany peninsula makes the trip from the mouth of the Seine to the mouth of the Loire a long and difficult voyage. The flat lands of northern France form part of the north European plain that sweeps across Germany and Poland into Russia, but the Ardennes, Vosges, and Jura mountain chains separate French territory from neighboring regions. South of the Loire, the worn-down volcanic peaks of the Massif Central form a rugged landscape extending almost to the Mediterranean coast. In this region, road travel remains slow and difficult even today. Movement has always been easier along the Rhône valley, a natural corridor linking Switzerland to the Mediterranean, but communications between this region and the rest of France are difficult: In the 1600s, it took six horses and eight oxen to pull a carriage over the pass between the Rhône and Loire watersheds near Roanne.
The creation of a unified France was a long struggle. In the eighteenth century, neither France nor any other European state was a compact territorial mass, sharply separated from its neighbors. Within France’s frontiers, there were enclaves of territory belonging to foreign rulers, such as the southeastern city of Avignon, owned by the pope. Furthermore, the frontier that marked the limits of the French king’s sovereignty did not always coincide with other important boundaries. The Mediterranean port city of Marseille and much of the territory along the Rhine lay outside of the kingdom’s tariff boundaries, able to trade freely with other countries but treated as “foreign” with respect to the rest of France. Important Catholic dioceses overlapped the frontier, so that some French priests owed allegiance to bishops in Belgium or the German states. The border did not follow linguistic frontiers: it took in German-speaking Alsace and Flemish-speaking lands around Lille, but not such French-speaking territories as Liège, Geneva, and Savoy. Nor was the French border in 1750 as fixed and permanent as it now seems. The France of the mid-eighteenth century was still expanding: Between 1750 and 1770, it acquired the important eastern province of Lorraine and the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
The territories that lay within the frontiers of France in 1750 differed tremendously in landscape and climate. Lucien Febvre, one of the great French historians of the twentieth century, wrote that “diversity is the essence of France.” In an area not much larger than many American states, it contains low coastal plains and Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain peak, areas with some of Europe’s richest farmland and others with thin and unproductive soil, regions swept by the storms from the North Sea and others bathed in the sunlight of the Mediterranean. Geologists explain the differences in France’s landscape and soil by pointing out that the country is a patchwork of three kinds of formations. Some regions are ancient outcroppings of continental bedrock, covered with thin, poor soil, such as the Armorican Massif in Brittany and the Massif Central in the middle of the country. The flat or rolling countryside one finds around Paris and in the southwest lies above softer sedimentary rock, deposited in geological eras when this part of Europe was under the oceans; these areas include France’s richest agricultural soil. Finally, there are the Pyrénées and the Alps, high mountains, relatively recently thrust up.
These different geological formations would suffice to make France a variegated country, but they are compounded by marked differences in climate. France is the only European country that is half northern and half Mediterranean. Brittany, Normandy, the Paris basin, and the other northern and eastern provinces share the cool, humid climate of England and Germany. They receive ample rainfall, and their rivers flow steadily all year round. France’s southern regions, such as Provence and Languedoc, are part of the very different Mediterranean world: hot and dry in the summer, with winter rains that can turn small streams into torrents and cause devastating floods. The crops that thrive in the two halves of the country are different, too: climate explains why cooking in northern France is based on the use of butter from cows that thrive on the grass and forage crops suited to a cool climate, whereas the cuisine of the south relies on olive oil, the product of a tree that cannot endure cold winters. The climatic differences between north and south have always tended to divide the country into two great regions, but each of these is subdivided into dozens of smaller lands, or pays. Life in the Alpine valleys along the Italian border is quite different from life in the cities in the nearby Rhône valley. The France of 1750 was a mosaic of little territories, each with its own characteristic landscape, crops, and customs.
By 1750, the possessions of the king of France also included overseas territories in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. France had been outstripped by other European countries in the race to establish colonies during the years following Columbus’s voyages, but during the seventeenth century, it had succeeded in claiming much of present-day Canada and the Mississippi valley, several important island colonies in the Caribbean, a strip of land on the coast of South America, island bases for slave trading off the coast of West Africa, and outposts in India.
