Vidal de la Blache, Paul

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Vidal de la Blache, Paul


Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) was one of the most important pioneers of modern geography. It was he who created a place for human geography among the sciences of man and became the leader of the French school of geography. He was not, however, predisposed to the building of systems; indeed, the components of his conception of geography are scattered in journal articles, in several books, in the preface to an atlas, and in a posthumous, incomplete work. His name remains connected with the Annales de geographic, which he founded, and with the multivolume Geographic universelle (1927-1948), which he had planned before his death and for which he had chosen the contributors. (After Vidal died, Lucien Gallois, who had participated with him in the planning of the work, assumed responsibility for its execution.) It was through his teaching and through his disciples, at least as much as through his written work, that Vidal exerted his influence.

Vidal initially acquired a scholarly reputation as a historian of antiquity, and as such he visited Rome and Athens; these visits undoubtedly influenced his later work as a geographer in that they revealed to him the richness and complexity of landscapes that had been radically changed by human actions. At the time that he was still primarily a historian, he was attracted by the then recent books of certain German geographers, naturalists, botanists, and geologists, including works by the Humboldts, Ratzel, and Haeckel. From them he acquired the sense of a close link between human societies and their natural milieus. Vidal was concerned that geographers be trained in geology; he also emphasized the necessity of considering the major bioclimatic zones and the importance of ecology for geography. Since Vidal added these insights gradually to his basically historical outlook, his ideas underwent progressive elaboration, revision, and refinement.

In the Preface to his Atlas (1894), Vidal asserted that “considered in isolation, the features that go to make up the physiognomy of the countryside are significant as facts; only when they are related to the chain of events of which they are a part do they become significant as scientific ideas.” Each fact in isolation depends on a specialized discipline, but the totality of facts, which makes up the characteristics of a landscape, is the geographer’s field of interest par excellence.

Vidal urged that it is necessary to “go even further and to recognize that no single part of the earth has significance in and of itself” and, therefore, to find in a sequence of events “a manifestation of the general laws of the terrestrial organism.” It was in such elegant phrases that Vidal defined the scope of both regional and general geography.

At the time that Vidal wrote the Preface to the Atlas, he still attributed primary importance to the physical elements of the landscape. Later he sought also to demonstrate the role of man as a geographical factor and the perpetual play of action, reaction, and interaction between human groups and their natural milieus. Wherever there are, or have been, human societies, the landscape is not merely the product of a sequence of natural events but is also the work of men. Each successive group inhabiting a particular region has left its mark there, thus bequeathing to its successors new conditions of existence. Each group, with its particular habits, techniques, and social, economic, and psychological structures, deals in its own way with the problems set by the milieu.

Perhaps the key phrase in VidaFs work is “Whatever concerns man is marked by contingency” ("Tout ce qui touche l’homme est frappe de con-tingence"). If this statement is characteristic of Western thought in general at the beginning of the twentieth century, it must nevertheless not be forgotten how new such ideas were in Vidal’s time. It meant breaking with the excessive determinism of the nineteenth century, putting knowledge of human societies on a level with knowledge of natural milieus, and asserting that the social facts that intervene between geographic conditions and man’s behavior are no less important than natural facts.

It is by studying a variety of ways of life and a variety of regions that the geographer can best perform his task, which is to study particular localities. Vidal stressed that the opportunities offered by a given locality may be exploited in different ways by different inhabitants; the geographer must not assume that a given environment implies a particular way of life but rather must consider the gradual modifications that the environment has undergone as a result of successive ways of life.

Vidal demonstrated his method when he presented a “geographical picture of France” in the first volume of a general history (1903b). No one has better depicted the subtlest variations in the landscapes of the regions of France and the related subtle variations in the common national way of life. To be sure, no country lends itself better than France to the reflections of a historian turned geographer. Yet Vidal wrote with equal penetration on the cities of the New World, which he regarded as the “most perfect expression of Americanism.” Again, steeped though he was in the history of particular regions, such as the French provinces or the shores of the Mediterranean, he was nevertheless one of the first to stress the importance of establishing the role of trade and travel if one is to understand a region.

Vidal broadened the horizons of human geography and made a place for it among the social sciences. Historians as well as geographers and sociologists have profited from his intellectual legacy. The work of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch stems directly from that of Vidal. Febvre did not entirely accept Vidal’s ideas, but he stressed their significance for an understanding of the earth and of human development. Bloch’s researches in agrarian history are largely extensions by a historian of the ideas of a geographer. Although today Vidal’s works are somewhat neglected, the best geographers and historians are Vidalians unawares.

Pierre Monbeig

[For the historical context of Vidal de la Blache’s work, see the biographies ofHumboldtandRatzel; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeGeography, especially the article onSocial geography; and the biographies ofBlockandFebvre.]


(1894) 1922 Histoire et géographie: Atlas général. New ed. Paris: Colin.

1896 Le principe de la géographie générate. Annales de géographie 5:129-142.

1898 La géographie politique à propos des écrits de Frédéric Ratzel. Annales de géographie 7:97-111.

1902 Les conditions géographiques des faits sociaux. Annales de géographie 11:13-23.

1903a La géographie humaine: Ses rapports avec la géographie de la vie. Revue de synthèse historique 7:219-240.

1903b Tableau de la géographie de la France. Volume 1, part 1 in Ernest Lavisse, Histoire de France depuis les origines jusqu’à la Révolution. Paris: Hachette. → Vidal’s essay was partially translated in 1928 as The Personality of France.

