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 sociability1 and Yves Castan’s analysis of Occitanian values as reflected in the eighteenth-century judicial records of the Parlement of Toulouse. 2 Professor Le Roy Ladurie is already well known as the author of a long monograph on the peasants of Languedoc and his new book does much to confirm a picture of the French Southerner as heretical, detached, and resolutely independent. In fact he is sharply critical of much current Occitanian mythology,3 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 position in the evolution of French historical writing. For it is the first wholly successful attempt to write the total history of a small community with as much regard for the mental attitudes of the inhabitants as for their social and economic situation. As such, it remedies what has been a long-standing bias in the writing of history by the Annales school. Although both Bloch and Febvre preached the doctrine of total history, the study of what they called mentalité has in practice lagged far behind the production of essentially economic and demographic studies like Pierre Goubert’s superb work on Beauvais or indeed Le Roy Ladurie’s own earlier book on the peasants of Languedoc. The masterpiece of the Annales school is normally taken to be Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. But the description of mental, as opposed to physical or economic, structures has never been Braudel’s forte; indeed mentalité is a dimension largely missing from that stupendous work. In recent years there has been a resurgence of Annales-inspired writing on such topics as carnivals, festivals, attitudes to children and death. Yet it is impossible to think of a study which so successfully unites the geographical and economic side of the Annales tradition with the mental and conceptual one as does Montaillou.
Certainly Lucien Febvre himself never produced such a work, though he was always hovering on the brink of doing so. In his programmatic essays and manifestoes, combats pour l’histoire as he called them, he repeatedly urged the collective investigation of human sentiments. “We have no history of death,” he would lament. “We have no history of pity or of cruelty. We have no history of joy.” Quite what such histories would have looked like was never clear. In practice his own work was free from any hint of vapidity and he showed an acute sensitivity to the constraints of the material environment. With a few telling anecdotes he would plunge his readers back into the sixteenth century, so that they could feel the cold in the lord’s drafty hall and hear the dogs scuffling under the table.
Life in Renaissance France, the latest selection of his essays to be translated into English, is a slight work, containing five articles which first appeared in the Revue des cours’et conférences in the 1920s and were afterward reprinted in Pour une histoire à part entière (1962). Yet though over fifty years old they still retain a remarkable freshness. Febvre conveys with a vivid particularity just what it was like to live in a world without tea, coffee, or spirits, where the horse was the chief means of transport and where tough physical endurance was as much a qualification for the scholar as for the peasant. His brief chapters on art, scholarship, religion, and commerce are still worth reading for their directness and the delicacy of their insights. But one is left with an enhanced feeling of regret that the most fascinating historical publicist of the twentieth century should never have produced a masterpiece to embody all his aspirations.
Perhaps it is just as well that Febvre never lived to see Montaillou, for one can imagine the orgy of self-congratulation with which he would have received a book so triumphantly vindicating the essential principles of the Annales tradition. Here at last he could have pointed to a wholly successful demonstration of the historian’s capacity to bring together almost every dimension of human experience into a single satisfying whole.
The village of Montaillou is perched on a plateau in the Pyrenees, in the south of the present-day department of Ariège, about five miles from Ax-les-Thermes and not far from the Spanish frontier. The present village stands on a slightly different site and there have been no excavations of the older settlement. Le Roy Ladurie is therefore unable to offer a plan or street map. His reconstruction of the community’s fourteenth-century past is almost entirely based upon the Latin record of the elaborate interrogations carried out by Jacques Fournier, the bishop of Pamiers, between 1318 and 1325, in his attempt to stamp out the embers of the Catharist (or Albigensian) heresy. For Montaillou was full of heretics; indeed in 1308 the whole population had been temporarily arrested by the Inquisition. Fournier was a tireless inquisitor (he was later to become Pope Benedict XII) and the answers he elicited threw graphic light on many intimate matters besides heresy. The record of his inquiry has long been known to scholars. It was published in three volumes by Jean Duvernoy in 1965 and has been the object of sundry theses and learned studies. Le Roy Ladurie is the first to exploit its implications to the full.
