European studies blog

07 July 2014

Not just cycling: the other Tours de France

Today London hosts the finish of the third of the three British stages of this year’s Tour de France. 

Yet the idea of a tour of France is an old one, and this blog will be about some of the antecedents of the cycle race: a royal tour of early modern France, the tour de France completed by journeymen in the 19th century, and a best-selling primary school textbook, Le tour de France par deux enfants, first published in 1877.

On 24 January 1564 the young king Charles IX and the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici set off on a royal progress that lasted until 1 May 1566, and took in most the country. The aim of the journey, which took place during the peace after the first War of Religion, was to display the king to his Catholic and Protestant subjects alike, and stamp his authority on his riven kingdom.  The royal party travelled south down Eastern France into Provence and on to Languedoc and back up south-western and western France finally returning to Paris via the central province of Auvergne. The itinerary included stopovers in non-French border regions such as the Duchy of Lorraine and the Comtat Venaissin, a papal enclave. Just like the modern Tour de France, Abel Jouan’s 1566 account of the royal tour (reprinted Paris, 1759; 1321.c.1.) includes an indication of the distance travelled for each stage, and he also tells us that the King completed a total of 902 leagues, roughly 4,000 kilometres.

Apprentice craftsmen completed a ‘Tour de France’ lasting several years to learn their trade culminating in the production of a ‘chef d’oeuvre’ (masterpiece). Their journey was sustained by associations known as ‘compagnonnages’, quasi-masonic brotherhoods, which provided inns run by a ‘Mother’ in each town. The ‘compagnonnages’, of late medieval origin, but particularly strong in the early 19th century, still exist and today artisans can still complete a tour de France lasting from five to eight years. The best- known ‘compagnon’ is the joiner Agricol Perdiguier (1805-1875), also known as ‘Avignonnais-la-Vertu’ from his home town of Avignon. In his Mémoires d’un compagnon (Geneva, 1854-1855), Perdiguier describes in great detail the ‘Tour de France’ that he undertook between 1824 and 1828. The novelist George Sand, who greatly admired his earlier book, Le livre du compagnonnage (Paris, 1839) based the character of the carpenter Pierre Huguenin, the protagonist of her novel Le compagnon du tour de France  on Perdiguier (Brussels, 1841; 1458.b.15) and English translation (Dublin, 1849; 12518.c.34.).

  Covers of Perdiguier's memoir with a portrait of the author wearing a tall hat and carrying a staffAn edition of Perdiguier's memoir of his  ‘Tour de France’ as a journeyman (Moulins, 1914) 010662.dd.26

Le tour de France par deux enfants  (Paris, 1877; revised edition 1906) published under the name G. Bruno, but really by Augustine Fouillée (1833-1923), is an illustrated didactic and patriotic schoolbook.  Two orphaned brothers, André (14) and Julien (seven), observe their dying father’s last wish and travel to France from Lorraine, annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, over the Vosges mountains during the night to evade the border guards to find their uncle in Marseille and become French citizens. The children travel round much of the country (there are local maps throughout). They discover the variety of its regions and the occupations of its people from agriculture to industry as well as the lives of its great men.  The book shares its nation-building ideology with contemporary European classics for schoolchildren such as Edmondo De AmicisCuore (‘Heart’) with its monthly story set in different regions of the newly unified Italian peninsula or Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils which describes the varied geography of Sweden. Unlike these works, however,  Fouillée’s book is devoid of literary merit.

Illustration of two boys on a mountain path at nightCrossing the mountains by night; illustration from Le tour de France par deux enfants (13ème édition, Paris 1878) 12202.eee.14

Founded in 1903, today’s Tour de France, a multi-stage three-week cycle race, has a different itinerary each year, but always consists of a circuit of France, la Grande Boucle (great loop), increasingly with stages in neighbouring countries, covering about  3,500 kilometres in total.  It too is designed to showcase the regional variety of (mainland) French landscapes and cultural heritage. It also aims to reinforce the national identity and unity of mainland France known as the ‘Hexagon’ after its shape, implying ‘natural’ boundaries created since time immemorial, rather than built progressively over the centuries through marriage alliances and territorial annexations. For example in 1906 through to 1910, with the agreement of the German authorities, the race passed over the Vosges into the ‘lost’ former French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. French spectators reportedly sang the ‘Marseillaise’.  The 2014 itinerary, meanwhile, commemorates the anniversary of the First World War with visits to Ypres, the Chemin des Dames and Verdun.

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator Romance Collections


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