Like the land, the population of eighteenth-century France was diverse, and subsequent history has made it even more so. Modern-day excavations continually add to our knowledge of the prehistoric inhabitants of France, whose monuments include the magnificent cave paintings in the Auvergne region that provide some of the earliest surviving evidence of the human drive for artistic expression. Later, other populations hunted and farmed the territory that has become northern France; in Brittany, they built mysterious structures of great upturned stones, or menhirs, similar to Stonehenge in England. These Celtic and Gaulish groups mingled with the Roman conquerors who followed Julius Caesar. Then this largely Romanized population absorbed Germanic tribes who invaded the area when the Empire gradually disintegrated, as well as the Norsemen or Normans, who gave their name to the province of Normandy. Although some homogeneous ethnic minorities maintained their distinct identities and languages—Basques in the southwest, Celtic Bretons in the western part of their peninsula—other groups, including immigrants from neighboring countries, merged into the general population. The conquests of the 1600s and 1700s added new ethnic minorities to the population: Flemings along the northern border, Germans and Ashkenazi Jews in Alsace. As a result of France’s involvement in the slave trade and its acquisition of tropical colonies, small numbers of black people wound up in the metropole.
Diverse in geography, varied in ethnic background, France in 1750 was also a country of many tongues. French was the language of the educated throughout the country, the language of law, government, and religion, but it was not the everyday speech of most of the population. The ethnic fringes of the country clung to their own languages which were unrelated to French: Basque, Breton, Flemish, and the German dialect of Alsace. The entire southern half of the kingdom resisted the spread of the king’s French: This was the region of the langue d’oc, a variety of dialects derived from the same Latin roots as French but significantly different in sound and vocabulary from the langue d’oïl of northern France. In the French colonies, enslaved black people created “creole” languages combining features of French and their native tongues, which came to be spoken by the whites as well. Differences in language were closely related to differences in culture, for each French region had its own characteristics. Gascons, according to folklore, were boastful—hence the French word gasconnade for empty talk—and quick-tempered; Normans were stingy and cautious.
To these differences were added others derived from the distinctive historical experiences of France’s different regions. Over the centuries, people in different parts of the country had often lived very different lives. Successive monarchs had acquired new domains, whose historical experiences had often been very different from that of the kingdom’s heartland. Many eighteenth-century French provinces, such as Brittany, Burgundy, and Provence, had once been independent duchies and principalities. Some had been brutally conquered: the memories of the thirteenth-century Albigensian crusade that subjected Languedoc to Catholic orthodoxy and rule from Paris took centuries to fade. Others, like the Habsburg-owned Franche-Comté around Besançon, had lived for centuries under non-French rulers. All had their own customs and local laws.
Church and Monarchy
Over the centuries, two institutions—the church and the monarchy—served to overcome linguistic and provincial boundaries, although both also functioned at times to create additional divisions that threatened French unity. Christianity had entered France during late Roman times, and by the Middle Ages only a small Jewish minority, officially expelled from the kingdom in 1306, had refused to accept it. The country was one of the main centers of medieval Christianity. It was near Paris that the first cathedrals in the distinctive Gothic style that later spread to most of Europe were built, and it was at the University of Paris that Thomas Aquinas gave medieval scholastic philosophy its most comprehensive form. But uniform orthodoxy was hard to impose throughout the kingdom, and disputes between opposing sects were the occasion for some of France’s bloodiest internal conflicts. In the early 1200s, King Louis VIII brought an army from northern France to stamp out the heretical Albigensians. In the sixteenth century, a militant Calvinist Protestant movement, whose followers became known as Huguenots, challenged the dominant church. From 1560 to 1598, France was torn by a religious civil war, and even after its end, pockets of Protestants in areas such as the port city of La Rochelle and the southern mountains of the Cévennes continued to resist Catholicism and, on occasion, royal authority. In 1685, king Louis XIV officially banned the Huguenot church, although his conquest of Alsace required him to tolerate its mostly Lutheran Protestant population and its Jewish minority. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the population was now Catholic, and most of them had more contact with their priest than they did with any representative of the royal government.
