Transcript for Episode 425: Vauban Fortifications in France

Table of Contents for this Episode

Category: French History

Discussed in this Episode

  • Feux croisés
  • Boulets creux
  • Tir à ricochets
  • Cavaliers de tranchée
  • La dîme Royale
  • Oisivetées
  • La basterne
  • Scale models of Vauban fortifications at Les Invalides

[00:00:00] Annie Sargent:

[00:00:16] Intro

[00:00:16] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France episode 425 – quatre cent vingt-cinq.

[00:00:22] 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 Rivin of Toulouse Guided Walks about Vauban. Vauban was a French military engineer and architect who lived in the 17th century. He is best known for his work in fortification and siege warfare and is considered one of the greatest engineers of all time.

[00:01:00] Annie Sargent: Elyse tells us about his life and the places in France where you can see his work, many of which are listed as World Heritage sites. He really marked his time and you will run into his name everywhere in France.

[00:01:15] Podcast supporters

[00:01:15] 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.

[00:01:28] Annie Sargent: Someone left a new comment on my Latin Quarter tour this week and says, “Another great tour, I’ve tried all but Montmartre and they are fabulous. A wonderful way to spend an afternoon exploring parts of the city I may never have seen. Please write more.”

[00:01:47] Annie Sargent: Whoever wrote this is in luck because I am in the process of writing one more and it will be released in February, 2023. And I’ll tell you more about that just after my chat with Elyse.

[00:02:00] Annie Sargent: There is a newsletter to go along with this podcast, if you’d like to sign up for it go to

[00:02:10] Annie Sargent: And for the magazine part of the podcast after the interview, I’ll discuss my VoiceMap tour writing process since I’m right in the thick of it.


[00:02:29] Annie and Elyse about Vauban

[00:02:29] Annie Sargent: Bonjour Elyse.

[00:02:30] Elyse Rivin: Bonjour Annie.

[00:02:31] Annie Sargent: Today, we’re going to talk about a man who, I’m sure everybody has heard his name because he’s very, very famous. And his name was Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. Now that’s a very long name, mostly they called him Vauban or Le Prêtre. But his name is Vauban and his name will come up in so many places, hundreds and hundreds of places in France, and Elyse has done a lot of research.

[00:02:58] Annie Sargent: I’ve done some of it myself, he is a fascinating person. I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode.

[00:03:05] Vauban was a major figure in the 17th centrury

[00:03:05] Elyse Rivin: So Mr. Le Prêtre de Vauban, first name Sebastian, was a major figure in the 17th century. He was born in 1633 and he died at the ripe old age of 73 for those days, in the year 1707. Vauban is famous for being a military genius, for being a mathematical genius, for being an engineer and surprisingly, for being a great humanist as well.

[00:03:42] Petite noblesse vs noblesse de robe

[00:03:42] Annie Sargent: Yeah, he was really the whole package, wasn’t he? He had it all. He was raised in pretty modest circumstances. He was in the nobility. His grandfather had acquired a title of nobility 80 years prior to his birth, but he was not like the old nobility, la noblesse de robe, as we call as we it in French. And so he was in this lowly nobility.

[00:04:08] Annie Sargent: His father probably was not the first born son because when he married, they chose to go live where his wife was from. And that’s a little bit like, nowadays, if you were going to find it, you’d drive an hour and 20 minutes east of Dijon is where it is.

[00:04:28] Annie Sargent: And they lived there in a house that his mother had brought as a dowry into the family. And she was not very wealthy, you know, they were at times, kind of poor.

[00:04:40] The greatest love – the land

[00:04:40] Elyse Rivin: Interestingly enough, because they were what the French like to call, La Petite Noblesse, which basically means you got a title but you ain’t got no money in the bank, really. Vauban spent most of his childhood playing with the children that were the peasant families that worked the land that was near or around where he lived. And it had a major effect on him, that was something that lasted for the rest of his life. He had a great sympathy and attachement to the poor, to the peasants, and to the idea of living off the land. Strangely enough, for a military genius who spent many years of his life actually fighting in wars, his greatest love was the land.

[00:05:28] When he was not fighting, he would go back to his small chateau in the Morvan area. And he loved that more than anything else.

[00:05:37] Military genius

[00:05:37] Elyse Rivin: But the reason why Vauban is so famous to this day, is because he invented new ways of building military defenses and he created and redesigned over 200 sites in France, many of which are either completely or partially still visitable.

[00:06:00] Annie Sargent: Right. So that really sets him apart. So some of these places he built from scratch, there was nothing there, I think there’s about 30 of those where he just decided this is a place we need to defend and put some military installation there. Or he just reworked existing defenses.

[00:06:20] Innovation with defenses

[00:06:20] Annie Sargent: Now, I read that it had to do with the fact that long ago, in the Middle Ages, even when they had the early cannons, they would use stone cannon balls that behaved in a very specific way. And then later on they made metal cannon balls. And these metal cannon balls could take down defenses much easier, and theycould break through a medieval wall very easily. And so that was the impetus for changing the way they defended the cities. They needed something, not like in the past where it was tall and you could see far away and you could see the enemy coming. You still needed to see the enemy coming, and you still wanted your enemy to be out in the open, right?

[00:07:05] Annie Sargent: So he would put his defenses out in the open where he had a clear view to all around, but he didn’t make them so tall. He didn’t make them as easy to aim at, and he invented all sorts of defenses. Now, I’m not a military person, I just saw drawings. But you know, some of the things that he built, it looked like the Pentagon, like it looked like he was defensive all around, like that sort of thing.

[00:07:32] Elyse Rivin: Well, it turns out this is very interesting and it goes back again to his talents that he discovered, if you want to call it that when he was a young boy, he was apparently not a great student except in math and in drawing. And he developed a very strong interest in architecture when he was still a young boy. His maths ability apparently was well known by everyone.

