Transcript for Episode 416: The Life and Times of Jean-François Champollion

Category: French History

[00:00:00] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 416, quatre cent seize.

[00:00:23] Annie Sargent: Bonjour, I’m Annie Sargent and Join Us in France is the podcast where we talk about France. Everyday life in France, great places to visit in France, French culture, history, gastronomy and news related to travel to France.

[00:00:38] Today on the podcast

[00:00:38] Annie Sargent: Today I bring you a conversation with Elyse Riven of Toulouse Guided Walks about Jean Francois Champollion, the man who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics.

[00:00:49] We talk about the places he lived, the positions he held and how he became obsessed with languages. I think the period of the late 1700s and early 1800s were a fascinating time in French history and this episode will help you see why.

[00:01:08] Annie Sargent: For the travel update today I’ll tell you about Christmas in Paris for 2022, when the decorations and celebrations are going to start at the Gallery Lafayette, Printemps, and other delicious tidbits about Christmas.

[00:01:23] Podcast supporters

[00:01:23] Annie Sargent: This podcast is supported by donors and listeners who buy my tours and services, including my Itinerary Consult Service and my GPS self-guided tours of Paris on the VoiceMap app. And you can browse all of that at my boutique

[00:01:41] Annie’s Cookbook: Join Us at the Table

[00:01:41] Annie Sargent: I have not mentioned my cookbook, Join us at the Table for quite a while. If you’re looking for inspiration for your Thanksgiving table, there are several French favorites you could add to your traditional Thanksgiving lineup. And you can get the book on Kindle, which means it’ll get delivered immediately. And if you’re looking for a gift for francophiles around you consider gifting them this cookbook, I think they will enjoy the recipes.

[00:02:08] Annie Sargent: You know, the simple favorites you enjoy while you are in France, like Salade de Chèvre Chaud. One of the people who reviewed the book on Amazon said, “Who knew French cooking could be this easy? It feels like cooking with a friend to explain things as you go. Tasty comfort food with a little French chic”. Thank you so much, Katherine for leaving that review on Amazon. French food does not have to be complicated. Regular French cooks, like me, cook for flavor and comfort, and we are not competing to go on Top Chef. That’s my philosophy, anyway.

[00:02:49] Annie Sargent: Take a look at that at The cookbook is at the very top of the page.


[00:03:04] Annie Sargent: Bonjour Elyse!

[00:03:05] Elyse Rivin: Bonjour Annie!

[00:03:06] Annie Sargent: We want to talk about Mr. Jean Francois Champollion today.

[00:03:11] Elyse Rivin: Yes.

[00:03:12] Annie Sargent: A genius. We had an episode about Figeac, where he spent some of his life, but really, he deserves an episode all by himself because he was a really interesting person.

[00:03:24] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely fascinating.

[00:03:27] Places related to Champollion

[00:03:27] Perhaps we can start with the places in France where you can see stuff related to Champollion.

[00:03:33] Annie Sargent: There’s pretty much two big places. There’s Figeac, which we already did an episode about. And in Figeac there’s a wonderful museum that would be of great interest to anybody who’s interested in linguistics because it’s the house where he lived. Well, it’s the house where his father had his bookstore, but it’s also museum to writing systems.

Bust of Champollion at the Louvre Museum

[00:03:58] Museum of Writing

[00:03:58] Elyse Rivin: It’s the museum, interestingly enough, it’s actually called the Museum of Writing, which I find fascinating. And it gives, obviously, it cannot show every writing system in the world, but it gives wonderful examples and explanations about many different writing systems.

[00:04:13] Elyse Rivin: And it’s devoted to this because this is what Champollion was really devoted to.

[00:04:19] Annie Sargent: Exactly. And the really interesting thing is that it’s a fairly recent thing, in around 1740,a linguist called William Warburton just started saying, look Hebrew was not invented by God, it’s people who spoke and somebody came up with a writing system based on what he heard.

[00:04:43] Annie Sargent: Right. And this was not widely accepted untilWilliam Warburton. So they had a long way to go.

[00:04:49] Annie Sargent: Yes. It’s interesting because the 18th century though, the 1700s, it’s probably, you know, we call it the Age of Enlightenment for a lot of reasons, but it seems to be the time when the idea that things evolved started to be used in various scientific circles. It included of course, the linguistic studies because as you say, up until that time, people believed things just sort of spontaneously existed, they didn’t come out of something. And at the same time, I think from the Romans on, people were fascinated by these ancient things they found for instance in Egypt and with these designs, these drawings, whatever you want to call them, that were on them. And then there was an enormous amount of debate whether you could consider that to be a language or not. And all of this is in an age when intellectual ideas are starting to develop very much so. Right. So Figeac, and if you go to that museum, you should probably plan on spending at least a couple of hours because it’s not a large museum, but it is really fascinating, especially if you’re interested in languages and how writing systems evolved over time.

[00:06:01] Museum in Vif

[00:06:01] Annie Sargent: And the other one is in Vif, which is near Grenoble, and that’s another, I haven’t seen this one, have you?

[00:06:10] Elyse Rivin: No. I just went online to look at a couple of sites because it’s just again, been reopened.

[00:06:16] Elyse Rivin: It was closed. It happens that it was the home of his older brother who had a very important role in his life. It’s been turned into a museum. It was closed for a while. I don’t know if it was because there were structural problems, but it has just recently been reopened and it is filled with memorabilia and things about the lives of Jean Francois Champollion and his brother, and it is free. It’s a, I think a municipal museum right now, and so it is open to the public six days a week. It would probably be very interesting to visit, I’ve never been there.

[00:06:50] Annie Sargent: Right. Perhaps one day.

[00:06:53] Elyse Rivin: Perhaps one day, exactly.Just to add about Figeac, from where we are it’s a good trot. I mean, it’s a good two and a half hours because Figeac is a very beautiful, small, little town with lots of old Renaissance and medieval houses, but it’s kind of off any major auto route or anything.

