Cultural Genealogy: Method for a Historical Sociology of Culture or Cultural Sociology of History

Narrating the Classical Past (7)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

The Canal du Midi was celebrated in books on engineering from almost the moment of its completion, and its history told and retold along with descriptions of the technical accomplishments (Belidor, 1753; Bouillet, 1693; La Lande, 1778; Vallancey, 1763). Starting at the turn of the 18th century, there was a prolifera- tion of books on engineering, so its fame spread. And in France, the canal was used as a model of infrastructural engineering that entered pedagogy with the opening of the great French engineering school, the Ecole des Ponts et Chausées, in 1747. In the literature that served the formalization of engineering, the canal was compared to the work of the Romans, and sometimes even presented as a Roman project that the ancients had failed to realize. The canal was represented as a set of structures, too, and less a conduit for controlling water flows.

The role of peasants and their contour cutting to control inclines was minimized in these histories. Riquet was made the only indigenous hero of the story – a natural genius. He had claimed many vernacular techniques as his own inventions in his letters to Colbert, and historians repeated these claims, attributing many types of local knowledge to a single mind (Rolt, 1973).

Technical achievement was equated with formal control. Books defined engi- neering as a literate tradition. It excluded tacit knowledge, knowledge of local materials, silting problems, and soils. It also excluded knowledge of local weather and water problems, denying Roman heritage as a living tradition. Peasant women’s accomplishments were formalized and attributed to educated men.

Often the king was named the author of the canal; as an object of his will as sovereign, the canal was in a political sense ‘his.’ As Charles Vallancey, anti- quarian and founder of the Royal Irish Academy, put it:

Of all the great Works executed by Lewis XIV, there is none more useful, more magnificent, nor that does more honour to that Reign than the Canal which joins the two Seas by Languedoc…M. Riquet has not less Merit for putting the Success of [the Canal du Midi] past all doubt…. M. Colbert, pleased at his great genius, took [Riquet] into Protection, by which he surmounted those Obstacles which personal Interest too often opposes to the Publick Good. (Vallancey, 1763: 109)

Oddly, the military engineer, Vauban, was given a great deal of credit for the Canal du Midi even though he did very little work on the project.

[T]hus Vauban had the honour of bringing this Canal to perfection. A Canal which all the World acknowledges to be the greatest piece of Hydraulic Architecture, that ever was undertaken, and which is of infinite Consequence to the finest Princes in France, thro’ which a great Trade is carried on from Sea to Sea…. (Vallancey, 1763: 116–17)

In fact, Vauban had contempt for much of the engineering, made clear he wanted no part in it, and only agreed to fix problems with the waterway after it had been in use, and Riquet was dead. And many techniques attributed to him in engineering books were in fact common in Pyrenean water systems: back drains, ditches, and settling ponds. Why was Vauban treated with such overblown reverence? Because he was the ideal New Roman. He was a military engineer who read classical literature.

Clear rules of cultural genealogy were exercised in this literature. Artisans and laborers were not thought to be lofty enough to be descendents of Rome. A heritage of greatness could also not be explained in the engineering literature as a product of tacit knowledge, and peasant community life. Techniques had to be formalized to enter the literate culture that defined engineering as a lofty profes- sion. Success had to be attributed to genius. These rules were ways of managing provenance – purifying the classical past and associating Rome with military virtue. It included masculinizing and individualizing collective knowledge to asso- ciate it with genius, and dissociating it from practices that peasants could learn.

The irony was that the Canal du Midi was built with classical techniques. Ancient techniques were mobilized to build the New Rome. Ancient engineer- ing was the common heritage that allowed collaborative problem-solving to occur. This was the ‘hidden country’ of the classical past, where Roman tech- nique was carried by peasants and artisans. Classical culture was actually masked by rules of cultural inheritance that defined those who were great enough to carry ‘Tradition.’ France could use the legacy of Rome to claim greatness, but only by erasing the work of peasants – mainly women – who taught classical hydraulics to gentlemen at the Canal du Midi.


Primary sources:

Papers from the Archives du Canal du Midi are marked as ACM with a file and document number. Some of the documents are titled; others are not. There are a few printed sources from the archives:

Le 14 octobre 1666, l’Arrêt d’adjudication des ouvrages à faire pour le canal de communication des Mers en Languedoc est promulgué. Ce même jour, le Roi ‘fait bail et délivrance à M. de Riquet des ouvrages contenues au Devis’ préal- ablement défini sous l’autorité du Chevalier de Clerville. Reprinted in ‘Edit du Roy pour la construction d’un canal du communication des deux mers, Océane & Méditerrannée. ACM 03–10.

Claude Bazin, ‘Bail et Adjudication des Ouvrages à Faire Pour la Continuation du Canal et du Port du Cette, 20 Août 1668’, 9, section x, Archives de Canal du Midi (ACM), folder 07, item12 (07–12).

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