[00:07:56] Elyse Rivin: And interestingly, because he was not from a highly placed family, he enrolled in the army at the age of 17. And because he was living in a part of what was then basically the dukedom of Burgundy, it was under the control of a man named the Prince de Condé. We’ve actually done a podcast about him because he’s connected to the Château de Chantilly.

[00:08:22] Elyse Rivin: Butthe Prince de Condé was a first cousin of the king and he had the misfortune of not being king, and he wanted very much to be king. And so he began what is called in French, a Fronde. I love the word, for some reason it reminds me of ferns. I don’t know if it’s really connected or not, but a fronde is basically an alternative army that’s going to try and take over power, the power of the kingdom.

[00:08:48] Elyse Rivin: And Vauban was loyal to this duke because the duke was the man who was basically in charge of the region of France where he lived.

[00:08:56] Vauban enrolled in the army at age 17

[00:08:56] Elyse Rivin: And so at the age of 17, he enrolled in the army. And strangely enough, I was wondering as I was doing the research on it, really why, maybe it was because he was, I don’t remember. Was he not the first son or was it just that there was nothing else for him to do, so he didn’t have the talents for being much of anything else?

[00:09:14] Elyse Rivin: In any event, what happened was that between the ages of 17 and 19, he lived through major battles that were conducted by this Prince de Condé against the king. And the king at the time was Louis XIII. Without great success, the Prince de Condé was never killed because he was after all a prince, but he never managed to take the power away from the king.

[00:09:37] Elyse Rivin: But interestingly enough, Vauban who was wounded several times, and fortunately for him, none of them were fatal wounds, obviously.

[00:09:47] Vauban the foot soldier with a keen eye for observation

[00:09:47] He was using his powers of observation during these battles, and all the time he was fighting, he was analysing what was wrong with the strategy. This is what I find so fascinating, is that he was able to note down, he had endless numbers of notebooks where he would write down comments to himself about what should have been done, what needed to be changed.

[00:10:12] Let’s not be sitting ducks

[00:10:12] Elyse Rivin: And one of the things that he was appalled by, was the number of people, the number of soldiers that were killed in the army that he was with. He wasn’t particularly worried that much about the army on the other side, actually. But he kept saying, over and over again, no, we should not be doing it this way, notice we’re sitting targets. There was a system apparently of trenches, which of course, the French kept all the way through into after World War I. But they were trenches that were far too visible and they didn’t give any space for the soldiers to actually hide, when all of these, either the cannonballs or the arrows or whatever were being thrown at them from the fortified positions.

[00:10:54] Elyse Rivin: So the first thing that happened was that he became aware of what needed to be changed in order to lay siege to a site, interestingly enough, so it was from the idea of being offensive, of being on the attack, and he started noting down all of these changes. By the time he was 19, his comments started to be listened to by various officers.

[00:11:20] Elyse Rivin: He was not at the first even an officer, and he started to be promoted little by little in the army. First of all, because he was apparently very brave in battle, he apparently was fearless. And secondly, because he had this ability to talk to even the superior officers in a way that he shouldn’t have and didn’t get into trouble for it, which is very interesting in terms of his personality.

[00:11:44] Vauban gets noticed

[00:11:44] There’s a fun story that he apparently swam across a river to make room for his fellow soldiers. And it was in the middle of the winter. It was a very cold river. It was a very difficult task, and he did it. And De Conde was observing the battle from a distance and he saw that one of his soldiers did this, and he wanted to meet that soldier.

[00:12:08] Annie Sargent: And after that, that’s how he had access to De Conde and other military officers. That’s why they listened to him. And he was always on the lookout for things having to do with the topology of the area. He really needed to understand the geography and he said, it all hinges on the geography of where we attack, and he made lots of observations.

[00:12:30] Vauban fights for the King

[00:12:30] Annie Sargent: Now, I’m sure you are going to get to this next, he turned coats, right? Yes. He went from serving De Conde to serving the King of France. Do you know how that happened?

[00:12:41] Elyse Rivin: Yeah. Yes, actually I do. And this is fascinating. So he was captured. He was, finally in one of these battles, he was captured, by this time he had developed a certain reputation. He was considered to be someone who was so fearless and at the same time a gentleman. And apparently, he had a way of being and his way of describing what should be done and shouldn’t be done, that everybody was fascinated by him.

[00:13:07] Elyse Rivin: So when he was captured, he was captured by the soldiers of Mazarin. And Mazarin was a very interesting man, a very powerful man, he was the equivalent of Prime Minister and Head of the armies, still under Louis XIII and…

[00:13:22] Annie Sargent: … and he had musketeers.

[00:13:23] Elyse Rivin: And he had musketeers, yes he had musketeers.

[00:13:26] Annie Sargent: I like that.

[00:13:27] Elyse Rivin: And D’Artagnan actually got killed in one of these battles, believe it or not, you know?

[00:13:31] Elyse Rivin: Right. But what happened with Mazarin was that, if he had been anybody else, he would’ve been put in prison. But what happened was Mazarin basically had him brought to him and he said, you know, your reputation has preceded you.

[00:13:46] Elyse Rivin: And I don’t know exactly what words he used, but he basically said, what we would like is for you to work with us, join my army, that is the army of the king, because we think that you have something to contribute and will help us. And however he did it, whatever it is he used as a basic argument to convince him, from that point on, Vauban was loyal to the King’s armies, and of course, stayed loyal to the King’s armies through the rest of his life, when it was the King Louis XIV.

[00:14:21] Vauban is promoted to engineer

[00:14:21] Annie Sargent: Right, and a couple years later under Louis XIV, he was promoted as an engineer.

[00:14:28] Annie Sargent: How do you, what was the name of that thing?