[00:07:09] Elyse Rivin: So unless you’re coming from someplace very close by, it’s a nice place to stay, actually. You can have an evening there and just go off somewhere exploring in the Lot afterwards because it’s the eastern extreme of the Lot department.

[00:07:23] Annie Sargent: Right. It’s a lovely little town but yeah, it takes a long time to drive there from Toulouse.

[00:07:28] Annie Sargent: All right, let’s talk about Mr. Champollion, his extraordinary discovery.

[00:07:32] Early Childhood

[00:07:32] I’m fascinated by the, what his early childhood was like, and it made me thinkof all of these children that have trouble at school. He was born in 1790 and he was the youngest of eight children, andthere’s a story, there’s a legend that circulated that his mom who had him at menopausal age, I mean, she was 49 when she gave birth to him, that she had been told, I don’t know if this was one of those fabricated stories or if it was really true, but she had been told that she was going to have another child.

[00:08:05] Elyse Rivin: I’m sure by this time she probably didn’t want another child, and that this child was going to be very special.

[00:08:11] Elyse Rivin: And so indeed he was born in 1790 and he taught himself to read at the age of five. Now I know today, children learn letters and write their names and stuff like that at the age of five. It’s hard for me to figure out exactly what age we now learn what, you know.

[00:08:29] Elyse Rivin: But he sat there with a prayer book and taught himself to read at the age of five. That’s rather exceptional, I would think, you know?

[00:08:35] Annie Sargent: Right. And back then, because this was the time of the Revolution, the French Revolution,the teaching was not what it is today, obviously. For the most part, villages and cities like Figeac hired a teacher. There were no, no standards. It would be the mayor decided to hire a teacher and put him in front of a class. Sometimes it was the bishop who would hire a teacher, very often from the priests or the nuns. And so it was really disparate.

[00:09:08] And so you didn’t know what you got. And this was a family, I mean, several generations before Champollion, the family were sheep herders and they just married well. All the males in the family married women who had more money than they did, and you do this enough times, and his father married a woman because, so he was a farmhand during the growing season. And then in the winter months, he was a book seller. And he would go around, and he lived around the Grenoble area, and he would go around purchase books and sell them at variousmarkets.

[00:09:51] Annie Sargent: And then he realized that he was selling quite well when he went to Figeac. And so he kept going back to Figeac and he met this young lady and she had a big enough dowry that he was able to buy a store right downtown and open his own bookstore, and that’s when they settled. So growing up, Jean Francois Champollion was around books.

[00:10:14] Jean Francois Champollion and school

[00:10:14] Annie Sargent: He was around the idea that learning was important and that you had to learn as much as possible, and he just happened to be fascinated by languages.

[00:10:23] And he was obviously clearly very gifted. It’s also true, of course, at the time there was no such thing, there was school, but not everybody went to school.

[00:10:32] Elyse Rivin: In fact, it was a minority of people who went to school as such. And what happened apparently with him was that he was not exactly the most compliant child. All I could think of was, well, if you’re the last of eight and everybody loves you you’re not going to be easy to get along with, you know?

[00:10:48] His older brother

[00:10:48] And so, after they tried sending him to the local little school, and apparently, his lack of discipline really was pretty much the end of things. They decided to hire a tutor, but also his older brother, of all the brothers and sisters, he had one whose name was Jacque Joseph, and he was 12 years older than him.

[00:11:08] Elyse Rivin: And for some reason, I don’t know if it’s really clear, if there is some biographical information about that, but he kind of made him his surrogate dad. And see he was the one that took care of him and he was the one that started teaching him. When his family realized that he was not going to be able to stay in a school situation, in a group situation, they started hiring private tutors for him because they were able to.

[00:11:35] Annie Sargent: Right. And they put a big emphasis on learning.

[00:11:38] Annie Sargent: And then eventually, he moved to Grenoble with his brother.

[00:11:42] Elyse Rivin: With his brother who was already there.

[00:11:44] Annie Sargent: Right. And his brother was the librarian.

[00:11:48] Annie Sargent: And at the time, the librarian got paid, but anybody else who worked at the library did not. So he hired his brother to be his assistant, but never paid him.

[00:12:00] Annie Sargent: And that’s just how it worked at the time.

[00:12:02] Annie Sargent: But Jean Francois Champollion was quite happy to copy things. You gave him things and he would just copy them down. So it was a lot of learning that went through the hand as well, like eye to hand. And he was also taking art classes, and he tried to reproduce masterpieces.

[00:12:21] Annie Sargent: This was someone who was really always busy doing things, reproducing things, learning languages when he could. And his brother had a very strong interest in ancient languages and the languages of the Middle East.

[00:12:35] Interest in Languages and writing systems

[00:12:35] Elyse Rivin: Yes, it’s interesting. They called it, well, they still do in fact, in the school in Paris it’s called Les Langues Orientales, but in fact it’s not, it’s the Middle Eastern languages. This is the Les Langues O, I’ve heard people talk about it going to Les Langues O. His brother was already, and this was typical of someone who was well educated and who was interested in intellectual things, he had already learned Latin and Greek and Hebrew. And here is this kid who’s eight years old who’s starting to do the same thing and he starts to learn the rudiments of Arabic as well, which is of course, another writing system. You have Hebrew, which is another writing system, and Greek, which is another writing system. And so by the time he gets to Grenoble at the age of 10, he has already understood that there are many different writing systems, not just many different languages.

[00:13:27] Annie Sargent: And clearly, this was a major passion for him from when he was a small child. It’s really fascinating to me,learning languages is one thing, learning four or five different writing systems and figuring out your brain can handle all of that. That’s something else. Well, and to this day, in France, we have this tendency to learn languages based on writing.

[00:13:52] Which is what he did because he’d had to, he didn’t have a choice. It’s not like he could go to the Middle East to immerse himself and learn Arabic that way. He had to learn it from books and from newspapers and from publications, but he would seek out these really learned publications, because he was at a library, so the library would get a copy of it and he would read it and read it again and again until he got it.

[00:14:19] Annie Sargent: It’s really strange, you know?

