Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter IV

Boulogne, September 1, 1763.

SIR — I am infinitely obliged to D. H— for the favourable manner in which he has mentioned me to the earl of H— I have at last recovered my books, by virtue of a particular order to the director of the douane, procured by the application of the English resident to the French ministry. I am now preparing for my long journey; but, before I leave this place, I shall send you the packet I mentioned, by Meriton. Mean-while I must fulfil my promise in communicating the observations I have had occasion to make upon this town and country.

The air of Boulogne is cold and moist, and, I believe, of consequence unhealthy. Last winter the frost, which continued six weeks in London, lasted here eight weeks without intermission; and the cold was so intense, that, in the garden of the Capuchins, it split the bark of several elms from top to bottom. On our arrival here we found all kinds of fruit more backward than in England. The frost, in its progress to Britain, is much weakened in crossing the sea. The atmosphere, impregnated with saline particles, resists the operation of freezing. Hence, in severe winters, all places near the sea-side are less cold than more inland districts. This is the reason why the winter is often more mild at Edinburgh than at London. A very great degree of cold is required to freeze salt water. Indeed it will not freeze at all, until it has deposited all its salt. It is now generally allowed among philosophers, that water is no more than ice thawed by heat, either solar, or subterranean, or both; and that this heat being expelled, it would return to its natural consistence. This being the case, nothing else is required for the freezing of water, than a certain degree of cold, which may be generated by the help of salt, or spirit of nitre, even under the line. I would propose, therefore, that an apparatus of this sort should be provided in every ship that goes to sea; and in case there should be a deficiency of fresh water on board, the seawater may be rendered potable, by being first converted into ice.

The air of Boulogne is not only loaded with a great evaporation from the sea, increased by strong gales of wind from the West and South-West, which blow almost continually during the greatest part of the year; but it is also subject to putrid vapours, arising from the low marshy ground in the neighbourhood of the harbour, which is every tide overflowed with seawater. This may be one cause of the scrofula and rickets, which are two prevailing disorders among the children in Boulogne. But I believe the former is more owing to the water used in the Lower Town, which is very hard and unwholsome. It curdles with soap, gives a red colour to the meat that is boiled in it, and, when drank by strangers, never fails to occasion pains in the stomach and bowels; nay, sometimes produces dysenteries. In all appearance it is impregnated with nitre, if not with something more mischievous: we know that mundic, or pyrites, very often contains a proportion of arsenic, mixed with sulphur, vitriol, and mercury. Perhaps it partakes of the acid of some coal mine; for there are coal works in this district. There is a well of purging water within a quarter of a mile of the Upper Town, to which the inhabitants resort in the morning, as the people of London go to the Dog-and-duck, in St. George’s fields. There is likewise a fountain of excellent water, hard by the cathedral, in the Upper Town, from whence I am daily supplied at a small expence. Some modern chemists affirm, that no saline chalybeate waters can exist, except in the neighbourhood of coal damps; and that nothing can be more mild, and gentle, and friendly to the constitution, than the said damps: but I know that the place where I was bred stands upon a zonic of coal; that the water which the inhabitants generally use is hard and brackish; and that the people are remarkably subject to the king’s evil and consumption. These I would impute to the bad water, impregnated with the vitriol and brine of coal, as there is nothing in the constitution of the air that should render such distempers endemial. That the air of Boulogne encourages putrefaction, appears from the effect it has upon butcher’s meat, which, though the season is remarkably cold, we can hardly keep four-and-twenty hours in the coolest part of the house.

