Le territoire de l'historien
The Territory of the Historian
Carnival in Romans
There cannot be much serious doubt that in the last twenty years Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has been one of the most—if not the most—original, versatile, and imaginative historians in the world. He has also been one of the most productive; books, articles, and reviews by him have poured forth in an unending stream. Recently, moreover, he has acquired an almost unique capacity to capture the imagination of a mass audience, while still retaining the respect and admiration of his professional colleagues.
The two volumes of essays collected in Le territoire de l’historien, I and II (1973 and 1978), of which only parts of the first have been translated into English as The Territory of the Historian, together provide a fair impression of the range and quality of Le Roy Ladurie’s work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first thing that strikes one about these essays is the astonishing curiosity and inventiveness that inspired them. Ladurie has tried hard to group them under vague headings—“Learning to Live with Computers,” “The Historian in the Countryside,” “Pressure of Numbers,” “History without People” for the first volume; “The Body,” “The Countryside,” “Social Systems” for the second—but in fact the contents burst exuberantly out of all such attempts at classification. Most historians at an early stage stake out their territory in the great prairie of history, and remain there, tending to their burrow for the rest of their lives. Not so Le Roy Ladurie, who flits restlessly across the plains, never stopping for very long in any one place. And what strange places he visits!
Who but Le Roy Ladurie would have thought of subjecting a variety of sixteenth-century European silver coins to neutron bombardment in order to prove whether or not the metal originated in the great silver mine at Potosi in Peru? Who else, noticing while on holiday that broken tree trunks were sticking out of the melting Rhone glacier high above the present tree-line, would have recognized their significance for climatic history, and have had the initiative to arrange for slices to be cut and sent to Paris for dendro-chronological analysis in order to establish when the area was last warm enough to support trees? Who else would have thought of using the date of the grape harvest to measure the temperature of summers over the centuries? Who else would have read Saint-Simon and then tried to apply the methods of Structuralism to work out a “political science” of the factions and their interconnections at the court of Louis XIV?
The answer to these rhetorical questions is, of course, that no one in the world except Le Roy Ladurie would or could or has done them. He is the living embodiment of Francis Bacon’s comment that “of knowledge there is no satiety, but satisfaction and appetite are perpetually interchangeable…. Neither is that pleasure of small efficacy and…
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