[00:14:30] Annie Sargent: He was promoted as, I think that the title was simply Ingénieur Civil de L’Armée.

[00:14:37] Annie Sargent: Yeah. It was basic rank but having to do with the weaponry and with the buildings and strategy as well. He started really low and then made his way up the ranks very, very quickly.

[00:14:50] Elyse Rivin: By the time he was 24, he had been wounded at least seven times.

[00:14:54] Elyse Rivin: Can you imagine? I mean, in these, we’re talking about the 1600s. The idea that he survived that long fighting in all these battles is really quite amazing. And it was when he finally started working as an engineer and started exploiting these ideas as you mentioned, he was fascinated by mathematics and the idea of figuring out trajectory from the different terrains.

[00:15:18] Elyse Rivin: So if it was flat, it was one thing. If it was on a hill, it was another. There’s a quote apparently, it was a quote that was circulated, it was something that people said about him by the time he was in his mid twenties, this is what they would say, they said:

[00:15:31] Elyse Rivin: A city that was built by Vauban is a city that is bound to be saved. A city that is attacked by Vauban is lost.

[00:15:41] Rewarded by the King

[00:15:41] Elyse Rivin: That’s how much his reputation preceded him. And little by little he gained, he moved up in rank, and by the time he was 27, which is 10 years after he began his military career, he was rewarded with a huge sum of money by the King.

[00:15:57] Elyse Rivin: And he went back home, bought Château de Bazoches, which is the chateau that he kept for the rest of his life, and which apparently is visitable.

[00:16:06] Annie Sargent: Correct. You can visit it. There’s a few things in there. I mean, it’s not huge.

[00:16:09] Annie Sargent: I wouldn’t say you have to, you know, drive there on purpose, but if you’re in the area, it would be really interesting to see it.

[00:16:16] Yes. It really is.

[00:16:17] Vauban gets married

[00:16:17] Elyse Rivin: And that’s when he, so he got married at that time, at the age of 27 as well, which I think it goes, you know, the idea he had property, he had a certain guarantee of income.

[00:16:25] By the way, I didn’t look up, I would have no way of knowing, but I read that Louis XIV gave him 80,000 livres. I would love to know what that would be the equivalent of money today, but I have absolutely no way of figuring that out. I don’t know if there’s a way of knowing that.

[00:16:43] Annie Sargent: There are probably websites that can help you do that, but I don’t, I wouldn’t know really.

[00:16:48] Elyse Rivin: I guess it was a lot of money.

[00:16:49] Annie Sargent: It was probably a lot of money. I found the, his actual title when he first started to serve the King of France.

[00:16:55] Annie Sargent: They gave him the title of Ingénieur Ordinnaire de sa Majesté. So an ordinary engineer of his Majesty, just an adorable title.

[00:17:04] Elyse Rivin: It’s adorable, but you know, by the way, that reminds me because there was also peintre ordinaire. So ordinaire obviously did not have the same meaning in those days that it does today.

[00:17:14] Elyse Rivin: You know, it wasn’t really ordinary. I mean, it was special ordinary, or something like that.

[00:17:20] Vauban begins his career

[00:17:20] Elyse Rivin: But this is the beginning of Vauban’s career as a very, very important military strategist.

[00:17:26] Elyse Rivin: What happened was, he continued to be a soldier and at the same time he started laying out plans. And he would work out the exact detailed plans for how to either defend some place or attack some place. And he was interested in both.

[00:17:44] Elyse Rivin: And as you mentioned, there are some places you can visit today in France. One of them is an interesting town in the northeast called Longwy. It’s written L o n g w y.

[00:17:57] Elyse Rivin: But it’s actually pronounced like a v. I lived in the area and I met a few people when I was living in the Vosges I met a couple of people who were from there and they said, no, no, no, believe it or not, it’s Longwy. Whatever.

[00:18:08] And it was famous also for having, I think mines, coal mines, long, long ago.

[00:18:14] Elyse Rivin: Yes. Long ago. And it’s now famous for its beautiful ceramics, believe it or not. Very colorful ceramics. Yes. Just absolutely beautiful. But so Vauban began this ascension, basically, this ascension.

[00:18:26] Elyse Rivin: He apparently had a way of talking that everyone listened to him and the King who was young, and who was apparently impressed. Now we’re talking now about Louis XIV, who had started out by being a child when he had begun this whole thing. But the King, Louis XIV was someone who apparently was extremely impressed by people who really seemed to be geniuses. He really liked that in people.

[00:18:50] Elyse Rivin: And so he allowed him to talk in a way that normally with the protocol of the court and everything else would not have happened. And Vauban, little by little became this very, very important person. He rose up through the ranks. His career, of course, lasted a great dealof time.

[00:19:09] Vauban wanted to spare the lives of soldiers

[00:19:09] Elyse Rivin: And one of the things that he did was that he insisted that the purpose of his various studies and his designs was to try to save as many lives as possible.

[00:19:22] Elyse Rivin: He wanted the French King’s army to win, but what he wanted even more was to be able to win battles or to defend places with the least loss of life possible.

[00:19:35] Annie Sargent: Right, right. So it’s very interesting that he was somebody who wanted to quantify things. this is at a time when people were obsessed with having fair ideas.

[00:19:49] Annie Sargent: You know, beautiful ideas. They were obsessed with how things would appear, and he was not like that at all. He was a straight shooter and he wanted to quantify things.

[00:20:01] Annie Sargent: One of the things that worked well for him is thatLouis XIV was someone who did not like to have big councils with a lot of people around the table. His father was like that, his father would, in the afternoon, he would gather up the council and everybody had to hash it out, like the big meeting, you know.

