Historically, France is viewed as the light of western culture, having contributed some of the world’s great literature, art, and philosophy. As a language, French language was the international language of business for decades. And do we even need to bring up French cuisine? French culture puts a higher emphasis on etiquette than most and memorizing poetry is not unusual. But why? How did France develop its identity? What happened in history that helped this country become the cultural powerhouse it continues to be to this day?
Knowing the following key historical events will help you gain an edge in understanding French culture, and may even help you impress your French friends!
58 to 51 BCE Gallic Wars – France starts to become France.
Way back when Rome was conquering the world, Julius Caesar fought against the Gallic tribes living in France who resisted by uniting under the king Vercingetorix. The Romans won in the end and occupied the area until the 5th century CE.
One of France’s most beloved comic book series is set in 50 BCE and is called Asterix and Obelix. The principal characters are the Gauls and the Romans for the most part. It is about a small village of Gauls who withstood the Roman invasion and they all have names ending in -ix which was the ending of the Gallic suffix for king.
At the end of the Roman occupation, the Merovingians came to power, establishing the first monarchy rule of the France we know today.
1066 The Battle of Hastings – French becomes the language of the upper classes.
Ever wondered why English and French seem so similar? We share an abundance of words, although they are pronounced differently. In fact, by some estimates, French and English share around 60% of the same words. Good news for English speakers who want to learn French, and vice versa!
We have William the Conqueror to thank for this. Back in 1066 he won the Battle of Hastings ushering in a time of French rule in England. During this time French became the official language used in government. It quickly became the language of the highborn and aristocracy which helped it gain its reputation as refined and sophisticated. It also helped establish French as lingua franca, which continued well into the 20th century.
1635 – l’Académie française is created.
The French Academy, l’Académie française, is the French institution responsible for the language. The creation of the Academy was an important event because it recognized that language is a central part of French culture. The language is well structured and regulated because of this.
The Academy is in charge of making French words for new things. For example, a computer is officially named l’ordinateur in French and they would prefer that you refer to email as le courrier électronique. They are also responsible for the grammar rules in French, something I often remind my students of when I am teaching them some exception to an exception to a rule. We say, “merci l’Académie française”!
The French are fiercely proud of their language and the care given to maintain it without letting too many outsider words in. The Academy is held in such high esteem that the members are called Immortals and once elected, they remain members until they die.
1643 – 1715 The rule of Louis XIV – The golden age of centralized monarchy, etiquette, high fashion, and the arts.
Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, ruled France from May 14, 1643 until his death on September 1, 1715. His 72 year reign makes him France’s longest ruling monarch. Under his rule France became the dominant European power. Renaming himself the Sun King, Louis XIV centralized power and felt he was God’s representative on earth, illuminating it with enlightenment. During this time etiquette and haute couture were created. He pushed forward an agenda favorable to art, music, theater, literature, and sport. France became a beacon of cultural light shining on the rest of the west and established herself as the standard-bearer of art and beauty.
You can watch the musical, Le Roi Soleil, for a French spectacle version of his story. Or if you want something more long term, check out Versailles la serie which has three seasons for you to savor! It is also on Netflix and is totally binge-worthy.
1671 Francois Vatel – Food to die for
François Vatel was maître d’hôtel” to a very important Frenchman called the Prince of Condé in the 1600s. In April of 1671, King Louis XIV (yes, the Sun King) was going to visit the Prince for 3 days. Having the King visit was a big deal because he brought his entourage of nobles which was like having an entire town visit. They only had a few short weeks to prepare, and Vatel wanted to make sure that everything was perfect – the entertainment, the food, the ambiance.
The first night of the King’s visit went very well according to the guests and the Prince, but Vatel didn’t agree. Here is an account of that first night:
The King arrived Thursday evening; there was everything that one could wish: hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a walk, the meal in a spot carpeted with daffodils. People ate; there were a few tables where there was no roast, because there were several more people eating than had been expected. Vatel obsessed over this, saying several times “I have lost honour; here is an affront that I can’t bear”. He said to Gourville, “My head is spinning; I haven’t slept for 12 nights. Help me to keep things going”. Gourville helped how he could, but Vatel couldn’t stop thinking about the missing roast at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth tables (though not at the King’s table). The Prince went to Vatel’s room and said to him, “Vatel, everything is fine: nothing was as beautiful as that dinner for the King”. Vatel said to him, “My Lord, you are too kind. I know that there was no roast at two tables”. “Not at all,” said the Prince. “Don’t fret about it, everything is fine”.
The next morning, there weren’t enough fish deliveries coming in and the stress of it all was just too much for Vatel. He felt he had disgraced himself and commited suicide. The irony is that shortly after that, the deliveries came and the festivities continued without a hitch. It should be said however, that the nobility was deeply saddened to lose such a great man as Vatel. This is a famous story in France and they even made a movie about him, called Vatel, in 2000.
This is an early example of a French chef committing suicide rather than face disgrace. Unfortunately it is something that has happened several times since and as recently as 2016.
1789 The French Revolution – The beginnings of The Republic
The French Revolution was a big deal not only for France but the world. It showed people everywhere the strength that lies within the will of the people. In part due to the lavish lifestyle that the monarchy came to live as a result of the Sun King and his Versailles, the people of France were living in extreme poverty in the 1700’s. The money spent helping the American colonies win independence from Great Britain didn’t help the situation. On July 14, 1789, having had enough, a large group of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, which was the fortress prison that historically held political dissidents, looking to find gunpowder and weapons. This event sparked the French Revolution in which the King and Queen of France were beheaded.
Today, July 14th is the national holiday of France, la Fȇte nationale, and is celebrated every year with fireworks, parades, and parties.
The French Revolution showed the world that the people of a country had the ability to rise up and take the power of the state. The values of equality, liberty, and fraternity were born out of the revolution and remain today. It was the first step on a long journey toward a government that ruled in the interest of the people it represented.
1799 Napoleon seizes power.
Napoleon Bonaparte is probably the most famous Frenchman of all time. He was born on the Island of Corsica and rose from basically a nobody to become the Emperor of France after the French Revolution. He expanded the French empire into the areas of Spain, Italy, and Russia. He is credited with spreading the ideals of the French Revolution to the rest of the world and making France the dominant European power once more.
Opinion is split in France on whether he was a visionary or a despot. Before World War II, he was generally seen as a hero of France who made her great and powerful by expanding her geography and taking her values to far away lands. After WWII though, opinions began to become more critical of him. Instead of just seeing him as the man who brought France back into power, he was also remembered for reinstating slavery and being responsible for the deaths of so many French troops.
1960 Africa Rising – French culture in flux
Between the time of Napoleon and the 20th century, Europe was expanding and colonizing the rest of the world. France set up colonies in nearly half of the countries in Africa. But in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the French were either forced out or voluntarily left all of them. This has led to an influx of immigrants from all over the continent.
France embraced some of the new literature, music, and cultural influences but was been reluctant to wholly accept them all. For example, it is illegal to wear a face covering veil in public in France for what are said to be safety and security reasons. Not all French people are as accepting of the new immigrants as others, but that is to be expected in a country made up of individual people.
As a whole, today’s French culture is trying to find balance between preserving the parts of the culture that are inherently French while also embracing new cultural influences from around the Francophone world.
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