[00:14:21] Elyse Rivin: It’s very strange, but it’s also, of course, it was very typical at the time, and I find it really interesting too. You mentioned the way a town would hire a teacher that, in fact, in his life until he reached the age where he was more or less independent intellectually, the most important tutors he had besides his brother were members of the church. They were monks or they were abbots and they were very learned people who spoke and read many different languages. And it’s interesting that he followed in the footsteps of his brother whose passion had become the Orient or Middle East and archeology, and decided that he was interested in the same thing.

[00:15:02] Elyse Rivin: So great, there was a real symbiosis between the two brothers, obviously. And then, by the time he was 14, he had learned so many of these different languages, that he was able to make a decision himself about what he wanted to do.

[00:15:19] Annie Sargent: Right.

[00:15:20] Annie Sargent: And he decided, well, okay, I should also add a little bit of local culture.

[00:15:26] Annie Sargent: The Champollion brothers, his brother had also married well. His father-in-law was the mayor of Grenoble and so they were introduced to, you know, in high society, to all the people who mattered. And so imagine this well-dressed young man and his new wife being invited to all these dinner parties, and anybody who came through who was important, they would get to meet. And this young kid who was like a whizbang kind of kid, could start saying things in foreign languages and he would just amaze people. And eventually he just, it was all agreed that he should go to Paris to learn with other people who were teaching these subjects.

[00:16:11] Annie Sargent: Because he was self-taught up until then, well, self-taught with the help of other people, obviously.

[00:16:16] Elyse Rivin: With the help of these tutors, but what the passion or the obsession, whichever you want to call it, that he developed for these particular languages, that besides the fact that of course it was common for most learned people to have learned Latin and classical Greek.

[00:16:30] Elyse Rivin: But he learnedSyriac, a language called Chaldeen, which is also another language that comes from the Middle East. He learned a little bit of Amharic, which is the ancient language of the Ethiopians, and all of these languages have a different writing system. And of course, he became fluent in Copte Greek.

[00:16:49] Elyse Rivin: And because his brother had developed an interest in Egypt, he followed suit. But he really decided that to, there’s a letter he wrote to his parents when he was 16, where he simply announced that working on Ancient Egypt and trying to decipher the hieroglyphs was going to be his life’s work.

[00:17:09] And it was indeed his life’s work. And in the process of doing that, he became fluent in Copte Greek. I don’t know how many people know this, but the last 300 years BC in Egypt, the rulers were basically descendants of Alexander the Great. So the language of the people was actually Greek.

[00:17:28] Elyse Rivin: It was a form of Greek. But of course, there were all these other writings that they had and all these things that nobody could decipher. To me, what’s fascinating is that he so, so quickly decided this was what his life’s work was going to be, at the age of 16.

[00:17:45] Elyse Rivin: Do you imagine the kids we know today deciding something like that, I don’t think it would happen. I was listening to a radio program, a whole series about Champollion. And at age 12 he wrote to his brother in Grenoble and he said, I’m really bored at school. Could you please send me a, I think it’s a Hebrew grammar book that he wanted. And he had a French grammar book that he also wanted.

[00:18:09] Annie Sargent: So this 12 year old is say, I’m bored, sent me a Hebrew grammar book.

[00:18:15] Elyse Rivin: Well, they say that he was not very good at math, but in fact, all of the work that he did was deciphering. It was deciphering and it was like working with puzzles. And in some way, that is a form of mathematics because you have to deduce things.

[00:18:30] Elyse Rivin: You have to do comparative looking, and remember, and count syllables and signs and things like that. So it’s very interesting to me, because I identify totally with someone who’s not good at math or higher math, let’s put it that way, I mean I can add and divide,but you know, once you get to algebraic formulas and things like that, I break out in a cold sweat, you know?

[00:18:50] I am Egypt. Egypt is me.

[00:18:50] But his mind was a mind that used deduction and comparison, and that was the way he functioned his entire life. He said, I don’t know if it was in this famous letter that he wrote when he was 16, or perhaps later. I would guess more that it was later, but there’s a quote where he says: “I am Egypt. Egypt is me.”

[00:19:12] Elyse Rivin: And that’s fascinating to me. It’s like it really obsess, it was an obsession.

[00:19:16] The Egyptians wrote on everything

[00:19:16] If you think about it, Napoleon had been to Egypt, had brought back a lot of things when he was very young and he had access to reproductions or there were, I mean, photography was not, was too new, but reproduction and then, what they did is they would take paper mache, very wet paper, and press it against the monuments and let it dry out and then carefully peel it off, and then somebody would transcribe. And he had access to a lot of this type of material. And to him it was like all a big mystery and a huge civilization.

[00:19:57] Annie Sargent: And it’s also a whole kind of artsy world. I mean like, the beautiful stuff that the Egyptians did, the way they drew on monuments. And one of the specialists that I heard on the radio, he was saying, if you think about it, in Greece they have beautiful statues and beautiful columns and beautiful temples.

[00:20:19] Annie Sargent: But they did not write on them.

[00:20:22] Annie Sargent: The Egyptians wrote on everything, everything. And it’s a sort of writing that’s very pretty.It’s an art form, it’s really a difficult art form. And it was totally like nobody knew, because in Egypt, this system was so complicated…

[00:20:41] Annie Sargent: Well, the original hieroglyphs, well, perhaps you should explain this because you did a lot more, you looked into it a lot more, but they’re pictograms that also can be sounds.

[00:20:54] Elyse Rivin: Yes.

[00:20:54] Annie Sargent: They can be both.

[00:20:55] Which nobody knew at the time. It’s interesting that me with my art background, I hadn’t really thought at all about this in relation to arts.

[00:21:03] Elyse Rivin: This is very interesting listening to you because I’m really, I also am very interested in the history of languages, I’ve always been, I’ve always been fascinated by that. So it’s very strange and interesting to me that I’m really taking this from the linguistic point of view as opposed to the artistic point of view.