[00:20:21] Annie Sargent: Louis XIV was more into doing one-on-one meetings with different people. And this is where Vauban shone, because the first time he was given a chance, he was, he made a lot of very interesting observations, and he caught the King’s interest, and so he kept being invited. And so in a way he was listened to much more than would’ve been warranted according to his rank.

[00:20:45] Elyse Rivin: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, he astonished the court because he was, as you mentioned, he was very much a straight shooter and obviously, even though he was able to be polite, he did not do all of the bowing and curtsing and things like that in the figurative sense, that he said what he thought and he put it as diplomatically as possible, but he was not someone who was going to beat around the bush when it came to describing various battles. And he was very, he really became the military counselor and the designer of the new battle strategy as well as a builder.

[00:21:24] Defending the borders of France

[00:21:24] Elyse Rivin: I mean, he actually helped build so many different structures in France. And if you take a look at a map of the sites that were built or redone, in a way, by Vauban, what you will see is that it follows almost exclusively the outline of the country of France.

[00:21:43] Annie Sargent: Right. One of the things you mentioned is that he was very worried about having as little loss of life as possible, and this came from the very first siege he ever participated in, which was on the Spanish border. I think it was on the Spanish border, I can’t remember the name of the town.

[00:21:59] They lost 15,000 people to assiege 400 spaniards.

[00:22:07] Annie Sargent: And to him you know, for the rest of his life, that played a big role. And so he wanted to, and I, like I mentioned, he wanted to quantify things. And to him, he knew that Louis XIV was going to be a warrior king.

[00:22:20] Annie Sargent: There’s no talking him out of picking fights all over, okay? And so he wanted to do it in the most efficient way possible.

[00:22:29] Annie Sargent: And the borders of France as we know them today, are very much like Vauban set them. Because since he had the ear of the king, he could point out to the king that perhaps it was not such a good idea to try and hang on to some tiny little village on the other side of the Rhine, because that was much harder to defend.

[00:22:51] Annie Sargent: And so he said, okay, let’s come back to our side of the Rhine and defend that well. Same with the Alps. The King of France had possessions on the other side of the Alps and they were impossible to defend. And he just said, look, you know, let’s go back to our side of the Alps and let’s defend that well. And so essentially, the borders of France changed tremendously under Louis XIV and Vauban.

[00:23:19] Elyse Rivin: In 1679 the border in the Pyrenees moved up because of Vauban. It was on the other side of the Pyrenees, basically on the Spanish side. And he considered that it was absolutely absurd because here’s this barrier of this enormous chain of mountains. Why try to defend this little piece that’s on the other side?

[00:23:38] Elyse Rivin: And so they actually moved the frontier up further north and let the Spanish take whatever was left on the other side of the Pyrenees.

[00:23:47] Vauban established the “natural borders” of France

[00:23:47] Annie Sargent: Right? So the natural borders of France are along the Atlantic coast, then the Rhine River, then the Alps, and then the Pyrenees. These are just the natural borders. And he wanted those borders to be very well defended all around. And you can see Vauban fortifications strategically placed. And he put some, like I mentioned at the beginning, in areas where there were no forts before, but he felt like these were really important places.

[00:24:18] Annie Sargent: I mean, he even put forts in the middle of the sea. And I wondered why, because there’s one on the Atlantic coast, like it’s like on top of an island. And I wondered why. And I learned that it’s because there is a current in that area that forces pretty much all ships to go by there. And so it was strategic to put a defensive post there because you could shoot at them because they couldn’t help, they had the current push them in that direction.

[00:24:46] Annie Sargent: Isn’t that amazing?

[00:24:47] Vauban, the mathematician.

[00:24:47] Elyse Rivin: It’s actually amazing. He actually sounds like he would’ve been a, I mean, not that I understand mathematics at all, but he certainly sounds like he would’ve been a fascinating person to meet.

[00:24:55] Elyse Rivin: The basic signature of his design, if you want to call it that, was a pentagon. He would analyze the angles of trajectories of the cannon balls, and of course, this is the beginning of use of gunpowder, which changes everything as well. But what happened was he realized he had been in a battle with the Turks, with the Ottoman Empire, and he had observed the tactics and the strategies that they used. And he went back, thought about it for a while, and refined it in his own way.

[00:25:24] Elyse Rivin: And he developed a system, many of the places that you can still visit and see where it’s the walls or the actual fort, based on the system of a pentagon with no right angles. He would make sure that everything was a kind of obscured, oblique and the walls were on an oblique, and it made it, from a defensive point of view, much, much easier to defend all of these places.

[00:25:48] Elyse Rivin: And even when it was a small city built from scratch, he made sure that it was built with the walls around it, because at the time they were still building things with walls around them in this way, so that it can easily be defended. Now, knowing that, he also worked on the opposite. That is, if you come across a structure that is so hard to attack, what do you have to do?

[00:26:12] Elyse Rivin: So it’s fascinating. It’s, it makes me think that he would’ve been the kind of person that would sit down at a chess board and play both sides of the chess board at the same time, working himself to see how he could beat himself at it, because he did the offense and he did did the defense at the same time.

[00:26:28] Annie Sargent: Well, he was a planner, so he was someone… I read that he actually planned stuff like,so he would do the calculation, if you have two pigs, two healthy pigs, and you cross-breed them, how many people can you feed with those two pigs?

[00:26:43] Working out how many provisions an army needed

[00:26:43] Annie Sargent: How many pounds of meat can you have with those two pigs in five years, in 10 years? You know, he just likes thinking about quantifying things and knowing. And he also worked out in every one of these places that he wanted to defend or attack, how long it was likely that these places would be under attack.

[00:27:04] Annie Sargent: And he wanted to have just enough provisions to stay and feed his armies for that long, but no more, because if you lose and you have too much food and water in your possession, then the enemy is going to take that, right?

