The Best of Enemies

France Books, The Best of Enemies: Anglo-French Relations Since the Norman Conquest, by Robert Gibson

For over nine centuries now, the English and the French have maintained one of the greatest love-hate relationships of all time. They have fought countless bloody wars against one another and joined forces to wage war against others. As Robert Gibson points out, more Englishmen are buried on French soil than in any other land. However, “The Best of Enemies” is not, strictly speaking, a history book; nor yet another compendium of kings, queens, princes and battles, but rather a lucid study of nationalism and the emergence of two very distinct national identities.

As Gibson is a primarily a professor of French and not a historian, the reader is supplied with the essential historical data swiftly and succinctly: by a third of the way into the book the author has left Harold at the mercy of William, Henry V victorious at Agincourt and St. Joan in ashes, and is settling down to the French Revolution. Of course such historical figures and events do matter, but the consequences are of equal importance.

Though the book is not long it contains a wealth of contemporary comment. Over the centuries, the views held by each country on the other provide what could be termed a brief history of insults: we have all heard of l’Albion perfide but I, for one, did not know that the English reputation for excessive consumption of beer dates back to the 12th century and that at the same time the untraveled French believed that the English had tails: caudatus Anglicus. As many of the English kings were in fact French or had French blood there were no similar attacks on the French physique, but the notion that the French were an immoral lot was already forming.

Mutual suspicion reigns throughout the centuries and it is interesting to note that when London was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, both the noted diarists of the time, Pepys and Evelyn, reported the belief that “the French had done it.” At the same time, a French commentator observed: “I rather prefer to believe that it is the hand of God which has armed itself with flame to punish the injustice and the arrogance of the English who, on so many occasions, have provoked his wrath.” Sadly reminiscent of the Cold War, isn’t it?

Yet for each period of phobia there was one of mania, when all things French were à la mode in England, or conservatively dressed (comme les anglais) Frenchmen cheered Garrick on stage and proudly displayed the complete works of Shakespeare in their homes, no doubt ignoring the existence of that most anti-French of all plays: “Henry V” wherein all the French male characters, with the exception of the king whose daughter went on to marry Owen Tudor, are shown as oversexed, overconfident, vainglorious and class conscious.

The chapter titled “The Religious and Cultural Divide in the 16th and 17th Centuries” deals admirably with the persecution of the Protestants in France (and the escape of many to England, thus providing the land with many a skilled craftsman and a reputation for religious tolerance).

Gibson takes us through Britain’s civil wars, France’s revolution, Napoleon and  the first mention of the notion that a tunnel under the Channel might be a good idea, but then again wouldn’t it make an invasion just that little bit too easy? Two world wars where neither party appears to really trust the other and on to the end of the 20th century and what have we?

Despite the now physical link between Britain and France, their membership in the European Union and a plethora of “twinning” between French and British municipalities, Gibson points out that “John Bull and Marianne remain separated by their gender, temperament, social class and political allegiances.” He concludes that “no two countries have made so powerful and protracted an impact as these two have upon the lives of one another.” Admiring the individual merits of each country, which exist as a consequence of these centuries of alternate cooperation and conflict, he expresses the hope that “the English and the French will continue to cultivate the fundamental differences between each other and relish the difference.”

Robert Gibson’s book is not only a pleasure to read and a lively way of revising history but also a means of better understanding Anglo-French relations – just how mutually enriching cordial animosity can be.


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