Ladurie’s Talents

G.R. Elton

This is the second collection of essays by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie to appear in English. The first was called The Territory of the Historian and up to a point justified its title by describing a landscape of historical investigation – rural France peopled by a peasantry engaged in earning a living and undergoing birth, disease and death, the whole benignly directed by techniques of quantification. The present title might lead one to expect essays more specifically on the ways in which historians think and operate, but in fact they all deal with historical, not with methodological topics. If we are to understand the mind and method of this historian, we need to extract them from what he has produced, without direct guidance from himself. Such an investigation has its attractions, if only because Le Roy Ladurie writes with great verve and frequent flashes (of various kinds); his translators serve him splendidly, except that they seem never to have heard of Albertus Magnus, St Thomas Aquinas’s teacher, who appears rather oddly as ‘the “great Albert” ’ and ‘Albert le Grand’. Moreover, such an investigation seems called for. The blurb quotes Professor Lawrence Stone’s judgment on the author: ‘There cannot be much 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.’ Thus all of us need to learn from this master how history should be written and disseminated.

The present volume contains nine pieces, all between five and ten years old. Though there is quite a lot of repetition, they range in general over sufficiently different topics to justify using them as a guide to their author’s mind and method. One of them, on the French peasantry of the 16th century, is in the main a summary of work done by others, a review essay: clear, well-organised, not very surprising, its only shock being a reference to England which postdates its ‘rural capitalism’ by some two centuries at the least. The most successful pieces in the collection are three essays which take off from books about rural France in order to deepen and embroider themes found there. A wide and deep knowledge of the facts about the economic, social and demographic truths of the French countryside is fascinatingly brought to bear on Balzac’s The Country Doctor and Rétif de la Bretonne’s autobiographical writings. The commentary illumines the novelist’s insights, criticises his flights of impossible fancy, and sets off his time-bound social prejudices; with marvellous conviction it reconstructs the lives and thoughts of a prosperous 18th-century farmer’s family and brings very real people before the reader. The technique works not quite so well in the essay on the Rouergue (in the South-West), called forth by a volume of photographs, and by the desire to commemorate a colleague, Jeanine Field-Recurat. Though a good deal of the Ladurie magic finds its way also into this piece, nostalgia and sentimentality rather obtrude.

Still, these are very fine examples of historical writing, provided one accepts as satisfactory a rather loose anecdotal structure and much reliance on unspecified evidence. Well, one does. Unfortunately, this is also the point at which admiration must give way to doubt. The essay on the aiguilette – male impotence procured by witchcraft – has too trivial a theme to sustain the anecdotal method: it was hardly worth reprinting. Worse is the very peculiar study of the court of Louis XIV in 1709. Following Saint-Simon, Le Roy Ladurie at least for once moves away from his peasants: but what was he trying to do? Ostensibly, he was analysing the factions at court, an interesting and important theme, but what in fact he does is to obfuscate the clarities of his guide, partly by piling on the detail but mainly by a bewilderingly complex diagram which makes it much harder to grasp the connections. And then, having after a fashion set his scene, he just stops, so that no purpose emerges behind all this analysis, which by itself adds little to Saint-Simon. Just as things become interesting, just as one becomes eager to know how these factions generated the politics of the court, the author abandons the enterprise. So why, since political action is what those factions were about, did he ever embark on it? His answer seems to be that he wished to offer assistance to political scientists, but they will make as little of his playful similes concerning clockworks and billiards as will the historian.

The doubts raised by these light-weight pieces receive augmentation from the heavy artillery mustered in the three remaining essays. Of these the longest is entitled ‘A Concept’ and deals supposedly with ‘the unification of the globe by disease’. It puts up the notion that the spread of bubonic plague, on the one hand, and of European diseases to America, on the other, should provide an interpretative theme for world-wide history. What we actually get are second-hand summaries of well-known facts touching demographic disasters which result from the transfer of epidemic diseases from immunised to vulnerable places. It is never made clear what sort of unification we are supposed to be hearing about, or in what way a common experience of death by epidemic disease produces a change from local to global history. How does the world become one because more people begin to die from causes which previously affected only some? No attempt is made to discover similar or unifying consequences flowing from the spread of plague – no wonder, because in many ways the consequences differed a good deal. The fate of Mexico and Peru is told but in no way connected to the fate of plague-struck Europe; and the global claims vanish before an exclusive concentration on the Mediterranean and France – to the extent of ending the story in the mid-15th century, because (it seems) plague then ceased to trouble that country, with no regard to the fact that it remained a major demographic influence in central and northern Europe for another 200 years. The essay tells nothing new: the history and effects of great pandemics have been chronicled often enough, and Le Roy Ladurie very properly acknowledges his informants. And it fails to establish a concept because the real function of a concept – to order a mass of detail and become the cause of thought in others – remains unfulfilled. If there is a concept here, it never emerges; said to exist, it remains in hiding. The anecdotal triumphs over the analytical.