[00:27:21] Annie Sargent: So you just want the right amount. There are places where he defended, like in Lille, the defense has to do with water. So he retained water and then he would let the retention go and it would flood this area. I mean, he just used a lot of different methods. And there’s a few names of, I want to read a few names of things, defensive strategies that he used and I can’t really explain them in detail.

[00:27:47] Annie Sargent: But feux croisées, so crossfire was something that heput in place. Boulets creux, so that means hollow cannon balls, which could go further away and hit harder. Tirs à ricochets, so I mean ricochedbullets.

[00:28:04] That’s connected to his idea of not having straight walls and right angles.

[00:28:08] Annie Sargent: Ah, there you go. Another one, cavaliers de tranchée. So those are things that kind of jet out of the defensive walls because you could position soldiers all around them and defend your trench much better.

[00:28:24] Annie Sargent: Anyway, he did a lot of things like that and also always, he used much lower buildings. He did not have super tall towers and things like that. You can see them when you’re close to them, but from a distance, many of them, it looks like the rock.

[00:28:42] Annie Sargent: It looks like, you know, when you’re approaching by boat or approaching by horse from a distance, it blends into the rock. And so it was really very well thought out.

[00:28:52] Elyse Rivin: Yeah. He was really a mathematician who was a technician. But interestingly enough, it was at the service of the King, but it’s hard to reconcile, but he was actually a man who was interested in humans as well as interested in the mathematical solution to specific problems.

[00:29:13] Elyse Rivin: He was a born engineer and a born architect and he was clearly very, very brilliant. I can’t imagine what he would do if he could sit in front of a super computer today and work things out even on a different level.

[00:29:26] Vauban, the human being

[00:29:26] Elyse Rivin: And as a human being, this is what makes him even more fascinating, so this is a man who spent his entire life starting at the age of 17, in the service of the King and basically in the service of the military.

[00:29:41] Elyse Rivin: But he had a second passion and a second interest, and that was helping the poor. And this goes back to his childhood when he was living in the Morvan and when many of his little friends were the peasant’s children. And all of his life, he would keep notebooks and work on calculations because, as you say, Annie, he was basically a mathematician at heart, trying to figure out systems, social systems that would not be so onerous for the poor.

[00:30:10] Elyse Rivin: And one of the things he wanted to do, every time he would go back to his chateau at Bazoches, he would work out some kind of a system so that the peasantry that lived in the area around him would be helped. And I don’t know if he was actually that generous with money with them, but he certainly did work on figuring out systems so that the taxes and the way they lived were less onerous.

[00:30:33] At the end of his life, Vauban wrote La Dîme Royale

[00:30:33] This is an amazing thing. After all of his years and his entire life working for the king, being devoted to the king, being devoted to the military, one of the last things he did towards the end of his life was write a book. And in this book, it was basically a book that probably had lots of graphs and lots of mathematical charts and things like that.

[00:30:54] A new system of taxation to be fair with the poor

[00:30:54] Elyse Rivin: He had worked for years working on a system of taxation that he thought would be fair to the poor. Because one of the things that he saw, being around the king and his entourage at Versailles was just how much the rich did not pay taxes, how the rich lived off of the poor and the peasantry, and he considered to be not just unfair, but a tragedy.

[00:31:20] Elyse Rivin: And so, at the end, when he was actually in his late sixties, he wrote a book that actually was not supposed to be published, and it was called, The Royal Dime and the dime, which is the word dime, basically in English, was an old word for tax. The dime is something that originally comes from the Catholic Church because it’s the tithe, right? But he wrote this as a traite to talk about a new social system. A new social system that would have what we would call today, a sliding scale of taxation, where the poor and those people with very little income would be taxed very little or not at all, and where the richer you were, the more you would be taxed.

[00:32:05] Elyse Rivin: Now he distributed this text to several close people, close friends, but he had not shown it to the King or to the court. Someone, someone in his entourage snuck a copy of this to the King, and finally after all the years of loyal service, the King, this is still Louis XIV, was furious because in this work, he criticized the way the King dealt with all of this.

[00:32:32] Elyse Rivin: He was very critical of the King’s attitude towards the poor, towards the rich, towards basically bleeding the country dry.

[00:32:41] Vaban is banished from court

[00:32:41] Elyse Rivin: And so in the year 1703, when he’s already 70 years old, he has all of his honors and titles taken away from him, and the King banishes him from the court because of this text that is basically revolutionary and very, very humanist.

[00:33:00] Annie Sargent: Right. So this was a big problem because back then, the way the French tax system worked is you would pay the King a handsome bit of money and that payment entitled you to gather up the taxes on behalf of the king. It gave you the right to go to your own province and get the taxes.

[00:33:22] Annie Sargent: And of course, people who did this helped themselves very lavishly, okay. So they were very, very rich.

[00:33:28] Annie Sargent: And it’s still a problem today. Getting the super rich to pay their fair share in taxes is still a problem today. And what Vauban was suggesting was revolutionary because he said, a tithe is 10%.

[00:33:43] Annie Sargent: That’s what the word means. And he was suggesting that the rich should pay 10% and the bourgeois, the well off merchants and whatever should pay 10%. And then the poorest of the poor should pay as little as 5% and that this would solve this problem. Of course, the King was not ready to hear this, and yes, it created a big rift, you know, between them, but Vauban had had a lot of fights with the King. There’s one where Vauban when he was much younger, suggested that perhaps the King should reward this one nobleman who had done some amazing things with keeping his people afloat at in a time of distress. Vauban said, okay, we need to give this guy a title, because he’s really super helpful to his people around him, and he’s keeping them afloat.