What he has done is to construct out of the depositions an immensely detailed picture of Montaillou in particular and the mountainous Sabarthès region in general. He portrays the social structure of the village; he analyzes its economy (with a marvelous evocation of the migrant shepherds who took their flocks each year over the mountains to Catalonia); and he probes the mental and psychological world of the inhabitants. He covers everything: love and marriage; gestures and emotions; illiteracy; conversation and gossip; clans and factions; crime and violence; concepts of time and space; attitudes to the past; animals; magic and folklore; death and beliefs about the other world. There is inevitably a lot about religion and Catharism, but these topics do not dominate his account. Wherever they illuminate the argument he quotes the exact words of the villagers as they are reported in the register. The whole is an integrated analysis, reminiscent of the best kind of village study by a modern social anthropologist.
Le Roy Ladurie’s book, however, is a good deal more colorful than most such studies. Montaillou may have been “a backward, illiterate, insanitary and rather disagreeable Pyrenean village.”4 But its inhabitants come through as sharply etched personalities. The constant fear of being arrested for heresy gave a nasty edge to village feuds, for enemies, including husbands and wives, could always threaten each other with denunciation to the Inquisition. This “Kafkaesque world of spies and betrayals,” as the author calls it, was dominated by the brothers Clergue. Bernard Clergue was bailiff to the count of Foix, in whose territory the village lay. Pierre Clergue was the village priest, but a clandestine heretic and, his short height notwithstanding, a lecher of gigantic proportions. By exploiting his ability to report heretics to the ecclesiastical authorities he built up a sinister protection racket which along with other advantages enabled him to bring his total of mistresses well into double figures. One of these he entertained in a bed specially made up in the church itself; others were reassured by the special contraceptive herb which he would hang around their necks. Among his conquests was the village’s only noble-woman, the châtelaine, Béatrice de Planissoles, whose lovers, in between two marriages, included two priests and a bastard member of the Clergue family.
With a cast like this, Professor Le Roy Ladurie scarcely needs any dialogue. But the register furnishes him with snatches of contemporary conversation which show that the Provençal tradition of passionate love was no mere literary convention. Not only was there widespread tolerance of concubinage, but some of the peasants openly declared that there was nothing wrong about extramarital sex, provided it gave both parties pleasure and, if a prostitute was involved, provided it was paid for. “With Pierre Clergue,” said little Grazide Lizier, “I liked it; and so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.” Later, when she tired of the priest’s advances, she announced that since she no longer felt carnal desire, the act would now be sinful.
Pierre Clergue himself had an interesting primal myth to explain the origin of modern inhibitions. “When the world began,” he told Beatrice, “brothers knew their sisters carnally, but when many brothers had one or two pretty sisters, each brother wanted to have her or them. Hence many murders. That is why the sexual act between brother and sister had to be forbidden.” His own mistresses included his sister-in-law, and his attitude to the incest taboo was far from rigid. “It would be better,” declared this guardian of souls, “for a brother to marry his sister rather than to receive a wife who was a stranger, and similarly, for a sister to marry her brother, rather than to leave the paternal house taking with her a large amount of money as a dowry in order to marry a husband who was a stranger: under such a system, the paternal house is practically destroyed.”
This commitment to the preservation of “the paternal house,” the house-cum-family embodied in the notion of the ostal or domus, was, in Le Roy Ladurie’s view, the central value of Montaillou. The villagers even kept bits of fingernails and hair from the body of the deceased head of the family so as to emphasize the continuity of their line. Yet attachment to the domus was not incompatible with marriage for love: “It’s still within marriage that people make love most often,” said one villager. Of course, peasant society was misogynous and in marriage the initiative was the man’s. He would usually marry a girl much younger than himself, and it was only after his death that she really came into her own. The matriarch was an important figure in Montaillou, whereas old men had little respect.
Children, by contrast, were dearly cherished and their deaths occasioned great distress. Indeed one of the attractions of the Catharist heresy was the reassurance it offered bereaved mothers that the soul of their dead child could be reborn in a new fetus when they conceived again. Le Roy Ladurie’s findings on this subject should deal the coup de grâce to the persistent myth that the love of children is a relatively recent invention.