Living here is pretty reasonable; and the markets are tolerably supplied. The beef is neither fat nor firm; but very good for soup, which is the only use the French make of it. The veal is not so white, nor so well fed, as the English veal; but it is more juicy, and better tasted. The mutton and pork are very good. We buy our poultry alive, and fatten them at home. Here are excellent turkies, and no want of game: the hares, in particular, are very large, juicy, and high-flavoured. The best part of the fish caught on this coast is sent post to Paris, in chasse-marines, by a company of contractors, like those of Hastings in Sussex. Nevertheless, we have excellent soles, skaite, flounders and whitings, and sometimes mackarel. The oysters are very large, coarse, and rank. There is very little fish caught on the French coast, because the shallows run a great way from the shore; and the fish live chiefly in deep water: for this reason the fishermen go a great way out to sea, sometimes even as far as the coast of England. Notwithstanding all the haste the contractors can make, their fish in the summer is very often spoiled before it arrives at Paris; and this is not to be wondered at, considering the length of the way, which is near one hundred and fifty miles. At best it must be in such a mortified condition, that no other people, except the negroes on the coast of Guinea, would feed upon it.

The wine commonly drank at Boulogne comes from Auxerre, is very small and meagre, and may be had from five to eight sols a bottle; that is, from two-pence halfpenny to fourpence. The French inhabitants drink no good wine; nor is there any to be had, unless you have recourse to the British wine-merchants here established, who deal in Bourdeaux wines, brought hither by sea for the London market. I have very good claret from a friend, at the rate of fifteen-pence sterling a bottle; and excellent small beer as reasonable as in England. I don’t believe there is a drop of generous Burgundy in the place; and the aubergistes impose upon us shamefully, when they charge it at two livres a bottle. There is a small white wine, called preniac, which is very agreeable and very cheap. All the brandy which I have seen in Boulogne is new, fiery, and still-burnt. This is the trash which the smugglers import into England: they have it for about ten-pence a gallon. Butcher’s meat is sold for five sols, or two-pence halfpenny a pound, and the pound here consists of eighteen ounces. I have a young turkey for thirty sols; a hare for four-and-twenty; a couple of chickens for twenty sols, and a couple of good soles for the same price. Before we left England, we were told that there was no fruit in Boulogne; but we have found ourselves agreeably disappointed in this particular. The place is well supplied with strawberries, cherries, gooseberries, corinths, peaches, apricots, and excellent pears. I have eaten more fruit this season, than I have done for several years. There are many well-cultivated gardens in the skirts of the town; particularly one belonging to our friend Mrs. B — where we often drink tea in a charming summer-house built on a rising ground, which commands a delightful prospect of the sea. We have many obligations to this good lady, who is a kind neighbour, an obliging friend, and a most agreeable companion: she speaks English prettily, and is greatly attached to the people and the customs of our nation. They use wood for their common fewel, though, if I were to live at Boulogne, I would mix it with coal, which this country affords. Both the wood and the coal are reasonable enough. I am certain that a man may keep house in Boulogne for about one half of what it will cost him in London; and this is said to be one of the dearest places in France.

The adjacent country is very agreeable, diversified with hill and dale, corn-fields, woods, and meadows. There is a forest of a considerable extent, that begins about a short league from the Upper Town: it belongs to the king, and the wood is farmed to different individuals.

In point of agriculture, the people in this neighbourhood seem to have profited by the example of the English. Since I was last in France, fifteen years ago, a good number of inclosures and plantations have been made in the English fashion. There is a good many tolerable country-houses, within a few miles of Boulogne; but mostly empty. I was offered a compleat house, with a garden of four acres well laid out, and two fields for grass or hay, about a mile from the town, for four hundred livres, about seventeen pounds a year: it is partly furnished, stands in an agreeable situation, with a fine prospect of the sea, and was lately occupied by a Scotch nobleman, who is in the service of France.

