Building the Roads: Expertise, Labor, and Politics in Provincial France, 1675-1791

McDonough, Katherine (2013) Building the Roads: Expertise, Labor, and Politics in Provincial France, 1675-1791. PhD thesis, Stanford University.

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I capture a turning point in territorial development when public works outgrew medieval organizational methods, and provincial leaders sought to establish new controls over land and labor. In their approach to public works, leaders of the French province of Brittany took older compulsory labor and estate management practices and shaped them into enlightenment-era administrative methods. Breton nobles, urban magistrates, engineers, and villagers reshaped their political and professional identities at eighteenth-century highway construction sites. Road construction introduced a new kind of political interaction between country and city. My study of provincial highway construction brings to light long overlooked connections between early modern people, their local built environment, and their political sensibilities. "Public" once meant royal, but the road construction experience was key in broadening the word's definition to include civic engagement and provincial administration. Use of the corvée to build highways introduced rural communities to the idea of provincial public administration. The experience of highway construction offered the Breton Estates an opportunity to rise in political and administrative prominence. With the corvée, the provincial population participated in the transfer of technological information among experts, estate owners and managers, and local practitioners. While social and economic reform in Old Regime France is usually discussed in terms of orders or classes, a person's perception of his responsibilities to village, province, and kingdom was spatial. The highway -- part of the royal domain -- was culturally transformed by the act of construction into an active, communal space. The experiences of workers in this space, combined with debates about corvée reforms, laid the groundwork for thinking about roads and other parts of the public domain as democratic spaces.

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14 Apr 2023 08:30
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16 Jul 2024 06:03