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Rich examination of everyday life in rural France
on May 25, 2000
"Eric Hobsbawm recently asked", writes the author, "whether the `nation' might be `an attempt to fill the void left by the dismantling of earlier community and social structures'. This actually reverses the order of events, at least in regard to France. In France the political nation of the Ancien Regime functioned side by side with traditional community and social structures. The ideological nation of the Revolution had to compete with these. It was not invented upon their dismantling; its invention implied their dismantling." This process, as Weber's book richly demonstrates, lasted until the early 20th century. In the meantime, linguistic and cultural parochialism lived on outside the cities. In the Third Republic, the author estimates, "French was a foreign language for half the citizens", the half who spoke the patois of the province within which they spent their entire lives. A French national identity existed only among the middle and upper classes, most strongly among government employees, including administrators, bureaucrats, teachers, and military officers. But the relentless efforts of mandatory schooling gradually took effect, which tried to instill an awareness of of being "French" and belonging to the nation-state of "France" rather than to one's own province. To be educated was synonymous with speaking standard French and adopting French high culture. Additionally, the advance of industrialization, improvements in transportation and infrastructure, and military service increased mobility in the population so that groups from different parts of the country had to move away from home and interact with each other. People saw and experienced life in different regions, and the use of standard French became necessary as a lingua franca. "Most Frenchmen", Weber writes, "for a long time did not think to describe France as their pays [homeland] - until what they were taught came to coincide with experience." Weber draws from an extraordinary variety of source material to give us a vivid idea of every aspect of life in the provinces: folklore, health, nutrition, housing, clothing, language, family life, money and the economy, and religion are all covered. The narrative is so rich in data and anecdotal detail that his argument - that most of rural France remained pre-modern until the 20th century - emerges on its own and hardly needs to be stated. The book makes us aware of what we have gained, and lost, by modernization.