To judge from appearance, the people of Boulogne are descended from the Flemings, who formerly possessed this country; for, a great many of the present inhabitants have fine skins, fair hair, and florid complexions; very different from the natives of France in general, who are distinguished by black hair, brown skins, and swarthy faces. The people of the Boulonnois enjoy some extraordinary privileges, and, in particular, are exempted from the gabelle or duties upon salt: how they deserved this mark of favour, I do not know; but they seem to have a spirit of independence among them, are very ferocious, and much addicted to revenge. Many barbarous murders are committed, both in the town and country; and the peasants, from motives of envy and resentment, frequently set their neighbours’ houses on fire. Several instances of this kind have happened in the course of the last year. The interruption which is given, in arbitrary governments, to the administration of justice, by the interposition of the great, has always a bad effect upon the morals of the common people. The peasants too are often rendered desperate and savage, by the misery they suffer from the oppression and tyranny of their landlords. In this neighbourhood the labouring people are ill lodged and wretchedly fed; and they have no idea of cleanliness. There is a substantial burgher in the High Town, who was some years ago convicted of a most barbarous murder. He received sentence to be broke alive upon the wheel; but was pardoned by the interposition of the governor of the county, and carries on his business as usual in the face of the whole community. A furious abbe, being refused orders by the bishop, on account of his irregular life, took an opportunity to stab the prelate with a knife, one Sunday, as he walked out of the cathedral. The good bishop desired he might be permitted to escape; but it was thought proper to punish, with the utmost severity, such an atrocious attempt. He was accordingly apprehended, and, though the wound was not mortal, condemned to be broke. When this dreadful sentence was executed, he cried out, that it was hard he should undergo such torments, for having wounded a worthless priest, by whom he had been injured, while such-a-one (naming the burgher mentioned above) lived in ease and security, after having brutally murdered a poor man, and a helpless woman big with child, who had not given him the least provocation.

The inhabitants of Boulogne may be divided into three classes; the noblesse or gentry, the burghers, and the canaille. I don’t mention the clergy, and the people belonging to the law, because I shall occasionally trouble you with my thoughts upon the religion and ecclesiastics of this country; and as for the lawyers, exclusive of their profession, they may be considered as belonging to one or other of these divisions. The noblesse are vain, proud, poor, and slothful. Very few of them have above six thousand livres a year, which may amount to about two hundred and fifty pounds sterling; and many of them have not half this revenue. I think there is one heiress, said to be worth one hundred thousand livres, about four thousand two hundred pounds; but then her jewels, her cloaths, and even her linen, are reckoned part of this fortune. The noblesse have not the common sense to reside at their houses in the country, where, by farming their own grounds, they might live at a small expence, and improve their estates at the same time. They allow their country houses to go to decay, and their gardens and fields to waste; and reside in dark holes in the Upper Town of Boulogne without light, air, or convenience. There they starve within doors, that they may have wherewithal to purchase fine cloaths, and appear dressed once a day in the church, or on the rampart. They have no education, no taste for reading, no housewifery, nor indeed any earthly occupation, but that of dressing their hair, and adorning their bodies. They hate walking, and would never go abroad, if they were not stimulated by the vanity of being seen. I ought to except indeed those who turn devotees, and spend the greatest part of their time with the priest, either at church or in their own houses. Other amusements they have none in this place, except private parties of card-playing, which are far from being expensive. Nothing can be more parsimonious than the oeconomy of these people: they live upon soupe and bouille, fish and sallad: they never think of giving dinners, or entertaining their friends; they even save the expence of coffee and tea, though both are very cheap at Boulogne. They presume that every person drinks coffee at home, immediately after dinner, which is always over by one o’clock; and, in lieu of tea in the afternoon, they treat with a glass of sherbet, or capillaire. In a word, I know not a more insignificant set of mortals than the noblesse of Boulogne; helpless in themselves, and useless to the community; without dignity, sense, or sentiment; contemptible from pride. and ridiculous from vanity. They pretend to be jealous of their rank, and will entertain no correspondence with the merchants, whom they term plebeians. They likewise keep at a great distance from strangers, on pretence of a delicacy in the article of punctilio: but, as I am informed, this stateliness is in a great measure affected, in order to conceal their poverty, which would appear to greater disadvantage, if they admitted of a more familiar communication. Considering the vivacity of the French people, one would imagine they could not possibly lead such an insipid life, altogether unanimated by society, or diversion. True it is, the only profane diversions of this place are a puppet-show and a mountebank; but then their religion affords a perpetual comedy. Their high masses, their feasts, their processions, their pilgrimages, confessions, images, tapers, robes, incense, benedictions, spectacles, representations, and innumerable ceremonies, which revolve almost incessantly, furnish a variety of entertainment from one end of the year to the other. If superstition implies fear, never was a word more misapplied than it is to the mummery of the religion of Rome. The people are so far from being impressed with awe and religious terror by this sort of machinery, that it amuses their imaginations in the most agreeable manner, and keeps them always in good humour. A Roman catholic longs as impatiently for the festival of St. Suaire, or St. Croix, or St. Veronique, as a schoolboy in England for the representation of punch and the devil; and there is generally as much laughing at one farce as at the other. Even when the descent from the cross is acted, in the holy week, with all the circumstances that ought naturally to inspire the gravest sentiments, if you cast your eyes among the multitude that croud the place, you will not discover one melancholy face: all is prattling, tittering, or laughing; and ten to one but you perceive a number of them employed in hissing the female who personates the Virgin Mary. And here it may not be amiss to observe, that the Roman catholics, not content with the infinite number of saints who really existed, have not only personified the cross, but made two female saints out of a piece of linen. Veronique, or Veronica, is no other than a corruption of vera icon, or vera effigies, said to be the exact representation of our Saviour’s face, impressed upon a piece of linen, with which he wiped the sweat from his forehead in his way to the place of crucifixion. The same is worshipped under the name of St. Suaire, from the Latin word sudarium. This same handkerchief is said to have had three folds, on every one of which was the impression: one of these remains at Jerusalem, a second was brought to Rome, and a third was conveyed to Spain. Baronius says, there is a very antient history of the sancta facies in the Vatican. Tillemont, however, looks upon the whole as a fable. Some suppose Veronica to be the same with St. Haemorrhoissa, the patroness of those who are afflicted with the piles, who make their joint invocations to her and St. Fiacre, the son of a Scotch king, who lived and died a hermit in France. The troops of Henry V. of England are said to have pillaged the chapel of this Highland saint; who, in revenge, assisted his countrymen, in the French service, to defeat the English at Bauge, and afterwards afflicted Henry with the piles, of which he died. This prince complained, that he was not only plagued by the living Scots, but even persecuted by those who were dead.

