Paul Vidal de La Blache

Eyridiki Sellou | Feb 19, 2024

Table of Content


Paul Marie Joseph Vidal de La Blache or Vidal-Lablache, born on January 22, 1845 in Pézenas (Hérault) and died on April 5, 1918 in Tamaris-sur-Mer (Var), was a renowned French geographer. He was, with his disciple Lucien Gallois, at the initiative of the Annales de géographie, the basis of the renewal of French geography at the end of the 19th century.

Years of youth and training

Son of Antoine Vidal de La Blache (1810-1876), a teacher who was determined to succeed and who obtained the agrégation de lettres on his eleventh attempt (1854) and became an inspector of the academy in 1864, and of Jeanne Marie Jaquette Bar, born on October 5, 1815 in Bram, Paul Vidal de La Blache was a brilliant student at the Lycée Charlemagne: he entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1863 at the age of 18. In 1866, he passed the agrégation in history and geography and was a substitute teacher at the Lycée de Carcassonne in 1866-1867. Appointed to the French School of Athens from 1867 to 1870, he took advantage of this assignment to travel around the Mediterranean basin: to Italy, Palestine and Egypt, where he enthusiastically attended the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

A historian turned geographer

It was while traveling through Greece and trying to understand the weight of places on the destiny of civilizations that Vidal de La Blache discovered his own path as a geographer.

Back in France, he teaches in Angers. In 1870 he married Laure Mondot, with whom he had five children, only two of whom survived him. He was in Paris at the beginning of 1871 during the Commune, and on April 22, with a false Brazilian passport, he went from Paris to Versailles, with the main concern of being able to print his thesis "Critical Study on his life". He presented it in 1872, at the Sorbonne, then published it under the title Herod Atticus. In spite of a difficult circumstance, he finally obtained his doctorate in letters. This thesis was the prelude to a reorientation of his career towards a university discipline that was still secondary in France, but which was to undergo considerable development under his mastery, geography.

The apostle of university and school geography in France

After the defeat of Prussia, a movement arose in France to develop the study and teaching of geography at the university and in the school system. Geography was still in its infancy in the 19th century when one considers its success in Germany. The geographers of the other side of the Rhine, Alexander von Humboldt, Ritter, Ratzel, Von Richthofen, are envied models that serve as an example for the university renovation of French geography, an element of the national scientific reconquest. As for Élisée Reclus, fifteen years older and the most famous French geographer in the second half of the 19th century, he is in many ways the antithesis of Vidal de La Blache: as an anarchist, he deliberately placed himself outside of any academic institution (he was a member, however, of many learned societies), lived banished (1872-1879) and then expatriated (1879-1890) in Switzerland and later in Belgium (1894-1905), preferred to address the general public directly, did not advocate any nationalistic aims or disciplinary canon, and had no intention of being a "master" making "school."

A symbolic place par excellence - its creation was the result of the relocation of the University of Strasbourg, a city annexed by the Second Reich -, the University of Nancy welcomed the young researcher who had worked hard to become a teacher, first as a lecturer in 1872.

Judged too young, he gave courses there, but did not become a professor until 1875, at the age of 30, holding a chair of geography "rid", at his request, of its traditional association with History.

From then on, as an apostle of this discipline within academic circles, Vidal gradually became "indispensable". His immense influence continued into the 1960s through the school he helped found. He was a lecturer and then deputy director of the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d'Ulm (1877-1898), a professor at the Sorbonne (1898-1909), a direct teacher of many historians (Lucien Febvre, etc.) and geographers (Marcel Dubois, Lucien Gallois, Emmanuel de Martonne, Albert Demangeon, Raoul Blanchard, etc.), a publisher of school materials - including a book on the history of the world - and a professor of geography. Throughout his life, he published numerous works and articles, which are references for researchers, even today. He was also a publisher of school materials, including the famous wall maps that can still be found by the thousands in elementary school.

He also collaborated with several journals such as the Revue critique from 1874 to 1876, the Revue de géographie and the Revue scientifique.

The Annals of Geography and Universal Geography

In 1891, Vidal founded, with Marcel Dubois and Lucien Gallois, the journal Annales de géographie, the main organ of expression of the École française de géographie. In 1894, he published the monumental Atlas d'histoire et de géographie, one of the first works to consist essentially of maps accompanied by short synthetic comments. He then presented the famous Tableau de la géographie de la France in 1903. This one, which serves as an introduction to Lavisse's Histoire de France, a volume that has a great impact on public opinion. In 1895, he separated from his student Marcel Dubois, a supporter of colonial geography and an opponent of a regional geography that was too naturalistic: from then on, a certain rivalry animated the community of French geographers, fanned by Dubois's antidreyfusard commitment, even if the common attachment to the "master" Vidal was a general factor.