Outside the world of married folk were the celibate, seminomadic proletarians of Montaillou, the shepherds, whose lives centered not on the domus in the village but on the exclusively masculine shepherds’ cabane, high in the mountains. Le Roy Ladurie presents a remarkably detailed biography of the happy shepherd, Pierre Maury, a man who changed his master more often than he changed his shirt. A wandering heretic, deeply attached to a Cathar holy man, he lacked a wife or any permanent possessions. Yet he had many temporary sweethearts and made many bonds of friendship. Sometimes he owned sheep, but usually poverty was both his fate and his ideal. Freely accepting his lot, he despised the rich. For all the rigors of his life he was always cheerful.
From these memorable figures the author turns to an evocation of the texture of life in the village. It was full of feuds and personal violence, but there were few crimes against property, drunkenness was virtually nonexistent, and only one murder occurred in a generation. Homosexuality was exclusively associated with the remote urban world of Pamiers. Ablutions were predictably summary, but the ritual of delousing the human head (always performed by a woman) was a familiar social activity, an occasion for gossip and the exchange of confidences, sometimes even a prelude to love-making. Animals were everywhere, some living under the same roof, others hated for their supposed malevolence. Le Roy Ladurie analyzes them in up-to-date anthropological fashion, classifying them according to their relative distance from human society.
Finally, he describes the villagers’ religion. The Cathars had an elite of bon chrétiens or parfaits, sworn to lifelong abstention from meat and sex. Below them came a much larger body of less ascetic followers. These were the simple believers who postponed their full commitment to the religion until their death-beds, when they would receive from one of the holy men the benediction which, followed by a suicidal fast, would ensure their passage to paradise.
Much support for Catharism seems to have been generated by the extortions of the Church, whose excessive demands for tithes caused much more resentment than any comparable seigneurial exactions and created a tradition of bitter anticlericalism. Le Roy Ladurie points to the continuity of the tithes issue in Occitania from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth. He also documents the existence of a proto-Protestant emphasis on justification by faith and a vigorous hostility to a worldly Church. Most striking of all is his description of peasant skeptics who thought that the world was eternal and that the soul was merely blood. They doubted the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the miracle of the Eucharist; and in their assertion that heaven and hell were not actual places but merely states of mind they anticipated the English Ranters of the seventeenth century. There would have been some shocks here for Lucien Febvre, who argued in his book on the religion of Rabelais that religious unbelief was intellectually impossible in a pre-scientific age.
All this and much more is presented in this superbly invigorating and original book. To appreciate just how original it is one need only contrast it with a new study of Broughton, an English village in Huntingdonshire, which has recently been investigated over almost exactly the same period by Edward Britton, a Canadian scholar. Mr. Britton writes under the direct influence of Professor J.A. Raftis and the more remote inspiration of G.C. Homans’s English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. Reacting strongly against the legal categories of freedom and villeinage in which so much English medieval agrarian history has been written, he argues that the village’s lord (the abbot of Ramsey) was remote and that legal status was largely irrelevant. There are strong parallels here with Montaillou, where feudal authority seems to have been something to be manipulated by its local representatives for their own advantage, rather than an independent force of its own.
Like Le Roy Ladurie, Mr. Britton seeks to produce an anthropology of the village community. Making excellent use of the manorial court rolls, he reconstructs the workings of the local society. By identifying the families in whose hands the petty offices of juror, aletaster, reeve, etc., tended to fall, he is able to prove the existence of a social hierarchy among the peasants, unrelated to freedom or villeniage, but closely correlated with differences in wealth. He has interesting things to say about sexual morality, the position of women, and the structure of the family. He also offers a lively refutation of Professor M.M. Postan’s view that the average villager’s holding could no longer afford an adequate subsistence.
It is a valuable piece of work, carefully done. It will stimulate discussion and research. But it has none of the magic of Montaillou; and although its appendices contain hundreds of names there are no live people in its pages. Mr. Britton is not to be blamed. The simple truth is that careful statistical analysis is all that his sources permit; there were many dimensions of life in Broughton which have left no trace behind them.
Le Roy Ladurie, therefore, has two unique advantages over other historians of village life. The first is Fournier’s register, a source of incomparable richness. The second is his own creative imagination and panache. Witty and sophisticated, fertile and inventive, he bubbles over with ideas and comparisons, though sometimes with a faint touch of slickness. As the blurb to the French edition suggested, he is an author who offers “des méthodes historiques et ethnographiques les plus actuelles.”