[00:34:34] Annie Sargent: And the king said, oh, no, no, no. The nobility is earned by the sword. So Vauban picked up all his papers and left the room without saying anything. And a couple days later, the King called him back and said, okay, I can tell I’ve upset you, all right, we’ll give this guy his nobility title. So, you know, there was some give and take, but on the tithe the King was not going to do that because it was so entrenched in his mind that the rich got richer and the poor suffered.

[00:35:03] Annie Sargent: And that’s just how it was.

[00:35:05] And Vauban was not going to put up with it. And as an old man, he just figured, you know, it would be better. And if the King had listened to him, perhaps we wouldn’t have had the French Revolution. Perhaps he would’ve implemented something just as smart as his fortifications.

[00:35:19] Vauban travelled a lot through France

[00:35:19] Annie Sargent: One thing that we didn’t mention this whole time is that he wrote a lot. He was a man who, first of all, he traveled a lot. Vauban was hardly ever at home. So they say he was married for 30 years, but his wife saw him…

[00:35:32] Elyse Rivin: 37.

[00:35:33] Annie Sargent: There you go. But his wife only saw him for perhaps three of those years. So, but they managed to have three children together and he also had affairs. And being a fair minded person in his will, he mentions several women, who he mentions in the will that they might have children by me, meaning he gave them a right to an inheritance possibly. You know, he was just a guy who wanted to be fair to everybody in his life.But he just had this desire to improve the country, to make everybody better than before he met them.

[00:36:11] Annie Sargent: Another cute story is that the King wanted to takeone of the areas that was defended by one of his systems. The idea was to flood a big plain with water. And the King said, well, let’s do this. And Vauban said, no, we got to wait until the farmers have had a chance to do their harvest. And the King was like, oh, I don’t care about that. And he insisted, and the King delayed his siege until the people had a chance to do their harvest.

[00:36:39] Vauban was interested in everything

[00:36:39] Annie Sargent: So to him, he was, and he wrote these things called Oisivetées, and it’s published, it’s something that you can read today. And they were things that he wrote when he was on the road and thinking about stuff. And he wrote about a lot of topics. Apparently, a historian worked on his Oisivetées, said that the only topic that he probably was not so interested in was medicine.

[00:37:02] Annie Sargent: He didn’t write much about medical stuff, but be it, you know, husbandry, animal husbandry, agriculture, war, defense, whatever, he was interested in everything. And he worked a prodigious amount of hours. Also another thing we didn’t mention that’s kind of funny is the, so this is supposedly how he got around in a basterne.So imagine a stretcher, okay? For a stretcher, you have a piece of cloth between two long poles, right? Well, imagine that you put, instead of people holding those poles, it’s a horse in front and a horse in back, and then you put a chair between. So they say that he traveled around in a Basterne and that he wrote a lot, but apparently that’s not the case. And beside he never drew one. So he drew everything else. Why wouldn’t he draw that? Anyway, funny anecdote.

[00:37:52] They would say that he would do the equivalent of 35, 40 kilometers at a stretch, and that it was one of the things that kept him relatively robust most of his life, was the fact that he was on the road all the time. And he was physically active all the time until the very, very last few years of his life. In spite of the fact that it’s really remarkable, if you think of how many times he was wounded and that apparently had a chronic lung infection.

[00:38:20] That’s how he died with a lung problem.

[00:38:21] It apparently finally got to him. It was probably one of those things from the humidity, from from all of the fighting, from all of the years of …

[00:38:28] Annie Sargent: And just getting older Elyse, getting older will do it to you.

[00:38:31] Elyse Rivin: Yes, well, that for sure. It’s really fascinating. I think that this is a man who would certainly have been a revolutionary, had he lived 90 years later.

[00:38:41] Elyse Rivin: He was definitely, I think that the part about this book, The Royal Dime or La Dime Royale in French, that that’s so angered the King, I think it’s really important in the sense that it wasn’t just the King, you have the entire nobility and the upper bourgeoisie that would not have accepted these ideas.

[00:39:01] Elyse Rivin: This was, he was way too modern for his time. He was much too civic-minded for his time.

[00:39:08] Annie Sargent: Well, and he just worked out the numbers and he was like, look, we’re all better off if we do this. But the King wouldn’t hear it. Because of history, because of privilege, because of a bunch of things.

[00:39:18] UNESCO World Heritage Sites linked to Vauban

[00:39:18] Annie Sargent: We’ve talked for 42 minutes already, Elyse, we haven’t mentioned any of the places.

[00:39:24] Now honestly, most places you go in France, if you take a tour, an official tour, they will mention at some point, especially if you’re along the borders of France somewhere, they will mention that Vauban did something or other. But some of his places are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

[00:39:44] Annie Sargent: So let’s talk about those, briefly.

[00:39:46] Elyse Rivin: In 2008, the Dosier or the folder, was accepted. And what happened was that the committee decided out of the many, many, many sites that exist, they chose 12. And on the text, people can see written down the names of all of these sites with the departments that they’re in.

[00:40:05] Elyse Rivin: The show notes for this episode will have all of this. What is fascinating to see is just how they pretty much cover those, they circle the frontiers, the Northeastern and Western, actually all, all of the frontiers of France. And they chose these 12 sites, some of them are entire cities, some of them are just towers, and some of them are just ramparts that are left because they are the most consistent and typical of the work that he did. And so they are fascinating to see.

[00:40:32] Scale models of Vauban fortifications at Les Invalides in Paris

[00:40:32] Elyse Rivin: There are over 150 that are either complete or in part available to see anywhere in France, but these 12, which you can find on the show notes are really wonderful to visit.

[00:40:45] Elyse Rivin: There’s also two places that you can go. One of them in Lille and one of them at the Les Invalides in Paris, where you can see a bunch of the scale models that he built or that he had built.

[00:40:59] Annie Sargent: Yeah. I think the one in Les Invalides is really important.

[00:41:02] Next time I go to Les Invalides I’m going to make sure I spend plenty of time in that room.