In addition, Vidal drew up the plan for the Universal Geography in 1910, the first volumes of which were ready in 1914, but which was published after his death for more than 20 years - from 1927 to 1948 - by several of his disciples, editors chosen by him and who benefited from the university chairs created throughout the country by the master: Albert Demangeon, Raoul Blanchard, André Cholley, Henri Baulig, Emmanuel de Martonne. The latter, the most fervent of his students - being also his son-in-law - will be the most effective of his "propagandists" until his death in 1955.

After several years of academic work, he published La France de l'Est (Lorraine-Alsace) in 1917, a work obviously influenced by the conflict that had been raging in France since 1914 against the victor of 1870. He supports the formula of regional organization around the big cities, valorizing the function of animation of Nancy and Strasbourg. Alongside this modern vision of flows and polarization, he also resurrects in this last book certain political values by pointing out the ascendancy exercised by the republican ideal on Alsace and Lorraine at the time of the Revolution, which makes their inhabitants an elective nation in the French style.

Geographers at the service of the Nation at war

As the ultimate mission offered to Vidal by the Army Geographic Service, the head of the French school of geography was called upon to obtain the assistance of academics (including Martonne, Demangeon, Gallois, etc.) in order to support the war effort or prepare documentation to anticipate the consequences of victory. In February 1917, Briand created the Comité d'études du ministère des Affaires étrangères, chaired by Lavisse and assisted by Vidal de La Blache, which brought together the elite historians and geographers of the Collège de France and the Sorbonne. The reports presented prepare the action of geographers - Martonne first - who will be in the front line during the peace conference to decide, as a result of an expertise that is recognized at the time, the new map of political Europe.

The price of blood

Vidal de La Blache died at the age of 73 in April 1918 after having paid a tribute to a world conflict whose end he would not see, his son Joseph, a geographer like him, having been killed in January 1915 in the Argonne.

A true manifesto that took him a good ten years to write and that he delivered three years late, the "Tableau" is a summary of Vidal's working method. He travels throughout the country, noting everything he observes in dozens of notebooks. He was interested in human and political aspects, geology (a science in its infancy at the time, with little connection to geography), transportation and history. He is one of the first French geographers, after Élisée Reclus, to link all these fields in a literary way.

Influenced by German thought, in particular by Friedrich Ratzel, whom he met in Germany, Vidal was the originator of what Lucien Febvre called his possibilism - a term that Vidal never uttered, but which conveniently summarizes his opposition to a determinism of nature that was outrageously attributed to certain nineteenth-century geographers like Carl Ritter. In other words, Vidal's possibilism focuses on the influence that human beings have on their environment. In contrast, determinism of nature, considered by Ratzel and Ritter, "relates human groups to the spatial units in which they develop and emphasizes the propensity of a state to expand or reduce its boundaries according to its needs and interests." This concept has been used by historians to refer to the epistemological vagueness that, for them, characterized the approach of the Vidalian school. Described as "idiographic" because it stemmed from an observation, undoubtedly magisterial but unique, this approach prevented a "nomothetic" evolution of the discipline that would be the fruit of an experiment that would make it possible to identify laws or scientific demonstrations.

Vidal, who never aimed at this objective, nevertheless published in 1910 a visionary article on "the French Regions". He had been asked by the President of the Council Aristide Briand to create regional groupings with representative bodies. Vidal de La Blache proposed a division of France into regions organized by a metropolis. The economic realities of the modern world, with global competition and the shrinking of the Earth due to accelerated circulation, made him feel that less centralized and less state-run modes of organization should be promoted.

The "Vidalian" geography is based on a varied and innovative cartography multiplying the plays of scale, on monographs, and several famous concepts of which the "landscapes", the "environments", the "regions", the "kinds of life", the "density". The students of the master followed, in particular with their theses of regional geography. Thus De Martonne ( Demangeon (1902), La plaine picarde : Picardie. Artois. Cambrésis. Beauvaisis. Geographical study on the chalk plains of northern France; Blanchard (Cholley (Baulig (1928), Le plateau central et sa bordure méditerranéenne: étude morphologique, Each of these future eminent professors and editors of the Géographie Universelle, presents a thesis of regional geography which can be at the same time physical, human, even economic; the framework chosen for these descriptions is a region whose contours are not always very firm on the scientific level. However, probably because this approach is more structuring, many of Vidal's followers - and even more so de Martonne - specialize in a geomorphology that has gradually become the strength but also, through the narrowing of the viewpoint it has given, the weakness of French geography.

