Male Fantasies

Eugen Weber

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is probably the cleverest and certainly the most versatile French historian of our day. Beginning with his thèse on the peasants of Languedoc in Early Modern times, he has ranged back to the everyday life of 14th-century heretics and forward to computers studies of 19th-century conscripts. His secondary thesis dealt with the weather since the year 1000. He has worked on land records and political archives, the registers of the Inquisition and the novels of Restif de la Bretonne. Now, in a fresh tour de force, he enters the lists of folklore by way of an 18th-century dialect story: the tale of ‘Jean-l’ont-pris’ (henceforth ‘JLP’), the story of a villager from the Vaunage plain not far from Nîmes, whose cobbler father turned to thieving to improve his condition and that of his family. With the father soon arrested and executed (hence the lad’s nickname, ‘They took him’), the mother goes off with a knife-grinder, leaving JLP to be brought up by his grandmother and to turn into a juvenile delinquent. His pilferings and tricks lead to an encounter with a peasant landowner, Master Sestier, through whose local influence the erstwhile poacher literally turns gamekeeper, and on whose plump pretty daughter, Babeau, he begins to cast covetous eyes.

Babeau is willing, but Sestier makes it clear that JPL can only hope for her hand and heritage if he can show a large capital of his own. This apparently inaccessible wealth turns up unexpectedly when the grandmother dies and JLP, scouring her hovel for something to eat finds her hidden treasure: a chestful of gold watches, silver cutlery, snuff-boxes, valuable textiles and gold coins which the old woman textiles and gold coins which the old woman had secreted from his father’s haul, ‘when times were good’. Yet, with his goal in sight, JLP falls victim to a plot hatched by his patron, Sestier, who doesn’t want him as a son-in-law. Sestier, has got with child a local harridan, Judith Garouille, ‘the most miserable and horrible creature that ever lived ... a veritable knacker’s yard’, and has persuaded ‘this dunghill’, now in her eighth month, to denounce JLP as the sire. Arrested as his father had been, JLP finds a new friend and protector in the bailiff, who turns out to have been his father’s friend and accomplice: the bailiff informs him that Sestier has endowed the Garouille hag with a largish dowry and that, moreover, the woman is so tainted (rotten lungs, scurvy, scabies and gangrene) that she and her offspring will certainly die. On this assurance JLP marries Garouille, things turn out as predicted and, since, in the meantime, JLP has seduced the willing Babeau, who has become ‘round as a tennis ball’, the story ends on a hopeful – though still uncertain – note.

This is the tale Le Roy Ladurie sets in the social and cultural context of a rural Midi, the evidence of whose notarial archives he supplements with a review of 65 plays in local dialect, performed before popular audiences between the 16th and the 18th century. All these plays deal in various ways with marriage settlements, sometimes in twosomes, sometimes in foursomes, with ways of securing and conveying property and other wealth, with libidinous elders tricked by the young into giving up their fortune, or beneficent interventions providing the ‘riches’ without which ‘love’ can never triumph.

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