Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie; drawing by David Levine

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 contentment to the mind of Man.”

The message of The Territory of the Historian is harsh and clear: narrative history, the history of events, political history, and biography are dead. The methodology of history must now be strictly quantitative, preferably with uniform sets of data covering time-spans of several centuries; it must concern itself with long-term shifts in the material bases of life; it must focus on the masses, not the elite; and it must analyze structures, not describe events. The result, he asserts, will be a history that is “logical, intelligible, predictable,” at the mercy of neither accidents like battles or plagues, nor human intervention by the exercise of the individual or collective will. It will be true “scientific history,” based at bottom on the relationship of population to food supply.

In the 1960s, Le Roy Ladurie was thus the trumpeter and the standard-bearer of the newest of the “new historians,” the “cliometricians.” His empirical work on computerized “histoire sérielle,” such as the physical anthropology of conscripts, the effect of the weather on food production, the output per acre over five centuries as measured in tithe records, and the demographic studies, all stemmed from a strong belief in the primacy in historical causation of economic and demographic factors. This passionate espousal of a crude materialism seems strange coming from so intensely sophisticated a mind. It sprang, perhaps, partly from his early—but fairly short-lived—enthusiasm for Marxism, partly from the long quantitative tradition of the great French school of historians, dating back at least to the 1930s, and partly from his desire to achieve certainty, to make history truly scientific.

The practical consequence of this approach to history and historical change is stated several times in The Territory of the Historian, and spelled out in greater detail in the second (untranslated) volume. It is that the history of Europe between 1300 and 1730 or later is “l’histoire immobile“: absolutely nothing of consequence altered in these five centuries. Europe stood still, patiently awaiting the arrival of W.W. Rostow’s economic take-off. It is obvious that one can only come to such a conclusion if one sticks strictly to “écodémographie,” to the bare facts of agricultural productivity per acre and of demographic change—or lack of it. In this tunnel vision of history, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the development of universities, banks, and theaters, the rise of the modern state, the discovery of America, India, and China, the printing press, the compass and gunpowder, perspective, democracy, and love are all out of sight and so out of mind.


In fact, of course, the France of 1730 bore very little resemblance to that of 1300. It had been transformed by major changes in culture—in art, architecture, literature, theology, science, and moral philosophy; in power relations, thanks to the vast expansion of the state, the bureaucracy, and the fiscal system; in society with the invasion of the countryside by wealthy ex-urban capitalist landlords and the rise of a class of substantial kulaks; in economics with the shift to a money economy and the development of sophisticated luxury industries. Unless one is prepared to exclude everything except the relationship of population to agricultural output, Le Roy Ladurie’s concept of “l’histoire immobile” is nonsense, a gross over-simplification even more crude and tendentious than Rostow’s model of “take-off” upon which it is founded.

While many of Le Roy Ladurie’s writings are quite brilliant, others are almost parodies of his chosen methodology. On occasion he falls victim to his own enthusiasm for some tool that will, he hopes, unlock the door to true scientific history. At first, he thought this lay in the computer, and in 1968 he boldly told the world that by 1980 the historian would “have to be a programmer in order to survive.” This was a failed prophecy if ever there was one, as his own later career has shown. After the fiasco of R. W. Fogel and S. Engerman’s Time on the Cross, confidence has waned in vast computerized projects for solving complex historical problems. Most historians count today, but only when it seems appropriate, and whenever possible we try to keep away from the computer as a dangerously time-consuming tool with strictly limited potentialities for the manipulation of such imprecise data as historical evidence.

The Territory of the Historian consequently now wears a very dated look, an expression of the naïve optimism of the 1960s, which was so widespread a mood among avant-garde historians. Today it reflects neither the current central interests and methods of the new historians, nor those of the author himself. The American “cliometricians” so highly praised by Le Roy Ladurie in 1968 and 1969 are now in the academic dog-house; much of Le Roy Ladurie’s own computerized work on the French conscripts in the early nineteenth century and in 1868 is almost unreadable, and some—but far from all—of his findings are banal. A map that proves that seamen were to be found around the shoreline and along the big rivers of France hardly advances knowledge, and the random distribution of the lame means nothing at all. The finding that men with hernias were clustered in port towns with a lot of longshoremen is a less than startling revelation. His reinforcement of the well-known Saint-Mâlo-Geneva line dividing France in two, both economically and culturally, is a valuable, but not an earth-shaking, finding.