[00:41:05] Elyse Rivin: And they, they apparently are in wonderful, tiny little detail and give you a very clear idea of how minutios and careful he was in his work. And in Lille, which is a city that is certainly worth visiting anyway, and of course was one of his major projects, The Museum of Fine Arts has a collection of the scale models that he did.

[00:41:26] So these are two places, and also I believe that the Museum of Architecture on Trocadero in Paris has some work that was actually upstairs on the third floor, in the historical section, there are a few scale models that they now have there of his work.

[00:41:40] Elyse Rivin: Basically, if you’re in the South, Southeast, on the eastern side in the Alps, there’s the city of Besançon, the city of Briançon, on the other side of the Alps.

[00:41:50] Elyse Rivin: If you go up to the Northeast you have two sites in Alsace, you have Longwy, which is also in the Moselle. You havethings in the Charente. You haveIn Arras, which is another beautiful small city that is,

[00:42:04] Annie Sargent: Collioure that we’ve talked about, Aigues-Mortes, so many places.Besides the 12 that are UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s like he’s everywhere.

[00:42:13] That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do this episode is, anywhere you go in France, you’re going to hear about him because he was really very intricate into French history.

[00:42:24] Annie Sargent: And one of the things, I mean, he lucked out because we were still talking about him because he left a lot of things that we can still see today that you will be able to see in another few hundred years. And a lot of these are really beautiful as well. He didn’t just design for practicality, he designed things that are beautiful as well.

[00:42:46] Annie Sargent: If you follow the show on Instagram, I will post plenty of photos of his accomplishments and also if you’re very interested, I would recommend that you go to YouTube and look at video drone footage in particular of the places. So if you, drone and Vauban or whatever search, you will find some stunning stuff. I mean, long ago they used to film those things with helicopters, now it’s drones.

[00:43:10] Elyse Rivin: Now it’s drones.

[00:43:11] And it’s really very, very impressive to see from the air because you realize how strategic it was and how beautiful it is as well.

[00:43:21] Annie Sargent: Thank you so much, Elyse. That was really, really interesting. I don’t think I had really looked into Vauban that much, but I was fascinated. I mean, he’s just one of the coolest guys.

[00:43:30] Elyse Rivin: Me too. Me too. I just decided I’m a Vauban fan. I was a bit of a fan before, but I’m even more so now.

[00:43:37] Annie Sargent: Oh, and when you walk around these ramparts and stuff that he built, you also have great views. Like, they’re wonderful for photography, it’s worth climbing up the stairs, if you can…

[00:43:46] The most recent one I’ve been to was in the Charente, and really, wherever you go in France, you’ll find something to visit.

[00:43:53] Annie Sargent: Yeah. Merci Beaucoup Elyse

[00:43:55] Elyse Rivin: De rien, Annie.

[00:43:56] Elyse Rivin: Au revoir.


[00:44:04] Outro[00:44:04] Patrons and supporters

[00:44:04] 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, you are wonderful.

[00:44:21] Annie Sargent: And a shout out this week to new patrons, Katherine Pawley and Lisa Prytula. Thank you so much for becoming patrons and making this podcast possible.

[00:44:33] Preparing a trip to France?

[00:44:33] Annie Sargent: And you know, if you are 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 great way to do it.

[00:44:44] Annie Sargent: You can also hire me to be your itinerary consultant. Here’s how it works. You purchase the service on, then you fill out a document, tell me what you have in mind. We make a phone appointment and chat for about an hour. And then I send you the document with the plan we discussed.

[00:45:06] Annie Sargent: My time is always booked up several weeks in advance. You can see the date for my next availability on the only page where you can buy this service at the If you cannot talk to me because I’m all booked up, you can still take me in your pocket by getting my GPS self-guided tours on the VoiceMap app.

[00:45:29] I’ve produced five tours so far, and they are designed to show you around different iconic neighborhoods of Paris, Ile de la Cité, le Marais, Montmartre, Saint Germain des Prés and Latin Quarter. And I’m working now on my sixth. It’ll be a photo and historical tour around the Eiffel Tower, and I am on track for an early February release.

[00:45:55] This week in French News

[00:45:55] Annie Sargent: This week in French News, well, on April 2nd, 2023, folks who are registered to vote in Paris will get to vote on whether or not to continue allowing electric scooter rentals within the city.

[00:46:11] Annie Sargent: This is an official referendum. It will take place at regular voting stations based on current voter rolls. The question is going to be simple, do we continue to allow electric scooter rental companies within the city of Paris, yes or no?

[00:46:28] Annie Sargent: Now, this is not at all about private scooters in Paris, those will continue to be allowed, obviously. It’s about forcing the renters like Lime and Bird to get their act together. And they’ve been trying for a long time. And you know what, I’m in Paris right now, there are piles of these scooters and electric bikes that are rented by various companies. As soon as there’s a bit of wind, they all fall onto one another. It’s a tangle, it’s just, you know, people are not happy about them. Let’s put it this way.

[00:46:59] Annie Sargent: Now given who typically shows up to vote, it’s the same in France as it is in America, I think it’s possible that it’ll be the death of scooter rentals in Paris, but time will tell. And visitors cannot vote. Neither can I, because I’m not registered to vote in Paris.

[00:47:16] Annie Sargent: But if you asked me, I would probably vote NO because, well, it’s selfish because I don’t use electric scooters anywhere, and there’s been so many accidents. Plus, even with tightening the rules over the last year or two, scooters end up obstructing the sidewalks all the time. They get thrown in the river. They are an eyesore as well as a pain, so, eh, yeah. I fear it’s not going to go well for the scooter companies in Paris, but you know, it’s a vote. So anything could happen.

