Monsieur Montaillou

Rosalind Mitchison

These books are the recent work of one of the leading exponents of the ‘new’ history of the French school. The historical achievement of French academics over the last twenty years has set an example to historians in all other countries. French demographers have reopened the whole topic of population change, devising new techniques, asking new questions, and combining accurate measurement with insight into social constraints and mental pathways. Since demography is, as Ladurie asserts, one of the basic determinants of economic change, the source of ‘the immense, slow-moving fluctuations’, the enormous cycles of rising and falling pressures on supply, the French breakthrough has been perhaps the most important historiographical change of this generation. It has been aided by a new reverence for numbers: ‘history that is not quantitative cannot claim to be scientific,’ says Ladurie in an essay of 1969, and in the following year, more arrogantly: ‘modern techniques, in the age of computers have brought about a revolution in historiography: they have made possible the exhaustive processing of vast quantities of data – quantities undreamed of by past historians, however eminent, who were the prisoners of their unsophisticated methods.’ Again, ‘tomorrow’s historians will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive.’ Still more assertive statements in which l’histoire artisanelle, the work of the solitary scholar, has been denounced in favour of the amassing of figures by teams of workers are not contained in this collection.

The qualities most to be admired in the ‘new’ history are awareness of the great sweeps of time and slow change, attention to the mental priorities of people and to the social structures of whole regions, and the capacity to ask and answer unexpected questions. The range of topics covered in The Territory of the Historian shows many of these aspects. The book is a set of essays, some of them based on quantitative history, some reviews of the work of ‘new’ historians, some the product of direct individual research. Two of the most fascinating are an essay on a bucolic Norman squire of the late 16th century with Parson Woodforde priorities, and a superb survey of long-term changes in rural society from the iron age. The other books are detailed studies of local crises: Montaillou an early 14th-century picture of the interaction of Catholic and Cathar in a village in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, with the Cathars under constant threat of persecution; and Carnival, civil disturbance in a Dauphiné city and countryside, merging into civil war in the period of the Wars of Religion. The English of the translations is vivid, often brilliant, probably with direct intervention from the author, whose command of the language is considerable. All three books display a critical intelligence and wide intellectual sympathy. Ladurie has shown that historical research can be of immediate interest to a wide audience and that a highly specialised book can enter the best-seller class.

At times, ‘new’ history seems a wayward affair. It can elicit specific correlations, some interesting, some very predictable. For instance, the analysis of the particulars of the 1868 recruits to the French Army shows that those who could afford to pay for substitutes were taller than their poorer companions, hardly a startling result, but also that they were less likely to have moved in search of work and were, both before and after the call-up, less likely to obtain a criminal record. Both Montaillou and Carnival, however, exhibit a more serious weakness than time spent on establishing the obvious. They depend entirely on particularly rich and detailed sources: Montaillou on the surviving section of the inquisitorial process put into action by an unusually active and conscientious bishop; Carnival on two accounts, one of them anonymous, of the events of 1579-80 in and around the city. The books contain comments on these sources, and on one aspect of the Carnival story one of the sources is skilfully used to get behind the silences and bias of the other, but there is no systematic examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the material. Perhaps such an examination has been undertaken by the editors of the manuscripts: both books are equipped with references to these editions, as well as to other work. But the failure to discuss the evidence is unsettling. It is particularly troubling in Montaillou. One of the standard medieval Catholic criticisms of the Cathar religion was that, by stating that since all was forbidden, all was equally allowed, it encouraged sexual licence. All this material is based on the Catholic Inquisition. Since it is not evaluated, the whole area of sexual anecdote and attitudes becomes peculiarly suspect – which greatly weakens the attempt at a breakthrough into an understanding of this important dimension of social history.

Another weakness of Ladurie’s writing lies in its failure to place events in a coherent framework of other events, and to relate the facts that he has disclosed to our general historical knowledge. This is not a systematic weakness. Carnival is a disordered book, but it opens with a clear account of the long-term swelling and shrinking of population within the city’s walls, explains in detail the source of social stress in the expansion of rural landowning by the nobility, with its effect on the tax burden of the third estate, and shows how the butchers and bakers, and through them the consumers, were being taxed to compensate for the defalcations of the governing élite. But it gives no help to the placing of the events of 1579-80 in the general political and religious struggle of the day, and the narrative of events within the city is confused and repetitive. Montaillou also badly needs an introductory chapter of simple narrative and religious background. Its probes into the village social structure are inevitably confused by the fact that the villagers appear to have had less than a dozen Christian names between them, but it is not inevitable that there should be no index. Not one of these three books has an index.

In Montaillou there is a need for a general exposition of Cathar belief. Ladurie says firmly that this is not his subject, but the reader naturally wishes to know whether in some of their opinions the villagers were heretical even by heretical standards: for instance, whether their extremely anthropocentric view of the structure and inhabitants of the natural world was normal to the sect. If it were not for the splendid sweep of time across the centuries that Ladurie can show, and for the evaluation of character, one would conclude that he has not the ability to write narrative – a task harder than it seems. More probably, the confusion he engenders comes from wilfulness, not inability. The ‘new’ history, holding to the longue durée, frowns on the short-term event. But all of us have to live within a framework of events, even if only as points on a graph. Disapproval of histoire événementielle is not an adequate excuse for befogging the reader.

Montaillou was, last October, the subject of an attack by David Herlihy in Social History on the grounds of inaccurate handling of its source material. The specific accusation was of mistranslation from the Latin, and of the irrelevant introduction of material about incidents elsewhere. There is also the problem of whether the Latin of the record was a true record of the Occitan of the interrogation. Unfortunately, the combination of these two weaknesses, mistranslation and irrelevance, makes invalid several crucial parts of the section of the book entitled ‘An Archaeology of Montaillou’. The chapter ‘Body language and Sex’ is almost totally destroyed by these weaknesses. The next one on the sexual activities of the dominant family is seriously damaged by the failure to evaluate the source material.