[00:21:21] Champollion gets a copy of the Rosetta Stone

[00:21:21] Elyse Rivin: Andit turns out, what I’ve been reading, is that his brother who was really fascinated by Egypt as well, he sent him a letter with, actually what you’re describing with the paper mache is what they call a rubbing. And he sent him a copy of this, when Jean Francois was 14 in 1804. We should really back up a little bit and explain, what he sent him a rubbing of was not just any old thing, it was piece of stone called the Rosetta Stone. And the Rosetta Stone was what is called a, stele, which is a vertical piece of stone. The term comes, I think from Greek because it was used for funeral purposes. But it’s basically a vertical piece of stone that’s relatively flat, not huge,that has writing on it.

[00:22:04] Elyse Rivin: And this piece of stone was discovered by the French army when Napoleon had his Egyptian campaign in the town of Roset, which is actually on the coast, not far from Alexandria.

[00:22:18] Elyse Rivin: And the stone was part of a pile of rubble, that was being used to help rebuild a fortification because they were at war with the English. And they knew that the English were going to come in their ships, and there was going to be a battle.

[00:22:32] Elyse Rivin: And, I don’t know if it was Napoleon himself or one of his generals, but they ordered the soldiers to start gathering all these pieces of stone together to reinforce what were crumbling fortifications. And in the process of doing so, they found this stone and the stone has writing on it. And somewhere, because in the Napoleon expedition there were something like 60 scientists, botanists,linguists, archeologists, kinds of people.

[00:22:59] Annie Sargent: And Champollion’s brother, the older brother, really, dearly wanted to be in that expedition but did not manage.

[00:23:07] Elyse Rivin: But did not manage. Well, I can imagine, it was like, it probably at the time was the equivalent of who’s going to go to the moon or something like that. But they at least had the intelligence to understand that what they had found was something that was of interest, of intellectual historical interest. And so they saved the stone. They did not use it for this wall, and they kept it. And the scientific group of the expedition did indeed understand that they have made a find. And the reason why is because there were others that they did find afterwards, but by looking at it, you can see that the writing on it is, there are three different kinds of writing on it. Even though it’s not complete, there are sections of it that are broken off. And so they kept it.

[00:23:51] Elyse Rivin: And because it was a very important intellectual discovery, the fact is they lost the battle of Abu to the English.

[00:23:59] Annie Sargent: They lost a lot of things.

[00:24:00] Elyse Rivin: They lost a lot of things, of course they did. They found it in 1799. They lost the battle. And in 1801 the English who had taken over in Egypt, they decided that it was theirs, and so it was taken by the English back to London where it is still in the British Museum, and it hasn’t left since 1801-1802.

[00:24:23] Elyse Rivin: But it was of such importance, and I think it was probably one of those enigmas that all of these linguists, including the French and the Germans were interested in, that there were many copies made.

[00:24:34] Elyse Rivin: And it was one of these famous copies that his brother sent to him when he was 14, and clearly, it went tilt in his brain.

[00:24:44] Elyse Rivin: I mean, this was something when he looked at it, not only was he already learning all of these Middle Eastern languages and was able to use them, read them and speak some of them, but his interest in the history of Egypt combined with the linguistic elements of what this was, this was the challenge for him.

[00:25:05] Elyse Rivin: This was the big challenge. It was trying to figure out like many other people were doing at the same time, how to figure out what does this say? Now, a lot of people could read the Greek part because the stone is in three sections. The one that is the most accessible is in Greek.

[00:25:20] Reading the Rosetta Stone

[00:25:20] Elyse Rivin: And it’s what’s called Copte Greek, because it was the Greek that was written and spoken in fact in Egypt. Just like the Copte religion is the Christian religion in Egypt.

[00:25:30] Elyse Rivin: And above it are two other sections. And one of them was, as you described, the beautiful hieroglyphics that everybody knows, with the pictures of the people with their heads turned sideways and the little cartouche and the birds and then whatever else is there.

[00:25:45] Annie Sargent: Yeah, It’s like everyday images of Life.

[00:25:49] Elyse Rivin: Of Life in Egypt.

[00:25:51] Annie Sargent: Right, so they would show temples, sometimes, they would show other monuments, sometimes they would draw men, women, children, animals of all sorts. It was really,I mean, a lot of people just assumed that it was ideograms and that

[00:26:06] Elyse Rivin: was it.

[00:26:06] And that’s, and a lot of so-called scholars were very angry with Champollion once he no, it’s not just ideographs. So of course, what made the stone though really interesting was that there was this third writing on the stone. So you have the hieroglyphs, which everybody had already seen, and as you say, most people thought it was just pictures.

[00:26:29] Oh, here’s a bird, here’s a house, here’s a this, here’s a that. But in between the two on the stone, there is this other writing that looks kind of like the hieroglyphics, but is simplified and that was the key. And so for Francois Champollion, his idea was, and it turned out to be the truth, it turned out to be this intuitive idea that he was able to finally work on, and of course this became his life’s accomplishment, was that middle language was somehow an evolution from the hieroglyphics moving to a simplified form, and therefore he thought, and this was one of the things that of course was argued enormously among all of these linguistic scholars, that indeed the hieroglyphics was not simply just a bunch of pretty little pictures, but was really a language and that it could be read.

[00:27:25] Elyse Rivin: And this was the great point of argument for so many of these scholars.

[00:27:31] Annie Sargent: Right, Right. And so this the second version, so the hieroglyphs, they are the ideograms like we mentioned, and then the second version is the demotics.

[00:27:42] Annie Sargent: Well, hieratic?

[00:27:43] Elyse Rivin: Well there are two. What you have on the stone is called, demotics.

[00:27:48] Annie Sargent: Okay. Yeah.

[00:27:48] Annie Sargent: So what I heard is that there are three version, well, actually four writing systems of Ancient Egyptian. The first is hieroglyphs, second is hieratic, which was a kind of a like shorthand.

