History is fractal. At the top is the history of nations as singular entities. England declared war on France, Japan closed its borders… on the high-school-textbook-summary level we talk as though nations are monolithic blocks animated by ants marching in lockstep. But nations aren’t made of ants; they have factions and movements and territories, and this internal history is the next level. Then you have the history of individual factions, and particular territories, and cities and boroughs and streets, all the way down to the histories of individuals. There the fractal analogy breaks down. You can’t really write histories of an individual’s internal organs, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill’s liver which declared independence in 1951.
I always sort of thought about France as an ant monolith. Even reading Dumas didn’t change this much. My old United States-style high school education treated foreign countries as sort of hazy unimportant little islands off in the far distance. It still lurks in my subconscious. Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France was a great corrective. It turns out most of what we think of as “French culture” has, historically, been the culture of Paris. Away from the city, Parisians would find themselves in a wildly varied mosaic of provinces united only by the encircling national border. For a long time the north of France and the south didn’t even speak the same language. There were towns so isolated that everyone considered it their civic duty to hack a wandering cartographer to death in a fit of superstitious paranoia.
That’s the thing about fractal history: the farther down you go, the weirder it gets. Remember how bored you were in high school Western Civ? You were dealing with the lumbering impersonal history of monolithic nations. Sentences like “England declared war on France” are the stock in trade of textbooks. The declarations of war and treaty negotiations happening up at the nation level are important, but dry. When you drill down to the lower levels, that’s when things get interesting. That’s where you can see humanity in its particularity, and peculiarity. The best history is about people doing what they do best: behaving very, very strangely.
And, man, French people are strange. Of course, so is everyone else—although most of us don’t notice the strangeness of our surroundings, having grown up in them—but anyone who’s just read The Discovery of France could be forgiven for feeling as though France was a weirder place than most—a surrealist country that might have arisin from a conclave of New Weird writers. There are whistling languages and spiderlike shepherds on ten-foot stilts who covered ground at eight miles an hour. Villagers live in caves carved into the sides of quarries. Marshes host a community of fishermen “whose long-legged beds were lapped by the water at high tide and who learned to sail almost before they could talk.” The author of a French-German phrasebook advises her postilion (coach driver) that “I believe that the wheels are on fire. Look and see”—amazing not only for the implication that this was a common enough occurrence to need a standard translation, but also for the idea that this was not something a postilion would notice without help. Survivors pour out basins of water from a house where someone has died, in case the victim’s soul washed itself on the way out—or “tried to extinguish itself,” if on its way to hell.
It’s like an encyclopedia of strange. And yet none of these people would have thought themselves unusual. Neither do we. But two hundred years from now a thousand readers of 21st century history will come up for air, closing their books or switching off their Kindles or whatever, with dazed expressions and universal cries of “Huh?”