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

Reassembling the Heritage(4)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

The canal had two sections. The first ‘enterprise’ ran from the Garonne River near Toulouse to the Aude River by Trèbes. It contained the water supply in the Montagne Noire. The second ‘enterprise’ flowed from Trèbes past Béziers, and to the new port at Cette. Both ‘enterprises’ required expertise from military engineers, artisans, academically trained engineers, and labourers, but each depended primarily on a collaboration between two of these groups (ACM, 03–10; ACM, 07–12; l’Arrêt, 1666; Bazin, 1668).

The first enterprise relied primarily on artisans and military engineers. Their main problem was designing prototypes for structures: deep oval-shaped locks, bridges with towpaths for horses, and walls and gates to control the flow of water. They shared a common background in classical architecture that allowed their ideas to be mutually interpretable.

Military engineers were schooled in Roman techniques derived from texts. There was already in this period a large literature on fortress engineering and military architecture penned mainly by Italians working from classical prece- dents. Engineers from Italy had been brought to France in the previous century to rebuild the fortifications along border cities. They had carried this heritage with them, and taught it to the French. Military engineers in 17th-century France were educated in these techniques and the texts on which they were based (Blanchard, 1979: 48–9; Blanchard and Adgé, 1985: 181–94).

Artisans carried tacit knowledge of building practices with classical roots that had been passed down for generations as part of socialization into the building trades. Many Roman construction techniques had been repeated in

Mediterranean France without interruption, but the provenance of the heritage was not obvious because they were passed down as craft mysteries. Morrison (1974: 7–9) has argued that the Romans were such successful builders because their construction methods were so efficient – easy and relatively inexpensive to execute. Artisans in this area seemed to find no better ways to make corners, hold arches to the structures above them, or even to make cement. They con- tinued to make the famous hydraulic mortar that could harden under water. Educated Europeans assumed the technique had been lost until the 18th cen- tury, when it was formally rediscovered. But in fact, this technique was used to build the Canal du Midi (Adgé, 1992; Mukerji, 2006).

Military engineers and artisans in the building trades who came to work on the canal unknowingly shared a common culture of civil engineering. They had acquired it through different socialization, and different memory practices. They were unaware of their common heritage because they lived in different narrative traditions. The military recognized themselves as using Roman archi- tecture, while the artisans apparently did not. At least they did not associate the mortar they used with classical culture. But still, what they built looked Roman, and served the propaganda program of the era while also at the material level helping to create a massive navigational canal through Languedoc.

Workers on the first enterprise were celebrated as (New) Romans at the opening ceremonies at Toulouse. Roman soldiers had been the labour force for classical infrastructural engineering. Presenting labourers on the Canal du Midi as soldiers helped to connect the two symbolically. Père Mourgues, a Jesuit mathematician who kept records of the canal’s construction, described the opening ceremonies at Toulouse in these terms:

On the 17th of November, the notables of the town, the ancient and new Capitouls [city fathers] dressed in red and black, the clergy and Parliament [state government] in grand attire with all the attributes of their rank, paraded to the walls of the cap- ital city of Languedoc. They met there the workers for the canal, without whom nothing would have been accomplished. (Mourgues, 1992: 206, emphasis added)

The workforce was organized into military units, and paraded like soldiers:

The chefs d’atelier [stood] in front of their brigades of workers; there were close to six thousand terrassiers set out in battle order, drums beating. It was a powerful sight: the [notables of the town were] lined up behind the cross [parading] along the still-dry basin of the canal. (Mourgues, 1992: 206)

The ceremony was not only designed to present workers as soldiers; the event was also recounted in terms that referenced Roman greatness:

The procession of authorities …flowed like a current into the middle of the enthu- siastic crowd massed on the open banks of the channel, the people of Toulouse and workers mixed together. They shouted out cries of joy, ‘Vive le Roy,’or in the words of the author of the Annales de Toulouse, ‘[they] formed a kind of amphitheater and provided a sense of the spectacles of the ancient Romans. (Mourgues, 1992: 206, emphasis added)

The ceremony even concluded by laying stones commemorating the project in Latin. Here was an event commemorating the work of new Romans. The col- laboration between artisans and military engineers that dominated this part of the canal project could easily enter into the cultural symbolism used to promote the king’s dreams of empire. It was part of the choreography of the event itself, and the narrative quoted here that recounted it.


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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