Much the same deficiency afflicts the lecture on ‘The Crisis and the Historian’: apparently an effort to give solid meaning to the term ‘crisis’ as used in economic and demographic history. All it unintentionally does is to draw attention to historians’ over-ready resort, in their stratospheric overflights, to such unanalysed catchwords. The argument is not improved by talk of crises which can endure for centuries, and by the constant personification of this very abstract notion, which is described as engaged in doing things. We dance about quite a bit among all sorts of historical phenomena, most of them rather commonplace and familiar, like the invention of printing or (once again) the effect of epidemics, and some may regard this as a display of fireworks: to me, it looks like decorated oversimplification of a rather scary kind.

Perhaps aware of dangers of this kind, the inaugural lecture of 1973, with which the volume opens, resorts to the use of jargon (‘take-offs’, ‘braking mechanisms’) laced with picturesque overwriting. For all they have to say, those 27 pages could have been compressed into five. Once again we encounter improbable ‘concepts’, such as revolutions which go on for centuries. The lecture was meant to define the sort of history that Le Roy Ladurie regards as that proper to the true scholar – ‘History that Stands Still’, that is to say, historical sociology, with that writing down of ‘the event’ which we have come to know as the hallmark of the Annales school. Le Roy Ladurie is a civilised annaliste: of course, events have their own importance, ‘but I am concerned here rather with what became – or did not become – of the great mass of the people. What was achieved by the élite must be set apart on a different, higher level; it really matters only in the history of a conspicuous minority – one that did indeed foreshadow the future, but which was not as yet able to lever out of the groove the solid rural mass, still rocking to and fro in its Ricardian pendulum swings.’ The passage illustrates the author’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, there is the concern with the history of the forgotten, a wholly admirable ambition, as well as the admission that this is not necessarily all of history. On the other, we get a teleological regard for ‘future development’, find assertion doing duty for argument, and hear of no convincing grounds why the history of ‘mass’ and ‘élite’ should be treated in separation, the gap being filled with picturesque metaphors.

So what do we learn about the mind and method of this historian? We learn about his own particular interests, which rest upon a splendid and enviable range of learning. We find him respectful towards those famous ‘other disciplines’, especially sociology, demography and anthropology, without surrendering his right to remain critical of their methods and findings. (Oddly enough, he quite rightly slams Max Weber’s extravagances about the Protestant ethic on page 206, only to accept him unquestioningly on the same theme on page 281.) This historian clearly has a restless and questing intellect, much humour and much good humour. The mind is attractive. The methods, however, are not. His strength lies in the telling of stories, and when he moves from that level to systematic interpretation he becomes silent, or lost, or at the least unconvincing. He is quite right to take much of his quantified material from others, but runs great risks in all that borrowing of concepts from economic and social theorists: interestingly, he is resistant solely to Marx. And he has a perilous liking for two serious methodological faults. He believes that parallels with the present age help to explain the past, so that the spread of plague, carried with no sinister intention by Genoese trading vessels, can be likened to the spread of nuclear arms. Secondly, he believes that metaphors and similes explain things, whereas in fact they provide only evidence that an explanation has been avoided. No historian should think that he has made a point when he compares the expanding populations of Europe to an exploding galaxy, or describes the social structure of a village as a magnetic field.

We have so often been told what is right about Le Roy Ladurie’s kind of history that repetition may even bore. It is history ‘on the ground’, of the neglected, brought to life in all kinds of unexpected ways and therefore fascinating. It is also important in that it (supposedly) gets at reality, away from the superficialities of traditional preoccupations. In the hands of a man as lively, thoughtful and skilful as Le Roy Ladurie, it escapes the usual dangers of dreary figures, dull commonplaces, painfully painstaking documentation: there is much art here. What is wrong with this kind of history seems less well-known. The success of Montaillou erects a warning signal – a book so lacking in intellectual precision that we are never even told why depositions in court, which are recognised to be very tricky historical material, should be accepted at face value, but manifestly fascinating to a wide readership, many of whom had never before understood that dead people were real too. What is wrong with this history are two things. In the first place, if the endeavour to reconstruct the history of the mass is to succeed, it must abandon ‘concepts’. That is to say, it must bypass the harder problems of both the evidence and the interpretation: essentially, and quite rightly, it is formless history. Even so, one could wish that less reliance were placed on evocation (imagery and metaphor) and more on the unadorned fact. Secondly, this is indeed (as Le Roy Ladurie says) history that stands still, static history, even though he himself splendidly overcomes this disadvantage by conveying a sense of movement and change in the fortunes of the peasantry. He does this by concentrating on reformers and innovators, a preference which, I fear, makes him give more attention to an élite than to the mass. The true mass, when all is said, does lack interest.

Right or wrong, this history has great value, provided its proper place and function are identified. It provides an enormously increased and improved background to the earlier concerns of historians – politics, religion, trade and manufacture, agriculture and poverty, ideas and individuals. All history is enriched by it, but all history is by no means subsumed in it. On the contrary, by itself it is far more deficient than the older history was because it serves in the main to set a scene which then, as with those factions at Louis XIV’s court, it fails to set in motion. However many stories it may tell, it stops short of telling the story. Le Roy Ladurie’s territory, mind and method are those of one historian, not by a very long chalk those of the historian. Deeply aware as he is of the plurality of worlds within one world – the world of France – he would surely be the first to agree with this.