At the dawn of the present century Vidal de la Blache wrote that 'the word that best characterises France is variety'. 1 His choice was unquestionably apposite but the historical geographer who reads the record of the French land and people on the eve of the railway age is tempted to insert the qualification 'bewildering'. Such a sense of bewilderment and even frustration arises from trying to assimilate a rich but fragmented testimony. Most contemporary evidence emphasised the unique ecological blend of spatial, physical and cultural conditions in individual localities and pays. This kind of approach undoubtedly encapsulates reality but also renders broad comparisons and the formulation of generalisations virtually impossible.