In spite of these flaws, Montaillou is an epoch-making book. It is a great experience to read it. The reader can go into the world of the past in an entirely new way, explore the knowledge and attitudes of these people, the social organisation of the home and of the shepherds’ cabane, assess views on work, on women and, most important of all, on salvation. These do not exist in some limbo of a static society. All through, the reader is conscious of immediate and increasing outside pressures – in particular, of the burden of tithe and of the threat of the Inquisition. Neither lay nor ecclesiastical government could, in the 14th century, command the apparatus of one of today’s police states, but the results of determined if sporadic persecution could be terrifying. The threats were the stake and the destruction of the house; a lesser punishment would be the burden of wearing the yellow cross (it is an interesting indication of the corruption of religion by power that it involved the use of the cross as a sign of punishment).

Some features of life in Montaillou are obvious deductions from basic material features. The people were poor, houses small, the ability to deal with dirt minimal, literacy rare and the written book a rarity. Work, even if not obsessively pursued, was necessary for almost all, and there was no sense in mismanagement of the land. The attitude to work seems to have been that normal to most undeveloped societies. Peasant holdings could be made to produce more, but so long as they sustained two generations of adults and children, that was enough. The villagers who did not become shepherds knew little of the world outside. Rereading this book recently, in the cramped quarters of a small yacht, made me aware how many features of village life came simply and inevitably from close proximity. There was no privacy or secrecy beyond silence. The villagers’ sense of direction, their avoidance of the words ‘north’ and ‘south’ and preference for ‘up’ and ‘down’, seem obvious results of life on the edge of the mountains, just as upwind and downwind are the obvious directions in a boat. A common level of limited possessions put all under the same sort of restrictions, though to different degrees. Poverty, and, more importantly, recent impoverishment, marked some people off, but the values of all were similar.

The concept of greatest importance was the homestead. Women occupied a dual position in this framework. They were a lesser type of human than men, souls only a little above the level of animals in Cathar doctrine. They were in need of discipline and control, chattels to be disposed of, kindly, in marriage, but were also shrill and penetrating commentators on matters of faith and morals. More unexpected are the links of this society with distant communities through the shepherds. Transhumance carried on into and across the Pyrenees meant that these men might range repeatedly over several hundred miles, halfway to Valencia. Sheep farming was linked, through the sale of the wool, with the commercial world of the 14th century, and brought coins into the community and concepts of monetary wealth. It also brought the breath of freedom. Fear of the Inquisition could be set at rest in Spain, so the shepherds could move at will between the police state of the Ariège and a free world. For one of them, Pierre Maury, the book investigates a whole world of moral values, and the story of a life of hard work and of poverty broken by short periods of wealth. If for nothing other than his views on morals, property, generosity, determinism and choice, the book would be of value. Even such a man as Maury, free to choose to settle in the south, was drawn back to his own village again and again. It was the concern of such villagers for eventual salvation that gave Catharism its appeal. The age-old issue of whether spiritual functions could be performed by corrupt priests gained an almost Protestant edge from the burdensome level of tithe extracted by the Catholic clergy. Produce going out of the community in this way sharply raised the level of effort necessary for subsistence.

Further puzzles emerge. Are these peasants any different from the English peasantry of this age whose individualism has made Alan Macfarlane question the genuineness of their peasant status in his recent Origins of English Individualism? What is the relationship between the incipient Protestantism of many of the opinions here recorded – the scorn for the Catholic priesthood and for the sale of Indulgences, the ambivalence or hostility towards works – and the opinions of Luther? Why did the 14th century become so obsessed with the issue of holy poverty, whereas by the 16th century economic motives and personal acquisitiveness had become respectable aims?

Carnival is a much less rewarding book, more muddled and with fewer flashes of perception. At times it seems deliberately obfuscating. But it has a firm analysis of the structure of the city’s social groups and a good understanding of what the common people wanted. Ladurie shows that, in spite of the recent history of warring Catholics and Protestants, there was no Protestant ideology involved in the rising of 1579-80. There was more proto-Protestantism in Montaillou than in 16th-century Romans. Traditional symbols, not theology, were what the opposing factions used against each other, with a literalness which shows that they were more than symbols. The whole carnival tradition of pageantry, misrule, imagery, mimicry and mockery, which as yet we only partly understand, made a release mechanism, and this seems to have been because the people were not playing at it, but were serious about it. The reynages, kingdoms, founded in the topsyturvy world of the carnival, combined a religious core with political expression.

Till now, medieval society has been mainly understood through legal documentation. It has been as individuals arguing over inheritance and tenurial rights, or involved in crimes of violence, that we have seen the citizens of the distant past. Both Carnival and Montaillou take us a long way towards seeing the values and ethics of the people, and both do so by the accident that a society not yet literate had a means of expression. In Carnival it is by symbols, in Montaillou through the interrogation. In The Territory of the Historian Ladurie also uses the diary of a Norman bonnet laird or lesser gentleman to show us relationships and priorities of people higher up the social scale. His Gilles de Gouberville is literate, but his value system, like the Cathar peasants, was of home, and after that of noble status, food and drink and sport. Inclinations towards Protestantism were rapidly abandoned when they appeared dangerous.

The ‘new’ history is mining a valuable vein of ore, even if it is largely a fluke that such veins exist. It would do so more effectively if it would also adhere to the standards of the old. Many vital questions can be answered only by new techniques and new questioning, but clear organisation, care over narrative, and critical assessment, should not be left out of the package.