[00:28:01] Annie Sargent: Like a cursive shorthand of the hieroglyphs. And then demotic, which was even more concentrated shorthand and more abstract and much more difficult to understand. And even, I mean, at the time, they figured that only perhaps 5% of people knew how to write this. And now we’re talking 2000 years before our common era so a long time ago.

[00:28:27] Annie Sargent: Only a small portion, and when they did learn it, they would learn demotic. And at some point, the link between demotic and hieroglyphs was lost. Only a few scribes knew what the original hieroglyphs, how to read them and that’s how it got lost.

[00:28:47] Annie Sargent: By the time Islam took over the area, there was no more interest in all of this, because this was clearly a religion that had several gods, Islam was a monotheistic religion, and people just lost interest. Even Egyptians, they didn’t know, they had no idea how to read this.

[00:29:05] Elyse Rivin: No, they had no idea how to read it. But this is why, but the other thing is that, it’s very, I think it’s fascinating that Champollion, who of course had all by this time, was able to read 10 or 12 of these Middle Eastern languages.

[00:29:18] He intuitively, decided or thought and had to prove two things. One, that the demotics was indeed simply an abstracted, simplified version of the hieroglyphics. That the hieroglyphics were not just pictures, but actually were telling a story, and that some of the imagery was a word in and of itself, and some of it was sounds. Which was something that nobody accepted as an idea. But he came up with even a third idea which he wound up proving of course, and that was that all three of the writings on the stone were saying the same thing.

[00:29:55] Elyse Rivin: And that there was a reason why it was written in three different writing systems. And this is what I think is so fascinating to me. It really is this idea of a puzzle that you work out.

[00:30:07] Elyse Rivin: It’s like the coders and the decoders in World War II. I mean, it’s this idea of how do you do this? How do you go from one to the other? And he had a lot of help. He had a lot of help from some other experts. He had a help froma copt monk who was very knowledgeable in demotics who had actually studied this as a linguistic thing, who could not understand the hieroglyphics, but he did have an idea of what the demotics were.

[00:30:30] Elyse Rivin: And so little by little, I saw a couple of quotes from Champollion where he said, all of this research that all these other people are doing, it’s fine, but they don’t get it, they just don’t get it, they don’t understand what they’re looking for, and I’m going to do all of this comparative work and I’m going to figure it out.

[00:30:49] Elyse Rivin: And I’m just fascinated by what his brain was like, that he was able to actually do this because people did not believe him. They did not believe that it was possible, that his ideas were correct and in fact of course, they were.

[00:31:03] Cracking open 3000 years of Egyptian history

[00:31:03] Annie Sargent: Yeah. And he cracked open 3000 years of history that nobody else could read. Imagine if today, somehow, so what sort of writing can, the writing that we see in caves. Well, it’s not really writing. It’s pictures. It’s symbols.

[00:31:21] Annie Sargent: It’s symbols. But I’ll give you one. The Mayan writing, there’s a writing system in the Mayan, in the Yucatán Peninsula. Nobody’s ever deciphered it.So if you decipher something like this, all of a sudden you open up all the history, because the Egyptian civilization was just extraordinary.

[00:31:37] Annie Sargent: Now it’s so far remote from us that, and it’s also a very aesthetically, it’s a very strong kind of visual. So you either like it or you don’t. Okay. I don’t think, because the Greeks became much later and they imposed a much simpler, less colorful vision of art. But the Egyptians, I mean, they wrote on everything.

[00:32:04] Annie Sargent: These people were obsessed with writing.

[00:32:06] Writing systems invented to bring Christianity to first peoples

[00:32:06] Annie Sargent: And they were obsessed with keeping track. So now we have people who can read this stuff and they kept track of all sorts of things. Now, it’s possible to have an advanced civilization without writing, okay, it happens. And as a matter of fact, a lot of missionaries in more recent past went to all these tribes and groups of people and tried to learn their languages and invented a writing system for them so that they could translate the Bible. And so they would invent the writing system, teach them how to read it, translate the Bible, and then make them read the Bible.

[00:32:44] Elyse Rivin: That was the whole point, right? And this happened in a lot of civilization that were very advanced civilization, but that never had thought to write.But the Egyptians, oh my goodness, they wrote on everything.It’s interesting that, how many times you’ve actually mentioned the idea that it’s art. I don’t even know, and I don’t know if anyone knows even, there were some wonderful Egyptian scholars who of course, have devoted their lives to this themselves.

[00:33:10] Elyse Rivin: But just like with the drawings in the prehistoric caves, we look at it and think of this as art, but I, it’s very questionable whether for them this was art or not. The fact is that they used color and they used all of this drawing, but most of it, interestingly enough, was for posterity. In other words, almost all of the writing, now, of course, this is what’s left, this is what we have found,most of it is in tombs, most of it’s onthe coffins of the mummified important people.

[00:33:38] Elyse Rivin: Most of it is the walls inside structures that are very ancient. So it’s clearly for posterity that they’ve done all of this communication, let’s put it that way, whatever it is. This idea of this combination of imagery and color, they did with a lot of color. But it’s very, it’s also very funny, I think, literally funny to know that, the stele, these stones like the Rosetta Stone, because they afterwards did find some others that have these three languages written on them, so this was not the only one. These were very much more mundane in terms of what they were talking about, because when he finally deciphered it and figured out what it said.

[00:34:18] Elyse Rivin: In fact it was, how they dated it I don’t know, the research says, everything about the Rosetta Stone says that it was made, maybe it’s on the stone itself, it says it was in 196 BC.

[00:34:30] Elyse Rivin: Okay? So this was under one of the Pharaohs whose Ptolemy V. This was the Greek dynasty that, that was the last dynasty of Pharaohs. And basically it says that he, the Pharaoh, Pharaon, I don’t even remember, which is English and which is French.

[00:34:47] He is exonerating the priests of the temples from paying taxes, whoopee, as long as they celebrate his reign and they honor him with special ceremonies, both during his lifetime and after his death. Andthe other stones have equivalent kinds of things on them once they were able to decipher them.

