The Constituent National Assembly introduced the départements in 1790 as a perfect expression of Revolutionary iconoclasm and rationalism. The old provinces were intentionally eliminated in both name and form. Their accretion of historical happenstance, accumulated privileges and ‘customary law’ jurisdictions had epitomized the defects of the Ancien Régime and was replaced by 83 logically determined subdivisions named neutrally after local geographical features such as mountains and rivers. For example, Pyrénées-Orientales replaced Roussillon, and Pas de Calais and Nord replaced Flanders and Hainault and Artois. This logical construction extended to the selection of the departmental centre of government (prefecture) – not the largest city, necessarily, but somewhere near the geographical centre, within a day’s horse ride of the département’s borders. Each département was further divided into arrondissements, then cantons, and, finally, communes (roughly the equivalent of an English parish).
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