The Land of Desire

Why a French history podcast?

In 2016, 1.2% of the population of the Earth will visit France. While they’re in town, these tourists will spend 36 billion euros, take 9 million visits to the Louvre, spend 24 million #winewednesdays in the Loire valley, stay in 20,000 hotels and, judging by your Instagram feed, take 17 billion selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower. The Land of Desire is all about the good stuff in French history: the stories behind the objects you crave, the clothing you wear, the art you admire, the food you love, the wine you need. I’m not here to tell you about the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia, but I am here to tell you about how all the nasty bits from Game of Thrones are ripped from French history (comin’ 4 u, Red Wedding), and about why someone decided that eating snails was the thing to do even in a country which perfected deep fried duck.

Comment t’appelles-tu?

Bonjour! I’m Diana, a San Francisco twentysomething with a deep, Hermione Granger-like love of French history. (“Has no one here read Seven Ages of Paris? Honestly!”) I’m the only one under the age of 65 going on all those free historical walking tours. My qualifications include:

  • a lifetime of nerdery-at-a-distance
  • a year in France (2008, an excellent vintage)
  • research skills otherwise going to seed at an office job
  • access to JSTOR
  • deep personal familiarity with French wine

What is “the land of desire”?

While enjoying Joan DeJean’s fabulous The Essence of Style, a quotation from an old Italian guidebook to Paris really rang my bell. I tracked down Professor DeJean herself to ask for a little help wading through her citations and found the original publication, Gion-Paolo Marana’s Lettre D’un Sicilien À Un De Ses Amis, essentially a delightful 17th century travel guide to friends back home, giving them the 411 on French living. Here’s the original passage:

C’est ici le Païs du plaisir, les amans ne soupirent guères, la jalousie ne tourment personne, les soldats françois vont à la mort par divertissement, et les affligez ne paroissent pas en public. Il y a des musiciens en si grand nombre, qu’en commençant depuis la plus grande dame jusqu’à la plus vile servante, et depuis la plus noble cavalier jusqu’au dernier laquais, chacun sacrifie à Orphée, c’est-à-dire que chacun chante, et plus dans les places publiques et dans les jardins que dans les maisons particulières; les François se moquant du philosophe qui remarque dans la politique que les poëtes n’ont jamais fait chanter Jupiter, comme si le chant était indigne d’un Dieu.

Here’s my own attempt at translation – let me know if you think I’ve gotten any of it wrong!

This is the land of desire, where lovers never sigh, no one feels the torment of jealousy, French soldiers die from entertainment, and grief never shows its face in public. There are so many musicians that, from the greatest lady to the basest servant, and from the noblest knight to the lowest squire, everyone sacrifices to Orpheus, that is, everyone sings, in public squares and private gardens; the French mock that philosopher [Aristotle] who remarked in his Politics that the poets never made Jupiter sing, as though singing would be unworthy of a God.

In other words, even in the 17th century, outsiders marveled at the French joie de vivre and wrote home to their friends about it. French food, song, dance, and entertainment has captivated everyone forever, and it doesn’t look like that’ll change anytime soon.