[00:35:12] Elyse Rivin: And it is a fact that all three of the texts basically say the same thing. And the difference is, and this was the other thing, I don’t know if it was totally him, Champollion himself who was able to figure this out, I don’t really remember, maybe you do.

[00:35:26] Elyse Rivin: But the hieroglyphics is the language of the gods.

[00:35:31] Elyse Rivin: The demotics, the simplified version, is the language of official documents. And the Greek is the language of the people. So there was something for everybody.

[00:35:42] Annie Sargent: Well, it’s not Greek, it’s Greek writing system.

[00:35:45] Elyse Rivin: It’s Greek writing system. It was the ancient copte.

[00:35:47] Annie Sargent: Yeah, they were speaking Egyptian,but they used the different writing system.

[00:35:51] Egyptomania in Europe

[00:35:51] Annie Sargent: It’s really interesting also, and probably this should be our last point, is that there was some sort of Egyptomania in France and all over Europe, in England as well. And you can see things that were, they introduced some of the Egyptian aesthetic in a lot of things in France.

[00:36:12] Annie Sargent: For instance, in Fontainebleau, Chateau de Fontainebleau, there is an Egyptian door, and so they just take, so it’s normally they would have caryatids Greek-looking caryatids, and then the top of the door. This one, it’s Egyptian-looking goddesses or whatever it is. They were fascinated and they introduced it. And even in everyday culture, so there’s one point in Le Malade Imaginaire, so that’s The imaginary invalid, so that’s a Molière play. At one point, the pedantic doctor wants to introduce his pedantic son, who’s also a doctor, so he will marry the imaginary invalid’s daughter. And the words that Molière puts in his mouth contain stuff like, blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s gibberish, he rattles off a lot of science, okay, just to be impressive. And he rattles off the names of Egyptian places and Egyptian pharaohs and whatever. It was like a way to make him sound stupid and pedantic.

[00:37:16] Elyse Rivin: Yeah. So even in normal French culture, regular people had heard of Egypt, knew that there were these fantastic monuments in Egypt and that Napoleon had gone and had brought back some stuff and or was gifted some stuff as well. This is a good time to repeat that the column on the Place de la Concorde he did not steal it, it was a gift.

[00:37:40] Elyse Rivin: Yes, and in fact, it’s thanks to Champollion that it is that column from Luxour because he was apparently going to take a different one. That was not one of the things that they took, it was one of the things they were given. Yeah. But Champollion found that the writing on this one, the one that is at the Place de la Concorde was much more interesting, and so he convinced the expedition to exchange it for the one that they were about to take. So that is the reason why it is in fact The Obélisques de Louxor of that is at the Place de la Concorde. It’s really interesting.

[00:38:16] Orientalism in art

[00:38:16] Elyse Rivin: You’re absolutely right. And it is also the beginning of the 1800s was the beginning of a movement in art, in painting called Orientalism, which lasted through the middle of the 1800s. And it was because with Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and with discoveries of a lot of things in North Africa, besides whatever they were doing in the Ottoman Empire, which is of, they were mostly clashes in that place.

[00:38:41] Elyse Rivin: But since the French were discovering a lot of things in North Africa, the exoticism of all of this was fascinating to the French. I think it was worth just mentioning the dates on some of this.

[00:38:53] The definitive translation of the Rosetta Stone

[00:38:53] Elyse Rivin: He published his findings on the Rosetta Stone in 1822.

[00:38:58] Elyse Rivin: He was 32 years old. He had been working on all of this basically, for two thirds of his life already at this point. This was the definitive description and translation of the Rosetta Stone.

[00:39:10] Elyse Rivin: He was so impressive that he was given Legion of Honor in 1825 by Charles X, who was the last of the Kings.

[00:39:22] Elyse Rivin: A year later he was the name Chief Curator of the Egyptian Collection of the Louvre. In 1828 going into 1829, he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of going to Egypt,which is when he actually saw these Obelisks and wrote back to the government and said no, no, no, no, you don’t take that one, you take this one. This one’s more interesting, I’ll be able to do more research on it. And the greatest honor he received actually, he was the proudest of it, believe it or not, was that in 1831 he was given the chair of the Department of Ancient Egypt at the College of France, where he had of course studied.

[00:39:58] Champollion assimilates Egyptian culture

[00:39:58] Annie Sargent: Yeah, and it’s funny because, I read about some of his time spent in Egypt, which was very late in his life because of course, he died young, but he could speak Arabic, apparently he started dressing like them.

[00:40:13] Annie Sargent: He would wear a side sword like they did. He grew a long beard, he spoke Arabic perfectly, and he just fit in. He went to mosque, he became one of them. And he had said, that’s what he wanted to do and that’s what he did. And of course, then he had a very untimely death, probably because of some parasite he contracted while in Egypt.

[00:40:39] He died at age 41. Some people say he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but they didn’t do an autopsy, so they wouldn’t know, really. It’s all conjecture.

[00:40:50] Annie Sargent: But unfortunately, he did not live to the fullest extent. I mean, he could have done so much more because, and he was really interested in teaching his theories and what he had discovered.

[00:41:01] Annie Sargent: And he didn’t get to do that for very long. But really, he has not been proved wrong about very much at all.

[00:41:10] Elyse Rivin: No, as far as I know, he hasn’t been proved wrong at all about any of his linguistic discoveries, and he really, he created the Study of Egyptology. He also advanced the Studies of the History of Languages enormously by proving that languages evolve. And it’s really a huge difference. It really is an enormous difference.

[00:41:33] Elyse Rivin: Not only do the sounds evolve, which if you study languages and learn to teach them, you are taught that immediately. But that the writing systems do evolve just in the same way. And he really changed the way everybody looks at the study of languages and that the idea of what a language is. I think that’s absolutely fascinating, considering how short his life was, but he did an enormous amount. And who knows what he would’ve been able to accomplish?

[00:42:02] Annie Sargent: And he’s buried at Père Lachaise. You can pay your respects. And of course, his stele is an obelisque.

[00:42:08] Elyse Rivin: Yes.

