French Peasants on Stilts

I watched an episode of QI last night that had some really interesting facts about the pre-20th century lower class (or at least rural) French. The episode was Series F, No. 5, entitled (appropriately enough) "France". QI isn't a great show to transcribe directly from, given all the jokes and buzzers and talking over each other, so I'll just paraphrase what Stephen Fry said, plus a little bit extra that I learned on my own.

In the 19th century in rural France, this was a very common sight:
Given how isolated communities were and how much ground shepherds would have to traverse to watch over their flock, they took to wearing stilts, which given how it extends your leg span, allows you to travel much, much faster than you would otherwise. That stick that looks like it's poking out of his bum was a sort of walking stick with a cushion on the top, so when they wanted to take a rest, they just turned into a tripod. Being that high up make it easier to see all of your sheep and, surprisingly, made it much easier to cross rough terrain. France is apparently quite boggy and marshy and stilts make it apparently easier to walk across unsteady land like that. Who knew? At least you didn't have to get your feet wet, or get covered in leeches. Or bitten by snakes. Or have that annoying thing happen where your pet dog decides it wants to lick your calves. GUYS, I'M BUYING SOME. I WILL BE INVINCIBLE. (Side-note: how awesome would it be if in the next superhero movie, the villain is just a guy on stilts?)

ANYWAY, stilts weren't just used for shepherds, either. Farmers, postmen, or anyone who had a long way to walk tended to use them. They were used well into the 20th century, until road systems got better and cars were produced cheaply enough for more people to afford them.

The other weird thing I learned on QI was that as late as 1880, when a census was taken, most of the French population (about 80%) didn't speak French. That was reserved for the upper classes and urban populations. Rather, most people spoke a local dialect or even a sister language, like Flemish, Belgian, Occitan, Breton, Limousin, Gascon, Basque, and Norman, among just a few.

Wikipedia shows the same map that Stephen Fry showed, with a geographical distribution of regional languages and dialects. Sadly, it doesn't say what year (or even century) it represents or if it's just meant to show generalities, so it's . . . kinda useless for any official purpose.

So if they decide to do a sequel to Michael Crichton's Timeline where they travel to 19th-century France instead of 14th-century France, you can correct them if everyone speaks French and no one is on stilts.

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