1910 Les régions françaises. Revue de Paris 16:821-849.

1911 Les genres de vie dans la géographie humaine. Annales de géographie 20:193-212, 289-304.

1913 Des caractères distinctifs de la géographie. Annales de géographie 22:289-299.

1917 La France de Vest: Lorraine, Alsace. Paris: Colin. (1922) 1926 Principles of Human Géography. New York: Holt. → First published posthumously as Principes de géographie humaine.

1927-1948 Géographie universelle. 15 vols. Published under the direction of Paul Vidal de la Blache and Lucien Gallois. Paris: Colin.

Paul Vidal de La Blache

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Paul Vidal de La Blache




Academic Positions. Paul Vidal de La Blache was born in a small village in Mediterranean France, the son of a French high-school language teacher. He graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1866 and taught in Athens, Greece, for four years before gaining his doctorate in History at the University of Paris in 1872. That year Vidal de La Blache accepted a post as professor of history and geography at the University of Nancy. While there he traveled frequently in Germany, where academic geography was much better established. In 1877 he accepted the new position in geography at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. While there he was a co-founder of the academic journal Annales de Géographie and author of Histoire et Géographie: Atlas Général (1894). In 1898 Vidal de La Blache attained a chair in geography at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne). In 1903 his classic Tableau de la Géographie de la France was published; Principles of Human Geography appeared in print posthumously in 1922.

Annales School. Vidal de La Blache was the founder of academic geography in France. In addition, his students were leaders of the second generation of professional French geographers. These students as well as their teacher were inspirational in starting the Annales school of French historiography, which emerged with the journal Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations in 1929 under the leadership of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. The emphasis upon the foundational importance of geography on historical inquiry received its greatest champion in the Annaliste historian Fernand Braudel. Vidal de La Blache developed the idea of “possibilism” with regard to environmental influence on humans, allowing an escape from environmental determinism. His concept of genre de vie emphasized the ecological view of man, similar to Alexander von Humboldt’s geographical vision. As Vidal de La Blache wrote in Tableau

A geographical identity does not result from simple considerations of geology and climate. It is not a thing endowed in advance by nature. We must abandon the idea that a country is a reservoir of dormant energies created by nature, waiting for man to employ them. It is man who, in bending those resources to his own ends, brings to light the geographic identity of a country. He establishes a connection between unrelated traits; on the incoherent effects of local circumstance, he imposes a systematic order. It is thus that a country comes to be defined and differentiated, and becomes at long last like a medallion engraved with the effigy of a people.

Braudel praised Vidal de La Blache in volume one of The Identity of France (1986). In fact, the last one-third of this classic text is called “Was France Invented By Its Geography?”, and it is devoted to answering Vidal de La Blache’s call for an investigation of the “possible” Frances. Braudel’s answer is in accord with Vidal de La Blache’s teaching: emphatically no!


Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France. Volume One: History and Environment (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Anne Buttimer, Society and Milieu in the French Geographic Tradition (Chicago: Association of American Geographers, 1971).

Paul Vidal de La Blache, Principles of Human Geography, translated by Millicent Todd Bingham (New York: Holt, 1926).

Paul Vidal de la Blache

views updated Jun 11 2018

Paul Vidal de la Blache

Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) was the founder of the modern French school of geography through his writings on human and regional geography and his remarkable "Atlas, " first published in 1894.

Anative of Mediterranean France, Paul Vidal de la Blache was born at Pézenas, Hérault, on Jan. 22, 1845. After his course in history and geography at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he went to the École Française in Athens and during the next three years traveled widely in the Mediterranean. He spent long periods in Rome, became familiar with the Balkan peninsula (then under Turkish rule), visited Syria and Palestine, and was present at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Vidal de la Blache's first published works were on classical subjects. On his return to France, after a short period of teaching at Angers, he joined the staff of the the E Faculté des Lettres at the University of Nancy, but he went to the Sorbonne in 1877. His first directly geographical publication was an article in 1877, on the first census of India, taken in 1871. It shows an appreciation of the influence of social traditions and aptitudes as well as of physical environment on population distribution.

Other articles and school textbooks followed during the 1880s. Subjects ranged from studies of the regional units, or pays, of the French countryside to the effects of the Mediterranean climate on its inhabitants and of the great migrations of people at various stages in history. The Atlas général Vidal-Lablache, with its history and geography sections, first appeared in 1894 and is still in print. In preparation for 10 years, it opened a fascinating panorama of human history in relation to the physical environment. Vidal de la Blache was one of the founders of the great Annales de géographie (1892), and in 1903 his Tableau de la géographie de la France appeared. The first volume of Ernest Lavisse's Histoire de France, it is a perspicacious study of the regional variety of France and of the place of each pays in the whole.

For over 30 years Vidal de la Blache meditated on the problem of the eastern frontier of France. This interest was deepened by his years at Nancy and led to the publication of La France de l'est in 1917. Vidal de la Blache died on April 5, 1918, at Tamaris-sur-Mer, Var.

Further Reading

Thomas W. Freeman, The Geographer's Craft (1967), includes a biographical chapter on Vidal de la Blache, and Robert E. Dickinson, The Makers of Modern Geography (1969), devotes a chapter to him. Vidal's influence on British geography is discussed in G. R. Crone, Modern Geographers: An Outline of Progress in Geography since A.D. 1800 (1951; rev. ed. 1970). For general background see Griffith Taylor, ed., Geography in the Twentieth Century (1951; 3d rev. ed. 1957), and Thomas W. Freeman, A Hundred Years of Geography (1961; repr. 1971). □

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