Another quantitative study established the movement of rent in Paris over four centuries, adjusted to the price of bread, but it was hardly worth the effort if all it tells us is that rents rose as population density increased. We could have guessed that. A brief love affair with another favorite Parisian toy, structuralism, tempted Le Roy Ladurie to produce a diagrammatic chart of the court of Louis XIV, which looks like a jumbled cat’s cradle. His assertion that this represents a “political science” of the court is more revealing of his motive than of his achievement. In his Times of Feast, Times of Famine, he claimed that climatic change in historic times has had no significant consequence on food production in northwest Europe—a finding which is now under active challenge by others.

On the other hand, there are some marvelous essays in the English volume: a brilliant brief overview of rural civilization; a subtle and sophisticated study of how a structure and an event interlock, using as a case study the origins of conservatism in western rural France; a dazzlingly clever identification of the tripartite distribution of inheritance patterns in France; two beautiful little studies in demography, one on contraception, one on famine amenorrhea. The (untranslated) second volume of essays contains similar jewels: on the catastrophic effect of the microbian unification of the world; on the French peasant in the sixteenth century; on Restif de La Bretonne as an interpreter of the anthropology of French peasant life in the eighteenth century; on the widespread use of magic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to induce impotence in an enemy, using a symbolic ritual derived from the technique for castrating animals. Both volumes fully deserve the publisher’s description of them as “I’histoire avant-garde.”


Also present in the French version, but missing in the English, are two acts of great political courage: one is a spirited but measured defense of René Baerhel, a young historian who, for some reason or other, had received an academic death sentence from the then Godfather of the French history profession, Fernand Braudel. Merely to say a word in praise of Baerhel was a risky act of rebellion in those days. The other is a powerful plea for a reform of the French doctorat d’Etat, which has had a remarkable effect on French education.

The doctorate has produced some of the greatest triumphs of modern historiography, including Le Roy Ladurie’s own superb Les Paysans du Languedoc. But the personal and scholarly cost has been very high. Since 1940 it has been considered essential to write at least 1000 pages, a task which absorbs a scholar’s life and energies until his late thirties at the earliest. Most never finish at all, and many others are so exhausted by the effort that they never write another line. Le Roy Ladurie suggested a simple reform: that those unwilling to undertake this monumental drudgery might receive a doctorat d’Etat on the basis of some of their published work in the form of books and articles. Surprisingly enough, the proposal has now been accepted and is the law, although most of those who had succeeded under the old system were very hostile to any reform, outraged by what they saw as a lowering of standards, and also by Le Roy Ladurie’s frank criticism of their monopoly of elite posts.

If one turns from the quantitative methodology and materialist determinism that characterized Le Roy Ladurie’s work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one finds his most recent publications, first Montaillou and now Carnival in Romans, reflect a wholly different intellectual universe. What matters now are attitudes, values, states of mind, symbolic rituals, folk customs, religious beliefs, manners, and behavior. Gone are the computers, the graphs, and the statistical tables. Gone too is the obsession with long-term structures. Montaillou has deservedly been a best seller in France, England, and America, and is one of the most widely read serious works of history in our time. Its success in France owed a great deal to the nostalgic curiosity of newly suburbanized French men and women about the countryside they have first deserted and then recolonized in the summer, much to the current revival of occitan provincialism, much to the author’s popularity as a frequent television performer, and much to the sensational nature of part of the story.

