Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error
Life in Renaissance France
The Community of the Village: A Study in the History of the Family and Village Life in Fourteenth-Century England
If an academic historian today were to enter the offices of a commercial publisher bearing a learned monograph nearly 300,000 words long, he would be coolly received. If he were to explain that his work was based on a single Latin source and that it related exclusively to the fortunes of an obscure Pyrenean village of some 250 inhabitants in the early fourteenth century, then it is a virtual certainty that he would be firmly shown the door. Yet this is the improbable formula underlying the success of what now looks like being one of the great historical best sellers of the century. In France Montaillou has become almost a household name since its original publication in 1975, and its author, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, professor at the Collège de France, is now perhaps the most fashionable living historian in the Western world.
Not all the reasons for this phenomenon arise from the intrinsic merits of the book itself. Part of the explanation lies in the subtitle of the French edition—village occitan. Much regional feeling now surrounds the age-old linguistic division of France into the lands of Oc and Oïl. (The regions south of a line running from Poitiers to Grenoble—including Provence, Gascony, the Auvergne, and Languedoc itself—were thought to pronounce oui as oc; those in the north said oïl.) Occitanian self-consciousness has recently stimulated such notable historical writing as Maurice Agulhon’s studies of Southern sociability but that may not have prevented the readers of Montaillou from seeing him as a new Wizard of Oc.
Equally important as an explanation of the book’s renown is the intellectual status of the author and his subject. France is probably the only country nowadays where history is still regarded as central to intellectual life, the undisputed focus of les sciences humaines. It owes this position very largely to the success of Annales, the journal founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre with the avowed intention of revitalizing historical scholarship by snatching the reins from the dour practitioners of old-fashioned political and diplomatic narrative, l’histoire événementielle. Today the intellectual centrality of Annales is unchallenged. Its pages are open not just to historians but also to archaeologists, economists, demographers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, linguisticians, dendro-chronologers, ethnomusicographers: practitioners indeed of every discipline and peddlers of every fashionable nostrum. Le Roy Ladurie’s name has been on the masthead of Annales since 1967; a new work from his pen cannot fail to attract widespread attention.
Fortunately, the attention is well deserved. Montaillou occupies an altogether special …