[00:42:09] Annie Sargent: And if you want, you can imagine that underneath all of that, there are levels and levels of different rooms with different sarcophagi and all of these writing inside, and he’s just roaming around in there continuing his studies. That’s actually a great idea. I would guess that unfortunately he didn’t expect to die so young, but maybe they thought about decorating his coffin in the Egyptian way.

[00:42:35] Elyse Rivin: Who knows, you know? We won’t know, unfortunately.

[00:42:39] Annie Sargent: Well that has been a very interesting conversation.

[00:42:41] Annie Sargent: Thank you very much

[00:42:52] Outro

[00:42:52] Annie Sargent: Again, I want to thank my patrons for supporting the show and giving back. Patrons get several exclusive rewards for doing so. You can see them at Thank you all for supporting the show, some of you have been doing it for a long time and you are wonderful.

[00:43:10] Annie Sargent: No new patrons this week, but several PayPal donors. So, my thanks also to Anne Hubbell, Michelle Pagni, Bromley Autier for sending in a one-time donation by using the green button on any page on JoinUsinFrance.Com that says, Tip Your Guide.

[00:43:31] Annie Sargent: Michelle wrote “Annie, thank you for this labor of love. The podcast has been a great benefit to all, and the Facebook group is so refreshingly positive. Thank you”. Well, thank you very much Michelle. And yes, if you’d like to join the Facebook group, it’s called the Join Us in France Closed group, and it’s on Facebook, you can search for that. You will have to answer questions because this group is for people who are podcast listeners.

[00:43:58] Annie Sargent: So if you’re a listener, it’s not going to be difficult. If you’re not a listener, you might have to move on.

[00:44:03] Annie Sargent: Bromley wrote: “We thoroughly enjoy listening to Join Us in France and resonate with your family story. My spouse is from Annecy, but has lived in the US for 22 plus years. On December 1st, we are moving to Annecy, from Boise, Idaho with our two daughters, ages 5 and 11. Merci, Annie”.

[00:44:29] Annie Sargent: So Bromley, thank you for your donation and thank you for writing. Yes, I feel for you, it’s going to be quite the adventure. Be warned that having been away from France so long, a lot of things have changed and it’s quite the culture shock for those of us French people who come back, because we have it in our minds that it’s all going to be the same as we remember when we were kids, and it’s not. It was not as difficult for my husband as it was for me, the culture shock. So take it easy and your kids ages 5 and 11 are going to do great.

[00:45:06] Annie Sargent: Now, you mentioned in another email that your 11 year old is not so sure she wants to move to France. Yeah. That’s also pretty typical. But you know what? French kids are going to be so happy to meet new kids from America. French kids love American kids, and so I think it’ll go just fine. So congratulations on the move.

[00:45:28] Preparing a trip to France?

[00:45:28] Annie Sargent: If you’re preparing a trip to France and listening to as many episodes as you can to get ready, keep listening to the podcast because that’s a wonderful way to do it. Search the website as well because there are a lot of episodes.

[00:45:43] Annie Sargent: But you can also hire me to be your itinerary consultant. Here’s how it works. You purchase the service on Then I send you a document that you fill out to tell me what you have in mind. We make a phone appointment and chat for about an hour, and then I send you a document, usually a long document with the plan we discussed.

[00:46:08] Annie Sargent: Remember that my time is always booked up several weeks in advance. You’ll see the date for my next appointment availability on the only page where you can buy this, which is at my boutique, That date is always a moving target, so don’t wait until the last minute.

[00:46:28] Self-guided tours

[00:46:28] Annie Sargent: And if you cannot talk to me because I’m booked up, you can still take me in your pocket, literally, by getting my GPS self-guided tour on the VoiceMap app. I’ve produced five tours and they are designed to show you around different iconic neighbourhoods of Paris. They make it really easy for you to enjoy Paris to the fullest without spending an age trying to figure it out.

[00:46:59] Christmas decorations in Paris in 2022

[00:46:59] Annie Sargent: For the travel question of the week, let’s talk about Christmas decorations in Paris for 2022. There are a lot of small Christmas markets scattered all overthe Paris City Center, you will see them as you go about your day in Paris. They usually have a few boutiques, some food vendors, mulled wine vendors, it’s very festive in a low brow kinda way.

[00:47:26] Annie Sargent: The most important part of the Christmas action as far as French people are concerned, is on Boulevard Haussmann, not very far from the Opera House.

[00:47:37] Annie Sargent: The Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are going to be mobbed, particularly evenings and weekends. Try to go on a business day, in the middle of the day if you can.

[00:47:50] The Covered Passages are also all decked out for Christmas and attract a steady stream of visitors.

[00:47:57] Annie Sargent: The Christmas treats French people love are roasted chestnuts and mulled wine. When I buy chestnuts to roast at home, I pay between 5 and 10 euros a kilo, depending on how fresh the chestnuts are, you know, depending on the quality. The five euro ones are kind of, eh, not so great, 7 are okay, 10 are way better. So, it’s not a cheap product and you do have to put some money into it. When you buy chestnuts already roasted on the street, expect to pay 10 Euros or more for a bag of roasted chestnuts in Paris.

[00:48:36] Annie Sargent: Mulled wine usually goes for five euros a glass, but watch out, it’ll go straight to your head.

[00:48:44] Annie Sargent: The Printemps department store on Boulevard Haussmann will have its usual windows decorations on the theme of the Art of the Circus for 2022. The action is all outside at Printemps, all around the windows, around the store, and they do a wonderful job. They do animatronics and amazing displays, it’s really an art form, it’s beautiful. The window displays are different every year, and I’ve loved them since I was a kid. It’s a must see in my opinion.

[00:49:17] Annie Sargent: Of course, it’s not just in Paris, all big French cities will have some, you know, window decorations, but they really go all out at the Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann.