Hundreds of thousands of readers now know about the womanizing parish priest who slept with the lady of the manor on a mattress on the floor behind the altar of the parish church. As a closet heretic Cathar, Clergues was not merely assuaging his boundless sexual appetite but in the process was ritually defiling the most sacred place in the church. But the success of the book depends less upon such things than upon the sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village. This has enabled Le Roy Ladurie to bring the Middle Ages to life in a way that has probably never been achieved before by any historian.

Already in Montaillou Le Roy Ladurie’s style as well as his content were changing as his language got more baroque and the use of esoteric words, neologisms, and Franglais more common—this last a bad habit one reviewer unkindly ascribed to too frequent association with Princeton. In the English translation of Carnival in Romans readers are spared words like “le speech,” “le meeting,” and phrases like “le wait-and-see,” “une one-man-town,” “un flash-back.” Should we tolerate without protest neologisms like “misérabilisme” and “triomphalisme” which have barely made the revised (1978) edition of the “petit Robert” dictionary, or worse still, “égolâtrique,” “marginalisé,” and “municipalisme,” which presumably await recognition in the next edition? How many of us can get any useful meaning out of “guérinocarnavalesque” or “valeurs apolliniennesdurkheimiennes“? Pity the poor translator!

Behind this fog of words, mercifully clarified in the English translation, Le Roy Ladurie has a fascinating story to tell, one fitfully lit up by flashes of insight derived from such multidisciplinary pundits as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Ibn Kaldoun, Frazer (Golden Bough), Bruno Bettelheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Roland Barthes, and Van Genepp.

Romans lies half way between Grenoble and Valence. In the year 1580 it was a little town of some 6,000 inhabitants, surrounded by strong walls and torn by conflicting antagonisms, social, political, religious, and personal. There were still dark memories of the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew eight years before, and the handful of Protestants left in the town had old scores to settle. Power was in the hands of a small cohesive elite which effectively excluded an increasingly dissatisfied majority of artisans and laborers. There were fierce quarrels over the rising burden of taxation, levied by the rich upon the poor. It was not, however, an economically inequitable society. The top 4 percent owned only 16 percent of the wealth, and the 37 percent of laborers at the bottom owned 26 percent, so that the objective cause of friction was small. Out in the countryside, however, things were very different. There 2 percent of the population—nobles, new and old, and clergy—owned 38 percent of the land.

As the bourgeois noblesse de robe bought up more and more land, which therefore became tax-exempt, the growing burden of war taxation fell increasingly on the remaining peasantry. The injustice of the system was immediate and obvious. Small wonder that the peasants assembled in the thousands to sack and burn the châteaux and rape, torture, and kill their owners. To make matters worse, a powerful group of bandits was entrenched in a nearby castle, from which they spread out to pillage the countryside, while up in the hills there lurked an independent army of Protestant rebels against the provincial government. In Grenoble there were the royal troops, who every now and then would march out on a punitive expedition to subdue peasants, bandits, or Protestants, leaving a trail of devastation behind them. There was circulating among some lawyers and wealthier peasants a corporate vision of Aristotelian harmony based on primitive notions of equality—not of individuals, but of status groups. The sources of this ideology were part Biblical, part classical republican, and part legal, and ranged from Plato to Cicero to Bodin.

This new book by Le Roy Ladurie casts a wavering light upon a dramatic episode in one little town in one month of 1580. In doing so, it reveals these multiple fissures which were opening up in late sixteenth-century society, as the fiscal and administrative demands of the state grew more burdensome, as capitalism spread into the countryside, as the Reformation generated religious passions, and as old ideas of hierarchy clashed with novel ones of participatory democracy.

These conflicts which were tearing the heart out of the countryside helped to detonate the explosion in the town of Romans, where tension was already rising between some of the artisans and laborers, led by a master cloth-worker, Paumier, and the elite, led by a judge, Guérin. The key issues of taxation and power-sharing had already come to the fore in 1579, when Paumier took advantage of the traditional pre-Lenten carnival processions in February to organize his forces, seize the town hall, and install a new set of consuls drawn from the middle ranks of the artisans. The carnival parades, with their costumes and masquerades incorporating old pagan customs, were thus drawn into the contest of social forces. Paumier also, it was alleged, tried to arrange a united front consisting of his urban supporters, the angry Catholic peasant leagues in the countryside, the ferocious brigand band, and the Protestant forces in the hills, all lined up against the provincial government, the noble landlords, and the city patriciate.