Between the two wars, "classical geography" remained within the framework set by the Vidalian tradition. It was defended by an established and conservative elite that marginalized all attempts at epistemological renewal, to the point that at the end of the Second World War the discipline was in the state that Vidal had left it at his death. The disciples had stuck to a particular aspect of the master's thought and had not been able to grasp its complexity and abundance, with the result that the field of the discipline had shrunk. An unchanging trilogy was imposed in research and university studies: physical geography (Martonne, Baulig), regional geography (Blanchard, Cholley) and human geography (Brunhes, Demangeon, Sorre), broken down on a smaller scale by order of frequency and importance, into geomorphology, then rural, regional and finally tropical geography

Naturalist, monographer, morphologist, literary and didactic, classical geography underwent, with the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of urban, industrial or geopolitical studies, a rapid renewal through its radical transformation into a social science, which led to the rediscovery of Vidal de La Blache's anti-institutional contemporary, Élisée Reclus.

Vidal-Lablache remains very present in the French collective imagination through the collection of school wall maps that he directed at the Armand Colin bookstore. The publisher kept the name of Vidal-Lablache on all the maps published until the 1960s. As these maps were present in practically every school in France, they contributed to Vidal-Lablache's posthumous notoriety among the general public and constitute a "place of memory".

On the occasion of the centenary of the death of Paul Vidal de la Blache, several exhibitions and documentary resources on Vidal and the Vidalians have been organized and are available:

1. a material exhibition, from December 3, 2018 to January 31, 2019, at the ENS Ulm;

2. two very richly illustrated virtual exhibitions: one on the ENS website, linked to the previous exhibition; the other on the website of the digital library of the inter-university library of the Sorbonne (BIS), devoted to the detailed analysis of Vidal's field notebooks;

3. a high-resolution digital version of each of Vidal's 33 field notebooks, throughout his scientific career.

See also:


  1. Paul Vidal de La Blache
  2. Paul Vidal de La Blache
  3. Il est nommé « Monsieur Vidal-Lablache, Abel, Antoine, Joseph, régent de Philosophie et de Rhétorique au collège de Bédarieux » par le rectorat de Montpellier en 1836.
  4. Où Paul Vidal de La Blache passe une partie de son enfance et hérite d'un domaine.
  5. C'est sur cet acte de mariage que figure pour la première fois le patronyme « Vidal de La Blache ».
  6. ^ Preston E. James & Geoffrey J. Martin. All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas, Second Edition, p.194.
  7. ^ "Paul Vidal de la Blache – A biographical sketch by Jason Hilkovitch & Max Fulkerson". Archived from the original on 2006-09-09. Retrieved 2006-09-23.
  8. ^ Nicolas Ginsburger, « Des îles grecques à la géographie coloniale : Marcel Dubois à la conquête de la Sorbonne (1876–1895) », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 822, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 22 mai 2018. URL :; Nicolas Ginsburger, « La Belle Époque d’un géographe colonial : Marcel Dubois, universitaire et figure publique, entre Affaire Dreyfus et Entente cordiale (1894–1905) », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 855, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2018, consulté le 22 mai 2018. URL :
  9. ^ Fonti biografiche: Numa Broc, Regards sur la géographie française de la Renaissance à nos jours., Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 1995. Paul Claval, André-Louis Sanguin, La Géographie française à l'époque classique (1918-1968), Paris, L'Harmattan, 1996. Marie-Claire Robic, Le Tableau de la géographie de la France de Paul Vidal de La Blache. Dans le labyrinthe des formes, Paris, Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2000
  10. Numa Broc, Regards sur la géographie française de la Renaissance à nos jours., Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 1995.
  11. Paul Claval, André-Louis Sanguin, La Géographie française à l'époque classique (1918-1968), Paris, L'Harmattan, 1996.
  12. a b D. Fliedner: Sozialgeographie (=Lehrbuch der allgemeinen Geographie). Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1993, S. 37.
  13. a b J. Maier, R. Paesler, K. Ruppert, F. Schaffer: Sozialgeographie (=Das geographische Seminar). Westermann, Braunschweig 1977, S. 13.

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