The English translation is a much tauter and sparer work, perhaps more than a third shorter than the original. We are not told the principle on which the abridgement has been made, but a comparison with the original French version reveals that the text has been carefully pruned throughout. Many (but not all) of the numerous repetitions have been eliminated and umpteen self-indulgences of style and expression have been cut. Toward the end chapters are thrown together and the cuts become increasingly frequent; perhaps the concluding sections were more repetitive or perhaps the maker of the abridgment was afraid of not reaching his prescribed target. The overall outcome is not wholly satisfactory, for the excisions inevitably rob the work of some of its subtlety and a lot of its wit. The scholar, moreover, will lament the further reduction of the (already rather exiguous) annotation and the dropping of most of the reflective passages in which the author relates his findings to current historiographical issues or compares Montaillou with other peasant societies. The continuing lack of a proper index is unforgivable, but the gap has been partly filled by a new and helpfully detailed genealogical guide to the inhabitants of the village. Otherwise little that is essential has been lost; and the translation is excellent. If only each issue of Annales had to be translated into English, how much wordiness we should be spared!
It is hard to see how other scholars can hope to emulate Le Roy Ladurie’s achievement, short of discovering another source as rewarding as Fournier. Some indeed will not want to emulate it. For if all history turns into retrospective anthropology, then a strong reaction in favor of the discarded histoire événementielle may be confidently predicted. Meanwhile historians will be in some doubt how far Le Roy Ladurie’s findings can be extended by analogy to other medieval villages elsewhere. As a community of heretics, dominated by a clerical Don Juan, Montaillou, to put it mildly, was highly idiosyncratic. Catharism indeed may have made the peasants untypically tolerant of sexual irregularity, by teaching that all the desires of the flesh were sinful. For if even marriage was ungodly, why should one be particularly censorious about sexual misbehavior outside it? “Since everything is forbidden,” said Pierre Clergue, “everything is allowed.”
The heretical doctrine of the transmigration of souls may also have made the villagers more fond of small children. For a soul to be reborn in human form was a sign of its innate goodness; bad souls went into animals. Montaillou was also exceptionally isolated. The inhabitants married among themselves and seldom emigrated. (There was a Clergue in the telephone directory in the 1970s.) They spoke a dialect confined to no more than a thousand people. They had little sense of the past and no aspirations for the future. The domus in this world and paradise in the next. Such was the world of Montaillou. Le Roy Ladurie has evoked it in such a way as to guarantee it an ethnographic immortality comparable to that enjoyed by the Nuer or the Trobriand Islanders. But the relevance of this tiny Pyrenean village to societies elsewhere remains uncertain.
Perhaps its real importance is as a fuel to the imagination. If, as is not impossible, Montaillou proves the subject of some future French film, that will be a wholly appropriate outcome. For it is a romantic book, exploiting many emotions in the French breast: feelings about Occitanian nationalism; memories of resistance and collaboration; and that nostalgia for the small rural community which increasingly inflicts all city-dwellers. In a recent credo,5 its author declares that the writing of history still requires imagination, fantasy, and sensitivity. “The décor and the display,” he confesses, “are as important as the merchandise, and the style is as important as the thought.” The writing of history is now a gigantic industry, employing many under-laborers and every kind of industrial technique. But it remains, he insists, an essentially “aristocratic” profession, requiring its supreme practitioners to display old-fashioned craftsmanship in its highest form. Few readers of Montaillou will challenge this assertion. Fewer still will doubt that if ever there were a natural historical aristocrat it is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
October 12, 1978
Pénitents et Francs-maçons de l’ancienne Provence: essai sur la sociabilité méridionale (Paris, 1968); La République au Village (Paris, 1970); La Vie sociale en Provence intérieure au lendemain de la Révolution (Paris, 1971). ↩
Honnêté et relations sociales en Languedoc (1715-1780) (Paris, 1974) ↩
See his “Occitania in Historical Perspective” in Review (Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton, NY), I, 1 (Summer 1977). ↩
P.S. Lewis in English Historical Review, XCII (1977), p. 372. ↩
“Recent historical ‘discoveries,’ ” Daedalus (Fall, 1977). ↩