As carnival time in Romans approached once again in February 1580, tensions once more mounted. The peasants outside the walls were refusing to pay either taxes or tithes, while inside there was a strike of butchers and bakers, and Paumier was rumored to be drawing up a hit list of fifty-five prominent citizens to be killed. Paumier headed one of the early processions and then thrust his way into the city council chamber, still dressed in the bearskin he had worn in the streets. The laborers and artisans danced and marched through the town carrying flails and wearing shrouds amid cries of “six pence for Christian flesh,” interpreted by the elite as a summons to a massacre.

The city was divided into five “kingdoms” for parade purposes, three of artisans and laborers, and two of the elite. Each “kingdom” crowned its “king,” who led its procession and presided over its feast. On February 14 the procession of the plebeian “Kingdom of the Capon,” led by a man on a donkey, accidentally paraded down the street held by the elitist “Kingdom of the Partridge.” Le Roy Ladurie interprets the man on the donkey as a satirical charivari, a reference to the lack of masculine virility of the elite bourgeois, henpecked and cuckolded by their wives. The next evening, the day before Shrove Tuesday, there was a grand parade of the elite, watched by the plebeians as it wound its way toward a ball in the town hall. As the tail of the procession was entering the building a brawl broke out in the street outside, and the accumulated hatreds exploded. The elite were genuinely afraid that their womenfolk were about to be raped and robbed, and decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against an organized attack by Paumier and his supporters, which they believed was due to begin at dawn. Three gangs of armed men sallied out of the town hall, twelve men to a gang. Two seized two of the city gates, while the third made its way to the house of Paumier, where the men shot him dead as soon as he appeared in the street.

The next day, the remaining city gates were seized so as to prevent the peasants from entering the town. Then the elite proceeded at leisure to settle old scores, trying and executing some twenty to thirty plebeian ringleaders, some after torture to reveal all they knew of possible plots. This pre-emptive strike (if such it was) was a total success. While the countryside outside the walls went up in flames, the city thereafter remained at peace. All signs of disturbance disappeared, law and order were restored, and the elite resumed its sway.

This, in brief, is the tale Le Roy Ladurie tells with his usual verve, insight, and imagination. The main interest of the story lies in the interplay of real social conflicts, described with acuity and learning at the beginning and end of the book, and the symbolism of the carnival parades, feasts, and masquerades, which forms the core. What began with some vaguely menacing gestures by the poor ended with a sudden blood-letting by the rich. It should be said at once that this new book is no Montaillou, since the documentation is far less full. The main source is an account written by the leader of the elite, Judge Guérin, to justify his actions. Le Roy Ladurie tends to portray him as a black-hearted Machiavellian villain, but it is far from certain that this interpretation is correct. It is hard to discover any objective basis for Le Roy Ladurie’s obvious hatred of Guérin—unless it derives from his hatred of Guérin’s alleged ally, God. He provides evidence that there was a real threat of radical violence from Paumier and his friends; he admits that there was also the even greater threat that they might open the city gates to their peasant allies prowling outside, which would expose the whole town to pillage and rape by bloodthirsty and drunken villagers (as happened elsewhere); Guérin’s story of a murder plot scheduled for 6 AM the next morning may well have been true.

I for one found the Guérin described by Le Roy Ladurie too evil to be convincing. The current fashionable response by historians to social conflict is always to side with the underdog, however savage or outrageous his behavior, and to assume the worst of those in authority. This is certainly healthier than assuming that the rich are always virtuous, but neither of these moral reflexes provides an infallible method of arriving at the messy truth.

