The Discovery of France

Last week, the National Post website ran a three-part excerpt of Graham Robb’s new book, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. Of interest to us is the second part, an amusing recounting of the state of mapmaking and surveying of France during Napoleon’s empire:

Napoleon was well aware that the land would not conveniently pose while cartographers mapped it. The famous topographical map produced by César-François Cassini de Thury (now known as Cassini III) decades earlier may not have shown detail on the same scale as the maps of cadastral surveys, which established property lines and tax liability, but a complete map was better than a patchwork of minutely embroidered squares and empty spaces. Napoleon wrote to General Louis Alexandre Berthier on 26 October 1804:
“The ingénieurs-géographes are being asked to make cadastres instead of military maps, which means that, 20 years from now, we shall have nothing … If we had stuck to making maps on Cassini’s scale, we should already have the whole Rhine frontier … Experience shows that the biggest mistake in general administration is trying to do too much. The result is that one lacks the essential.”