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.

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