What Is Public Utility? Roads and Communities in Western France, 1757–90

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:30 AM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York)
Katherine McDonough, Stanford University
In eighteenth-century Europe, France led the way in constructing a network of inter-urban highways meant to be permanent structures fostering better commerce and communications. Across the kingdom, the increased scale of construction required expanding compulsory labor regimes traditionally associated with feudal duties (the corvée). However, each province managed this construction boom with vastly different strategies. In Brittany, a western, sea-facing province, the process of improving and expanding the roads between urban developments improved the frequency and quality of interactions between provincial administrators and peasants. From the archives of their correspondence, there is ample evidence of their distinctive concepts of public utility. Breton administrators began to define public utility in relation to the province, whose needs they purported to represent in the Estates. Many village leaders initially identified public utility in terms of local needs in the early decades of the century. By the 1770s, even rural communities were debating construction plans using the language of provincial public utility. This paper outlines how the idea of public utility developed among the different groups of people involved in highway construction. While historians have often studied the utility of roads using data about travel time, overland trade, and even literacy rates, we have not thought to understand how rural communities themselves conceived of roads as they were being asked to perform labor on them. Rather than thinking about technology as a finished product, this paper explores the process of construction as an experience that transformed political activity on a provincial scale. Sociology and architectural history inform this new framework through their approaches to the topics of public space and vernacular landscapes. This paper brings local experiences of road construction into the history of French roads that has been dominated by narratives glorifying engineers or kings.
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