Leuven Travel Blog

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I am reading "The Discovery of France" by Graham Robb at the moment. It is a really interesting book in that it challenges our preconceptions (or at least, my preconceptions) of what Europe was like only 100 years ago.

There was always a sense in my mind that Europe discovered high civilisation centuries ago, with the development of material goods and the written development of scientific thinking beyond that of many other cultures, such as the aboriginal cultures of the Americas and Australia. Working in a university founded in 1425 in a city that has existed since at least 891CE tends to reinforce this image of proto-Europe being just a quaint version of modern Europe. The truth is probably far from this. I hadn't realised that even 200 years ago, many French peasants were living in what amounted to simple caves, the average life expectancy in France was only 40 years and seven months of every year was spent in what essentially amounted to human hibernation. Once the harvest was in farmers would retreat to their hovels and slow down their metabolism by eating little and barely moving for months on end.

The idea that a region like France was even a "nation" 200 years ago is probably naive. Yes, a single king ruled the entire area on paper, but in reality the region was tens of thousands of small family-based villages with no higher organisational structure. Most of the country had no practical transportation infrastructure so people generally didn't move, those few who did found no sign of "France". 200 years ago only 11% of the population spoke French, instead many different languages were spoken across the region, French, Occitan, Francoprovencal, Catalan, Corsican Italic, Italian, Flemish, Frankish, Alsatian, Breton, Basque, Shuadit, Zarphatic, Calo and others unrecorded. These languages were further split up into at least 55 major dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects, including a version of French spoken only in whistles in the village of Aas (which only died out 50 years ago). Two or three villages away and peasants would not even be able to talk to each other.

France even had its own caste system, a group of "untouchables" called cagots, who were banned from any work except rope-making and carpentry. It is suspected that this caste was created by a royal proclamation against the carpenters guild before 1000 CE. What is known is that while they could even become rich, they could never leave their caste or interact with non-cagots. A cagot in Moumour who tried to become a farmer had his feet pierced with iron spikes, cagots were forced to live in separate communities until at least the late 1800s and persecution of cagots continued in places well into the 1900s. Even today, the descendent of cagots are more likely to be carpenters and to intermarry within their community.

I am starting to realise that the high civilisation of Europe over the last thousand years was not due to an advanced level of civilisation among the population. It is only because Europe was fertile enough that a population density was achieved where a few rich cosmopolitan centres could form. The cultural and scientific advances they made over a thousand years only became accessible to the broader European population over the last 100-200 years. The staggering buildings we see that are 500 to 1000 years old are the exceptions that survive, the lives of the masses were lived in hovels that were never to be preserved.

If the human population has been undergoing a slow increase in cultural knowledge, this mostly happened at the level of rich elites in high density areas, with the bulk of humanity living no better than in Roman times until 200 years ago. America's aboriginal civilisations lost the signs of high culture (material goods and written scientific advancement) when the high density populations crashed. Australia was never fertile enough to allow this density level to be reached, pushing cultural progression towards non-material non-written forms. Even Europe hardly made a steady progression - the Dark Ages were only dark for Europe, Asia and the Middle East were hundreds of years more advanced, and in a very real way Europe only became the world coloniser because when it made its next cultural leap from the back of Middle Eastern knowledge, culture tipped over the threshold into the industrial age.
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photo by: Chokk