[00:49:28] Annie Sargent: Galeries Lafayette, also the one on Boulevard Haussmann, chose the theme of King of the Forest this year. They will reveal the new Christmas tree on November 18th at 6:00 PM. Starting on November 17th, children will be able to enjoy a fairytale experience, where Nordmann, a citizen of Elato, the land of wild fir trees saves Annie’s Christmas. I think that theme of Nordmann and Elato and Annie’s Christmas are going to be repeated throughout the store, and there is also going to be a show in a closed off part of the store on the fourth floor. It’s free for kids under 10, five euros for the rest of the public. I suspect that this will be mobbed with families bringing young kids. It’s called Expédition Planète Sapin and you can reserve online if you’d search for it, Expédition Planète Sapin, you can reserve.

[00:50:32] Annie Sargent: BHV Marais, so that’s near the Paris City Hall, is going to be all decked out on the theme of Provençal Christmas with Santons and olive trees. That area of the city is well decorated and will be busy, but not quite as much as the Boulevard Haussmann.

[00:50:49] Annie Sargent: Bon Marché in Saint Germain des Prés is going to be decorated with all sorts of Christmas balls. You’ll have to go to the first floor to see most of it. So that’s their theme, Christmas balls, I’m not sure what they’re going to do. But you know, this is Bon Marché, so they’ve hired some really brainy designer, I’m sure. You know, it’s high class, it’s expensive, there’s not going to be very many kids in that part of the city.

[00:51:16] Annie Sargent: La Samaritaine by the Pont Neuf is going with a theme of modern dance. It’s an expensive store, but in an area that attracts a lot of people. So there should be a good mix of, you know, affordable and not so affordable. Last year, they were selling champagne bottles in a lovely metal box that you could have personified with someone’s name on it. It was pretty cool, I think for, you know, a mid range Christmas gift. I think it was around 50 euros for the bottle. So the champagne was not necessarily the fancier champagne, but you could get a nice box with somebody’s name on it. So if you want to gift it to Peter, then you can write Peter on it. And it was cool looking.

[00:51:57] Related episodes

[00:51:57] Annie Sargent: If you enjoyed this episode, you might also want to listen to episode 143 about Figeac, the lovely city in Occitanie, where Champollion lived as a kid. And honestly, if you are looking for an inexpensive place to live in the French Heartland, you should also take a look at Figeac, it’s a lovely town. It’s kind of remote from the rest of the country because there is no freeway going through Figeac or near Figeac. Well, you know, you have to drive 50 km on the little roads before you get to Figeac and so that’s why it takes a while to get there and that’s why it’s not super attractive to people who are not from there. But I think it’s a beautiful place that you might consider.

[00:52:42] Thanksgiving at Annie’s house

[00:52:42] Annie Sargent: For my personal update this week, I am making preparations for Thanksgiving, as you probably are. I made fudge a few days ago and it was a complete flop.

[00:52:53] Annie Sargent: My fudge never set, so I put everything in little serving things, like mini muffin containers and I don’t know, we’ll eat them somehow. But you know, you need to try things around the kitchen. And I didn’t want to do this on Thanksgiving Day obviously, I wanted to serve it on Thanksgiving Day, but I didn’t want to make it on Thanksgiving Day.

[00:53:14] Annie Sargent: And I’m glad I did it ahead because it did not work out. Yeah. And if you have a recipe that’s like, never misses, here’s what I want, I want fudge that never misses, and I would like it chocolate and pecans, please. So if you have that, please send it my way.

[00:53:33] Annie Sargent: This year, we’ll have a full table on Thursday with American friends at my house. A full table is 14 people. It’s always a joyous occasion. And then I repeat the Thanksgiving the following Sunday with my French family. So the first Thanksgiving is all in English with Americans or people who speak good English anyway, and then the following Sunday, I repeat it with my French family and we do Thanksgiving with a French twist.

[00:54:03] Annie Sargent: So the stuffing and sweet potato portions are just much smaller because they won’t gobble it down as much as Americans. And we add a cheese course usually, perhaps no pumpkin pie either, because French crowd, you know, eh, they’re not going to, I mean a couple of people will have a little bit to try it, but they’re, it’s not going to get eaten, you know, so there’s no point making it, I think.

[00:54:27] But we do have wonderful walnut pies in France and they’re kind of like pecan pies, so that’s what I do. Anyway, it’s fun to do Thanksgiving, the French way and the American way. And you know, it’s a time to celebrate.

[00:54:40] Annie Sargent: You know what worries me the most at Thanksgiving? It’s the gravy.

[00:54:45] Annie Sargent: Getting gravy right at the last minute is not something that I look forward to, most of the time. With the French crowd, it’s easy because I can just do meat drippings the way we are used to in France, but doing gravy just thick enough, not too thick, not jelly. It’s not so easy to get it right, especially if you have a house full of people and people are, you know, oh, can I have a serving spoon and can I have a platter and can I have this and that?

[00:55:12] Please do us a favor, if you’re bringing something to somebody’s house of Thanksgiving, just bring it with the serving dish and with the utensils. Don’t ask them to provide this. It throws me out for a loop. I don’t know. I always manage, I mean, obviously, I always manage, but it’s important not to have the first glass of wine until after the gravy is made. Okay? Otherwise, It might not work out so good.

[00:55:36] Annie Sargent: Anyway, I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving lined up. It doesn’t have to be a lavish affair really, but I love how it brings people together and I hope you get to hang out with people you love at this time and Happy Thanksgiving to you!

[00:55:51] Show notes

[00:55:51] Show notes and a full transcript for this episode are on, the numeral.

[00:55:59] Annie Sargent: Tell a friend about the podcast, especially if they are planning to visit France next year, they will thank you.

[00:56:07] Next week on the podcast

[00:56:07] Next week on the podcast, an episode about Lautrec in the Tarn with Meredith Wheeler, who has been living in Lautrec for a long time and knows the city really well.

[00:56:19] Annie Sargent: Send questions or feedback to

[00:56:23] Annie Sargent: Thank you for listening, and I hope you join me next time so we can look around France together Au revoir!

[00:56:30] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France Travel Podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2022 by Addicted to France. It is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial, No Derivatives license.

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Category: French History