The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time

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9780393051131: The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time

Experience village France with its historical dimension in place. In a spirited history, John Merriman allows us to see the presence of the past in the people and ways of this beautiful village in the Ardeche.

Balazuc is a tiny medieval village carved into a limestone cliff that towers above the Ardeche River in southeastern France. Its dramatic landscape and Mediterranean climate make it a lovely destination for summer visitors, but for its residents over the centuries life in Balazuc has been harsh. At times Balazuc has prospered, most notably in the nineteenth century through the cultivation of "the golden tree" and the silkworms it fed, a process whose rigors and rewards are gleefully detailed in this splendid book. But the rewards proved fleeting, leaving only the rigors of life on the "tormented soil." Historical events from the French Revolution, through the Paris Commune and the two world wars, sent ripples through this isolated region, but the continuities of everyday life remained strong. Twenty-eight men from Balazuc signed the list of grievances against the king in the spring of 1789; the families of nineteen still live in the village. This is a story of resilience. It is the French story of tensions between Paris and the village expressed in battles over the school, the church, the council, and people's livelihoods. Most of all it is a love letter from an acclaimed historian who with his family has made Balazuc his adopted home. With a new "golden tree," tourism, now flourishing, the struggles of the village to prosper and to retain its identity continue, transmuted to a world of cell phones and an imagined village past.

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Review:

The impetus for John Merriman's The Stones of Balazuc, his affectionate but commendably evenhanded history of an obscure French village southwest of Lyon, was an apparently simple question: What difference had the "great events"--including the French Revolution and the two world wars--made there? Balazuc (population 339; 1,000 during the summer), built on cliffs overlooking the Ardeche River, is a place of "savage," and to some, forbidding, beauty. Over the centuries its fortunes--based primarily on silk production (and to a lesser extent chestnuts and vineyards), and more recently tourism--have risen and fallen dramatically. Merriman briefly traces Balazuc's pre-history and its Roman and medieval periods, but concentrates on the last few hundred years: the ravages of agricultural diseases, wars, and ferocious storms, and more recently, the ominous and steady exodus of young people. More intriguing, however, are his spare, unprepossessing investigations of the quotidian, such as the arrival of television, the development of a municipal drinking water system, the real estate market, the shifting cast of customers of the local café, and villagers' reflections on their changing world. Francophiles, especially, will appreciate this book. So should general readers hungry for something beyond another frothy look at quaint, colorful, French rural life. --H. O'Billovich

About the Author:

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University. A specialist in nineteenth century French history, Merriman earned his Ph. D at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including The Margins of City Life: Explorations on the French Urban Frontier, 1815–1851; Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century; The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848–1851; and, most recently, The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time (Norton, 2002). He regularly teaches the survey of modern European history at Yale.

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