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.

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