[00:47:48] Personal update this week

[00:47:48] For my personal update this week, well, I am in Paris this week and next, writing a tour on the Eiffel Tower. On this tour, I take you by the hand and walk you around the Eiffel Tower to all the best photo spots of the area.

[00:48:04] Annie Sargent: And along the way, I tell you cool things about the tower and about French history because that’s my thing, right? And I leave you at the foot of the tower where I share actionable tips on visiting the tower. It’s a big operation. Lots of people going through it every day, but if you know how they roll, it’s quite painless really.

[00:48:27] Annie Sargent: I also share restaurant recommendations. I’ve tried two so far, both were really good. I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m just going to the ones that I’ve read reviews on to make sure that they are as good as they are hailed to be.

[00:48:41] Annie Sargent: The Eiffel Tower neighborhood is full of wonderful surprises and amazing food. It’s no surprise to me that it’s become as popular as it is.

[00:48:50] How do I write a tour?

[00:48:50] Annie Sargent: So how do I write these tours? Well, the first step is I’m curious. I look for articles, books, radio interviews, anything on Paris and France in general. I’m just always sucking this stuff in because I love it.

[00:49:05] Annie Sargent: And once in a while something that makes me wonder why, and why is this way and not another? And my reading changes direction. So I’m always digging. And I mostly research my topics in French, because I can and because reading source materials in the original language is how you get to the good stuff.

[00:49:26] Annie Sargent: So step one is read a lot, watch a lot, listen a lot, and that’s years of doing that.

[00:49:32] Annie Sargent: Step two is spend time here at the Eiffel Tower. Look at the place at different times of the day. Observe what people are doing, how they move around the area. There are no sidetracks. When you’re looking for gems, no sidetracks, just go see, just go see anything that’s interesting.

[00:49:51] Annie Sargent: Step three, think about a good path through the space. Most people just follow the crowds, and the crowds mostly go in the most direct line. That is not always what you want to do because just steps away from the crowds, there are great things to see and that you would’ve missed if you didn’t know they were there.

[00:50:10] Annie Sargent: So once it’s clear what I want the tour to be about where I’d like to take the visitors, I plot the tour in the VoiceMap application. And I’m very lucky to be working with a very patient man called Gary who helps me with that because that’s a part that I haven’t mastered.

[00:50:26] Annie Sargent: I mean, it’s number six and I still can’t do it right. Then I walk the route again to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. And of course, I take pictures all along the way.

[00:50:36] Annie Sargent: Step four is decide what I’m going to talk about along the way. There are places where I should just shut up, for a change, and places where I can share something meaningful. And it’s so hard for me not to talk your ears off. I want to tell you about twice as many things as I have time for in a tour, but it’s a better experience for you if I am selective. That’s what I am going to be doing tomorrow, I’m going to be selective tomorrow.

[00:51:07] Annie Sargent: Step number five, write the talking parts. This is where my unique voice comes through because as you know, if you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, I want you to experience France to the fullest. I want you to create timeless memories of you in that particular place. To do that, I need to grab your attention and point out some things you would’ve missed otherwise, and explain why they matter in this context.

[00:51:36] Annie Sargent: Step number six is try the tour in Robovoice. This is where the computer reads back to me everything I wrote and where I see if I put the trigger points in the right place. Sometimes I need to flesh out my narrative or make it shorter, sometimes my directions are confusing, they made sense when I wrote them, but when I walk it again, I’m like, oh no, that doesn’t make any sense.

[00:51:59] And you know, I just rewrite them and then I test it again to see if the tour works. There’s also an editor who takes a look to see if I wrote intelligible English, because sometimes, you know, when you think about a place in French all the time, I tend to use words that are normal words in French that you wouldn’t use in English, or that would sound really like, bizarre in English. That would sound like so proper or whatever. And I definitely don’t want to sound like that.

[00:52:27] Step number seven. Well, once I’m happy with the tour, I record it, then Gary at VoiceMap builds it and I download it and try it. Hopefully by then, there are no mistakes to fix, but if something needs to be re-recorded, so be it, you know, I will do it again as many times as it takes to get it perfect.

[00:52:48] Annie Sargent: Step number eight, I ask my friends, Patricia and Jennifer who live in Paris to walk the tour and give me some feedback on how the experience went, technically. You know, they’re like, well, I couldn’t load it up, or some parts didn’t set off, or whatever it is. Usually it works flawlessly, but sometimes you never know, you got to test these things.

[00:53:07] Annie Sargent: Step nine, publish the tour and hope all of you buy it and walk it, because that’s how I can keep this podcast going and everything else that I do. Now, what can you do to help with these VoiceMap tours?

[00:53:23] Annie Sargent: Well, buy them, walk them, listen until the end of the tour, and then write a review, because that’s the only way you can review a VoiceMap tour, is to listen until the end and then you’ll be prompted to write a review. And of course, tell someone else about it. You know, if you tell someone I took this tour in Paris and it was fun, that’s how you do it, that’s how it works. Word of mouth, that’s my only advertising.

[00:53:52] Annie Sargent: Well, I better go because this episode is getting very long, but thank you for sticking with me until the end, and as always, show notes and a full transcript for this episode are on the numeral.

[00:54:08] Next week on the podcast

[00:54:08] Annie Sargent: Next week on the podcast, a trip report with Masika Nyaku, an African-American who fell in love with Paris and would very much like to move here.

[00:54:19] Annie Sargent: Send questions or feedback to Annie@JoinUsinFrance.Com

[00:54:24] Annie Sargent: Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you join me next time so we can look around France together. Au Revoir.

[00:54:32] Copyright

[00:54:32] 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.

Subscribe to the Podcast
Apple Google Spotify RSS
Support the Show
Tip Your Guides Extras Patreon Audio Tours
Read more about this transcript
Episode Page Show Notes 

Category: French History