The hundreds of “traditional countries” that make up France


It took me a while after moving to France to figure out where I was living.

Yes, I knew it was the southwest. I knew the name of the region, Midi-Pyrénées (as it was then), and of the department, Hautes-Pyrénées. But people around me kept referring to a place called Bigorre, as if it was their true homeland, even though I couldn’t find it on any modern map.

As I traveled around France looking for travel guides, I began to understand what was going on.

France has a geography other than that on which the Parisian bureaucrats would like us to rely. Modern divisions of public administration are superimposed on a much older and enigmatic territorial unit: the pay.

Word pay (singular and plural are spelled the same, ending in an s) has several translations.

Most often this means “country”, as in the nation-state: France is a country in Europe (France is a European country).

Lauragais: The ‘Blue Triangle’ framed by Albi, Toulouse and Castelnaudary is also known as the Land of Cocagne, or ‘the land of milk and honey’, | © Ian rhode5 / Shutterstock

Since 1999, pay (with a capital) was also used as the official title for a new element of local government: a group of municipalities working together to optimize economic and social development.

The oldest and most interesting meaning of pay, however, is the traditional country, a micro-region, sometimes called little country Where natural region – although this term is somewhat misleading because it ignores the contribution of human beings. The whole of France, including the island of Corsica, is unofficially divided into a patchwork of these traditional countries.

No one can agree on their number as some exist only out of nostalgia, and others are best described as subdivisions of larger units.

The two authoritative books on the subject give a total of 426 and 546 respectively. They go from land of Ac’h in Brittany to the Yvelines near Paris, which is both a pay and a modern department.

Brittany and Auvergne each have about twenty pay superimposed on the standard political geography. Sometimes a single department can be divided into seven or more pay.

pay can be different sizes, but the concept behind them is the same. A pay is an area in which a shared culture is determined by a shared natural geography.

Before the advent of modern agriculture, a particular local soil, landscape and climate (summarized by the term terroir) dictated the crops that could be cultivated, the materials freely available for construction and thus the way of life of the inhabitants.


Revin: France was invaded twice by the Ardennes during World War II: at the Battle of France and at the Battle of the Bulge | © skyfish / Shutterstock

Often the limits of pay are known rather than formalized: one country can stop at a river or a ridge of hills, and another takes over.

Typically a pay can trace its roots back to a former unity of government. Some derive from the novel pagus, an estate ruled by a powerful and wealthy man.

Almost all pay owe their origins to feudalism and the Ancien Régime.

“They were once duchies, counties and provinces, or they were tracts of land ruled by the abbots of wealthy monasteries.”

The important thing to understand is that a pay is a place we could – and often still can – identify with and belong to.

Before modern communications and labor mobility, the pay defined the person in a way that is difficult for us to imagine today.

Expression country child (native son, or son of the soil) sums up this attachment to the land.

The simplest definition of a pay recalls the value of hyper-locality.

“A payElsie Burch Donald wrote in The French Farm, “Was generally the distance a man could walk in a day and return home – about 32 km and in that area were everyone: his house, his farmland, his village, his local market town and probably all its relations, for many peasants never traveled beyond the borders of their own country.

“As a result, the pay engendered a sense of belonging and loyalty that amounted to a concentrated form of nationalism.

Historian Fernand Braudel evokes the same meaning when he recounts his own personal memories pay where he would find an “all-inclusive life, where all activities are interconnected, where the horizon is close enough that I can embrace it with ease; see everything or almost; to understand almost everything.

Today the average pay exists mainly in the minds of its inhabitants and in the brochures and websites of tourist offices, which make good use of it to attract visitors. In a country, you can immerse yourself in a distinctive way of life.

This does not mean that they have lost their importance. To be proud of pay is alive and well, despite the centralizing attraction of Paris. Preserving the notion of pay in the 21st century can be a way for old traditions to keep alive and pay attention to crafts and building methods that might otherwise be lost.

Anyone interested in researching local history should understand the organization of France in pay which existed long before the Revolution sought to rationalize the territory into departments. No book published before the end of the 18th century makes reference to a place called “Hautes-Pyrénées”.

You have to look under Bigorre.

If the centralized bureaucracy tries to fit every corner of the campaign into a model of standardized rational efficiency, the promoters of pay want the opposite: to celebrate and safeguard the diversity and idiosyncrasy that make France the fascinating kaleidoscope that it is.

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