The other institution that served to bind the diverse parts of France together was the monarchy. France’s kings traced their ancestry to Clovis, who had succeeded in conquering the territory from the Pyrénées to the Rhine river and beyond by the time of his death in 511. Two hundred years later, a new dynasty, the Carolingians, replaced Clovis’s Merovingian heirs. Under the greatest of the Carolingian kings, Charlemagne, France briefly became part of an empire that took in most of western and central Europe. The treaty of Verdun in 843 divided Charlemagne’s territories into three kingdoms, one of which roughly corresponded to modern France. In 987, a third dynasty, the Capetians, took the place of Charlemagne’s heirs. By this time, much of the kingdom had been carved up into baronies whose rulers gave only token loyalty to the king. Hugues Capet, the first Capetian monarch, and his immediate successors, directly controlled only a small territory around Paris, the “île de France.”
The Capetians, though they began with only a modest kingdom, gradually built up a large territorial state. Although threatened with disintegration many times throughout the centuries, the monarchy gradually extended both its territory and the scope of its power over its subjects. The defeat of the English at the end of the Hundred Years’ War in the 1430s— thanks in part to Joan of Arc, an illiterate peasant girl whose role in inspiring the French forces made her a legendary figure, and the smashing of the neighboring Burgundian state that had grown up along France’s eastern and northern borders in the 1470s—removed two dangerous rivals who could have prevented the growth of a large French monarchy. France was now set on a course of steadily growing power and territorial expansion which continued until the nineteenth century. Although the disparate territories that made up the kingdom clung to their historic privileges, they all acknowledged a common ruler, whose agents whittled away steadily at local rights. Generations of jurists, from sixteenth-century author Jean Bodin onward, elaborated a doctrine of royal sovereignty, imbuing French culture with the notion that the state should have one all-powerful authority at its center.
Closely connected to the rise of the centralized monarchy was the development of a great capital city. Until the sixteenth century, the French kings moved frequently from one place to another, but after the mid-1500s they gradually made Paris their main residence. The growing royal bureaucracy and the wealthy nobles attracted to the court swelled the city’s population, which was more than 300,000 in the time of Louis XIV and around 600,000 by the time of the French Revolution in 1789—making it, after London, the largest metropolis in the western world. Louis XIV, fearing the restlessness of the urban population, installed himself and his courtiers at Versailles, twenty kilometers outside the city, but Paris continued to be the real center of the kingdom. The demands of its inhabitants made it the economic motor of all of northern France. From Paris emanated all political authority, and it was also the country’s cultural and intellectual center, home of the royally supported academies for literature, science, and the arts, of the country’s major theaters, and of its major publishers. The concentration of so many different activities in a single location created a permanent cleavage between the capital and the rest of the country—the provinces. To the present day, this centralization of authority in Paris and its attraction for the liveliest and most ambitious minds of the country and many other parts of the world have continued to characterize French life. So, too, has a certain fear of the great city and its restless population: Louis XIV was certainly not the last French ruler to be preoccupied with keeping the capital under control.
The church, the monarchy, and the influence of the capital worked to draw the different parts of France together; the country’s high culture served not only to unite its educated elites but also to suggest that France was the center of a larger European civilization. French had emerged as a literary language in the Middle Ages in texts such as the Song of Roland
and The Romance of the Rose
and by the eighteenth century French literature had accumulated a rich heritage of poetry, drama, and philosophy. Only French writers, the Enlightenment author Voltaire claimed, especially the dramatists and poets of the age of Louis XIV, had achieved the same harmony and perfection of form as the great Greek and Latin authors of antiquity. Even if French had not yet conquered the other languages spoken within the kingdom, by the eighteenth century it was spreading throughout the European world, replacing Latin as the common language of educated men and women. French “can be called the language of all nations, equally useful to the nobility, to merchants, and above all to people travelling for business or pleasure,” one eighteenth-century journalist wrote.1
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, French styles of art, dress, cooking, and etiquette were being imitated by rulers throughout the rest of Europe. To France’s elites, the superiority of their highly developed culture and its vocation to spread far beyond the country’s borders seemed obvious.
Part of the reason for French culture’s broad appeal was its enormous variety: rather than expressing a unified national spirit, it incorporated many conflicting impulses. The bawdy works of the early sixteenth-century novelist François Rabelais, drawing on the earthiness of popular culture to mock learned traditions in philosophy and theology, contrasted with the thoughtful essays of Michel de Montaigne, who arrived at a skeptical and relativist vie...