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This time when we hated the beach

Every summer, millions of vacationers flock to French beaches. The coastline would even be the first tourist destination » of the hexagon. The sea — its blue waves and fine sand — has imposed itself as the Epinal image of summer travel. But it has not always been so. This is what Alain Corbin tells us, in a book to slip into your suitcase.

The territory of the void appeared in 1988, but it hasn’t aged a bit. Hardly a laughing stock. The author, a pioneering historian of sensibilities, tells us about the emergence of longing for the shore » In Occident. Because for a long time a blanket of repulsive images » took our ancestors away from the coasts. In classic, very pious European societies, the ocean, menacing relic of the flood »appeared as the instrument of divine punishment ».

The sea was long imagined as a territory full of monsters, as in this map by Sebastian Münster made around 1544. Public domain

We feared its storms, its outbursts, its abyssal monsters. Corbin relates that the Portuguese sailors of the XVIᵉ century immersed relics in the waves. The Christian Apocalypse added to an ancient mistrust of the shore. Ulysses, Aeneas… so many heroes tossed about by the waves. a shore haunted by the possible irruption of the monster, by the brutal incursion of the strangerdescribes Corbin. He [était] the natural place of unexpected violence. »

But from the XVIIᵉ century, a reversal was inaugurated which was going to authorize a new look ». The mysteries of the ocean were fading, thanks to progress in oceanography, especially in England. In France, a group of so-called Baroque poets sketched in their verses the joy that the seaside brought.

No pleasure can touch me

Force me to go to bed

on the grass of a cliff

where my mourning letting itself be charred

Let me dream at my ease

On the majesty of the sea


In 1628, the poet Saint-Amant took up residence on the wild coast of Belle-Île (Morbihan). Reading, writing, boat fishing, rabbit hunting on the shore, meditative walks. The shore then emerged as a place of retreat and contemplation.

At the turn of XVIIIᵉ century, another phenomenon revived the interest of the dominant classes for the sea. At that time, many young nobles and bourgeois undertook voyages, with two favorite destinations: Holland (yes yes !) and Italy. The first attracted people for its political innovation – it was then a question of the young republic of the United Provinces – the second for the return to (antique) roots. In both cases, the aristocrats took admiration for the coast. The Hague was described as the most beautiful village in Europe »and the Netherlands considered as a land blessed by the Creator ».

The recourse opposed to the misdeeds of civilization »

Everything was therefore in place for a changeover. Between 1750 and 1840 analyzes Corbin, the ribs [apparurent] as the recourse opposed to the misdeeds of civilization ». With one main effect: the rush of spa guests to the shores. Long before our modern depression, spleen and melancholy imposed themselves as the troubles of the Age of Enlightenment. First in England, among the Anglican aristocracy threatened in its political and social power [1]… then everywhere in Europe. Nerves, vapour, hysteria, nymphomania made their appearance in good society corseted by patriarchy.

For great evils, great remedies: a whole medical discourse was then forged on the benefits of the ocean to counter the urban pathologies » : A link is [noua] between disgust for the city that has become sticky and the desire for a shore », writes Corbin. The sea took recourse, it was expected to harden bodies and soothe souls. A certain Doctor Buchan wrote thus, in 1804: The seaside vacation ensures the young girl a serene puberty, curbs the passions of sex and prevents the effeminization of men who are not very virile. » Extensive program.

Calais Sands at Low Water – Poissards Collecting Bait, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1832. CC BYCNn/a / Bury Art Museum

Therapies, sometimes of shock, developed. Especially for women and young girls. We practiced brutal immersion in the sea, with a swimmer guide » who plunged his client at the exact moment the wave broke, and held her head down in order to increase the suffocation. Remember that on the shores of the North Sea and the English Channel, the water did not exceed 14°C. All this for Harden », so. The men, on the other hand, swam.

The birth of aristo-style sea bathing took place, of course, with respect for good morals: people bathed in thick woolen dresses, and went to the beaches in bath cars ». Be careful, the nobles did not invent bathing ! The people of the shores had already practiced swimming for a long time, but in a festive and collective way. Every year, the villagers of the Basque Country came down from the mountain to dive into the waves.

Testing the body, extirpating desires

At the edge of the sea, sheltered from the therapeutic alibi, in the thrill of immersion that mixes pleasure with the pain of suffocation, [construisit] a new economy of sensationsdescribes the historian. here [s’élabora] aimed at leisure classes, a new way of experiencing your body by trying to eradicate the desires that disturb it. »

Shortly after, the romantics exalted this sensual and emotional dimension of the shore. Chateaubriand, Hugo, Balzac, Byron. For them, the individual does not [venait] no longer admire the limits imposed by God on the power of the ocean ; in search of himself, he [espérait] to discover or find oneself there »Corbin tells us.

From spontaneous fun to rational equipment

The shore was developed to become a place of recreation. Alongside the strike workers—fishermen, seaweed gatherers—was a whole bourgeois outfit. Tea rooms, bookstores, casinos, bathing establishments. A new social life flourished there: people came there to meet prominent people, to look for a good match. The holiday resort is massive, democratized »… in a certain way. It is necessary to distinguish the natural places where [déployaient] a spontaneous and often popular pleasure and the rational equipment of beaches intended for a distinguished public, with carefully guided, controlled and magnified emotions », recalls Corbin. From a hostile shore, void territory »the modern beach was born.

Corbin’s book therefore stops in the middle of the XIXᵉ century. We know what happened next: seaside resorts gradually spread all along the coast. With the advent of paid holidays, the working classes were also able to taste the pleasure of sea bathing. The French coasts are now largely urbanized, even concreted. But will climatic and ecological upheavals once again reverse the trend? ? Submersion, fire, proliferation of jellyfish… Tomorrow, will we once again have to move away from a shore that has become inhospitable again? ?

The territory of the voidby Alain Corbin, published by Flammarion, new edition January 2018, 416 p., 10 euros.

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