The one thing missing from your Blame the French list
11 August 2021
The list of French innovations impacting Anglo-Saxon culture has no end. To wit, there are no fewer than four words in this last sentence that the Normans brought along with them across the English Channel in 1066. A little perk included in the saddlebags of William the Conqueror, so to speak. While his minions spread across the country crying “Payez vos taxes!” they were also sowing Latin-based words via Norman French. I can guess one of the first words that English peasants learned when they realized what had befallen them: merde.
The language of the Prussian court was also French, and Frederick the Great is known to have spoken only a dialect of German, a language he also looked down upon. To be fair, there was no Germany or German at the time. No unity, no impetus for language uniformity to create what would be dubbed “high German.”
At the czar’s court in Russia, too, French was the lingua franca.
But language is just for starters. Apart from the impact of Norman French on the English language and the use of French itself in many courts, other French innovations impacted the entire European continent.
Take architecture. Notre Dame not only set the standard for Gothic cathedrals; it invented the style. From Germany to Spain, kings commissioned their architects to fly buttresses and plant rose windows to rival Our Lady in Paris. Royals across the continent whined, desperate to keep up with the Joneses. Or in this case, the Louis.
“I want one of those big churches, too!”
“Yes, milord, we’ve drawn up the blueprints. Just waiting for Harold to return from the forest with a few giant trees for that ridiculously high ceiling. Does it really have to be that high? Look, even when you ride inside it with your horse, you won’t come anywhere near it!”
“I told you! If Frenchie’s got it – I must have it!”
It goes way beyond cathedrals. Let’s not forget Versailles, the sprawling, gargantuan palace built by King Louis XIV to escape the narrow confines of medieval Paris. This was before Napoleon’s architect Baron Hausmann tore down entire swathes of the city to create the wide boulevards that now form a quintessential part of Paris. At the time, many thought that constructing a palace so far outside the city was outrageous.
Nobody’s laughing now. There are only a few scattered royal abodes not based on Versailles.
Marie, a petite French exchange student we once hosted, reminded me quite pointedly of the preeminence of the Palace of Versailles. She hardly said anything apart from oui or non, not in French, English or any other language – let alone in German, which she was supposed to be learning. I quickly cycled through basic German sentences trying to help her learn. This whole exercise made me feel very virtuous.
When my Dr. Seuss German drew blank stares, I brought out my watered-down English for foreigners. “If she’s not going to learn German, she can at least practice her English,” I thought.
I was assuming that she spoke English in the first place. This quickly proved to be baseless.
Left with no choice, I was forced to dig up, reconstruct and sputter selected soundbites of my high school French. At least now I knew she understood, even if she still didn’t respond. Right up until the moment we took her to see Munich’s pride and joy, Nymphenburg Palace. Once the summer residence of the Wittelsbach royal ruling family, it’s now the highlight of every self-respecting Chinese tourist’s photo album. And yes, Nymphenburg Palace was built with Versailles in mind.
“Ça te plaît?” I asked her with a peevish smile. I studied her closely as she surveyed the scene. Surely she would admire this fine palatial complex with its fountains graced with swans a’swimming, perfectly trimmed boxwood hedges and painstakingly laid out flowerbeds. All so very French.
“Do you like it?” Of course she would like it. How could she not be smitten with this lovely knock-off of her very own Versailles? The answer must be a resounding “Oui!”
Well, non. It wasn’t.
“Ehhhhh, oui,” she said. And qualified it in the most irksome fashion. “Mais c’est très petit!”
“Excuse-moi, did you say petit? Watch out what you’re calling petit there, girl!” I retorted.
That’s not what I said. I didn’t say anything. But I thought it.
Enough of palaces.
Do we even need to mention the seismic impact of French cuisine on the world? So overpowering is its influence that we even use their word, cuisine, for our, well, cuisine! Excuse me while I take a bite of my croissant.
This gets us to what I really want to discuss. There is something we inherited from French culture that I have a beef about. (And, of course, beef comes from boeuf – it just doesn’t end). A new trend sprang forth from the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. In this pre-industrial era, land was the source of wealth. To showcase how much money and power he had – just in case the mirrored halls, priceless tapestries, gushing fountains, jewel-encrusted everythings and scurrying servants weren’t convincing, the French king laid out extravagant gardens – and grass lawns.
This was to demonstrate that he owned so much valuable land that he could afford to let huge tracts of it go to waste. The land remained unplanted, unproductive. It served for decoration only. No need to grow wheat, barley, rye or even those trendy New World veggies, potatoes and corn. Food crops?! Ha! Those are for peasants, ma chérie, not for royalty.
L’état, c’est moi. That means I get to design the garden. Just planting grass here. For kicks. Juste pour le plaisir. Move aside while I promenade, s’il vous plait! I’ve got some stuff to strut. And make way for my entourage.
A fashion was born that would cross the Channel to England and board ships headed across the Atlantic. King Louis XIV inspired millions of Englishmen and Americans to landscape their entire property with various versions of a plant going by the name of: grass. He kicked off a trend that has endured for centuries, so old that its origins are practically unknown.
I think of the king when I’m sitting at my desk working and my neighbor revs up the lawnmower. As a matter of fact – hold on a second while I close the window to keep out the racket.
I think of the king when I walk through the DIY store, through aisle after aisle of weed whackers, seed spreaders, sprinklers, fertilizers and umpteen kinds of grass seed. Some types grow in the sun, some in the shade, and some would rather not grow at all – but they’ll be coaxed into it with constant watering, fertilizing and nurturing.
Such is the mesmerizing power of the lawn. Cut me! Water me! Spend your weekend on me!
I think of the king when the leaf blower guys come around in the fall with their ear-shattering apparatuses, blasting fallen foliage in all directions until it somehow forms a pile. Why can’t they just leave it alone? The bugs will take care of it. Ah yes, the lawn. Musn’t sully the lawn.
If the EU can be convinced to legislate straight cucumbers and rubber tomatoes, why can’t it mandate electric leaf blowers? I’d rather have a silent leaf blower sneak up on me than a noiseless electric car. At least the leaf blower can’t run me over.
Yes, France, it’s all your fault. You gave us Notre Dame, haute cuisine (and couture, while we’re at it), joie de vivre, raison d’être, maître d’ and Ratatouille…and then you had to give us lawns.
You should have stopped while you were ahead. Quel dommage!
Cover photo: Wikipedia Commons