I know not whether I may be allowed to compare the Romish religion to comedy, and Calvinism to tragedy. The first amuses the senses, and excites ideas of mirth and good-humour; the other, like tragedy, deals in the passions of terror and pity. Step into a conventicle of dissenters, you will, ten to one, hear the minister holding forth upon the sufferings of Christ, or the torments of hell, and see many marks of religious horror in the faces of the hearers. This is perhaps one reason why the reformation did not succeed in France, among a volatile, giddy, unthinking people, shocked at the mortified appearances of the Calvinists; and accounts for its rapid progress among nations of a more melancholy turn of character and complexion: for, in the conversion of the multitude, reason is generally out of the question. Even the penance imposed upon the catholics is little more than mock mortification: a murderer is often quit with his confessor for saying three prayers extraordinary; and these easy terms, on which absolution is obtained, certainly encourage the repetition of the most enormous crimes. The pomp and ceremonies of this religion, together with the great number of holidays they observe, howsoever they may keep up the spirits of the commonalty, and help to diminish the sense of their own misery, must certainly, at the same time, produce a frivolous taste for frippery and shew, and encourage a habit of idleness, to which I, in a great measure, ascribe the extreme poverty of the lower people. Very near half of their time, which might he profitably employed in the exercise of industry, is lost to themselves and the community, in attendance upon the different exhibitions of religious mummery.

But as this letter has already run to an unconscionable length, I shall defer, till another occasion, what I have further to say on the people of this place, and in the mean time assure you, that I am always — Yours affectionately.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30