In any case, the situation at Romans in 1580 was far from being a clear-cut issue of the elite against the masses. There was no dramatic spread of wealth between the poor and the rich in the town, nor were prices high in 1580. This is perhaps why the execution of some twenty to thirty men put an abrupt stop to all radical activity in the town for decades to follow. Moreover some of the lower orders sided with Guérin against Paumier. The latter’s greatest enemy was an artisan like himself called Laroche, and one of the gates of the city was guarded by a combined force of local inhabitants, both bourgeois and plebeians. The pure class-war model is thus not fully convincing.

The second problem with this book concerns its methodology. Once over-enthusiastic in his acceptance of computerized “scientific” history, Le Roy Ladurie is now equally overenthusiastic in his acceptance of folklore and semiotics. As a result, some of his ingenious interpretations of the symbolic meaning of the events of the carnival seem a little far-fetched. What did it mean for Paumier to sit down in the council chamber dressed in a bearskin? We don’t know. Why was the leader of the plebeian procession riding on a donkey and wearing a red and blue cloak? Was he really intending to ridicule the virility of the bourgeoisie? If he had been dressed as a bourgeois (which he wasn’t), and seated backward on the donkey, and if his followers had been banging pots and pans, the interpretation might be plausible.

Recourse to the theories of the most up-to-date of folklorists, semiologists, or symbolic anthropologists will not compensate for the lack of detailed data about precisely what was said and done by whom, precisely what gestures were used and what clothes were worn, and how they were interpreted at the time. It is tempting to see symbols where none may have existed, a temptation which Le Roy Ladurie has not altogether resisted. Maybe Paumier slouched into the council chamber in a bearskin because he was cold in February or did not have time to change. Maybe the man who led the procession on a donkey did so because he could not afford a horse. Who knows why one procession had men in shrouds carrying flails? How can we be sure it was meant to be a threat to massacre the elite? Maybe at the time Guérin misread some of the signals, and maybe today Le Roy Ladurie has been too clever in interpreting the rest. We are all busy nowadays trying to tease symbolic meaning out of the obscure rituals of the past. Perhaps sometimes we try too hard and read into the heads of the participants things which were not there.

Carnival in Romans is a dazzling psychodrama. Whether the data has been correctly interpreted is another matter, but maybe one that, in the last resort, does not matter too much. What matters is the fascination of the story, and the author’s dextrous interweaving of a brilliant analysis of social conflicts on the one hand with a more dubious but intriguing interpretation of the parades, masquerades, and feasts of carnival time on the other.

To the historian of sixteenth-century England, the goings-on in Romans seem like events on Mars. The English peasantry frequently rebelled in the sixteenth century, but they never killed more than a handful of men, and never burned, looted, raped, and murdered on a large scale. (The forces of order, on the other hand, wreaked a terrible vengeance.) Carnival was abolished at the Reformation, so that the weeks of processions, feasts, and orgiastic revelling never happened after the middle of the century. There was no proliferation in England of collective institutions like confraternities, “Abbeys,” and “Kingdoms.” Never, so far as I am aware, was the patriciate of any town in England so terrified of violence from below that it felt it necessary to carry out a bloody purge of some thirty ringleaders. The explanation of the difference lies in the triumph in England of one religion, Protestantism, the pacification of the countryside, the decay of the guilds, and the relative absence of the three great scourges of war, taxes, and famine, which marched together across the face of France carrying misery and death in their train. Already by the 1580s, England was a very different country from the France of Carnival in Romans.

Le Roy Ladurie is now at a critical turning point in his career. While still only fifty years old, he has won an assured reputation as one of the world’s leading historians; he is one of the most influential intellectuals in Paris, with two great power bases in the Collège de France and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes; he has access to three strongholds of the French press—Le Monde, L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur—as well as the state television. He has written one of the most successful French historical best sellers of the century—and Carnival in Romans may be a second. In the 1960s and early 1970s he led his historical troops up into the arid mountains of long-term structural analysis, “scientific history,” and computerized quantification. In the late 1970s he has led them down into the steamy jungles of mentalité, symbolism, folklore, storytelling, and the “thick description” recommended by Clifford Geertz. Where is he going to lead them next?

This Issue

November 8, 1979