“Because of the mills,” he said blandly while driving, without looking over at me, without any indication at all that he was blowing my mind.
Because of the mills. That is why the villages here are spaced so evenly, at about 6km intervals.
A stunned silence followed briefly, before the heavy gristmill of my mind started to lurch into a first turn, grinding this information carefully, to start, and then spinning in all directions faster and faster, with pulverized debris flying out all sides.
Oh oh oh! It made perfect sense: Fields. Feudal labor. Rivers. Wars. Gruel. And all of it springing from, and leading to, beautiful, fine, baked French bread.
How did I not think of it before? In the end, everything in France comes down to good food. It always has.
I would have said it was the churches, if I had been queried off hand, because the steeple of a church is the axis-mundi of each village center today.
I would have guessed that the churches wanted to keep an eye on their parishioners and to make sure there was no excuse not to show up to Mass.
But the church buildings are actually a symptom of an older driver of social distribution, not its cause. They were constructed over and above the already extant population points.
If you slip beneath the surface and look at the core, you glimpse something much more basic than Christianity, something which that religious veneer has tried to appropriate since its own inception: Bread.
The definition of sublime is “under the threshold.” You have to look down first, sometimes, to see through to what is evident and exalted on the other side. Maybe the Church has realized that since the beginning.
A nation built on bread
You needed grain to feed your farm animals, but also grain to eat, because the animals were expensive to eat, and most people were poor.
It was grain that could be taxed by weight and measure. While you could hide a goat or duck or daughter or gold, you would have to subsist on gruel of whole grains boiled in water (for a very very long time, using a great deal of wood for fuel, at further personal cost to your own energy) unless you wanted to participate in the larger social project of publicly grinding that grain into flour to bake something more palatable all together, like bread.
This is precisely how France first emerged, on the cataracts of rivers where the Romans had left their waterworks.
It was the grain, really the quest for the broken grain for bread, which drew them into these regularly spaced collection points.
The spectacularly unspectacular grain created the taxable economy on which the government relied. The rivers provided the power to transform that caravan of edible wealth. The mills had to be close enough to make it practical to grind everyone’s grain conveniently and taxably, but not any closer than that.
In the Domesday book, the first census record in Europe, which was written over a century before the first windmills went up here, there was one water mill in England for about every 300 people, spaced at intervals of just a couple of miles apart. We can see even today that it was the same in France, with our latticework of evenly distributed villages.
In our area, what eventually became the densest concentration of fortified defensive “Bastide” villages in the world would have started out as a chain of grain-processing collectives.
Sharing by the thousand
You think of the famous role that bread played in the modern history of France – “Let them eat cake,” Les Misérables, The Paris Commune, and on down the line. But it’s easy to see that bread’s role is even older and more basic here. It is the very foundation of the culture, the economy, the texture of the land and the country itself, from the beginning.
It was bread that led us to make these villages where they stand, and bread that paid for their high defensive walls. In a way, it was the bread, and the ability to make it and tax it, which was being defended within as much as life and limb, God or King.
Now when I pass a village, which is about every 6km in my local travels, I don’t look for the church steeple first thing. Instead I look for the bakery – at least one major one per 1,000 inhabitants, so important is this daily staple to the national identity.
And I look then, after my purchases of bread or chocolatines, toward the riverbank and the mill, the sublime secret of why that village rose where it did out of the fields.