Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and the humanity of history

  • Themes: History

The great French historian, who died in November, left a formidable legacy and reshaped the study of history.

A painting of a holiday in a small 16th Century French town.
A painting of a holiday in a small 16th Century French town. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Long before Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie became one of the world’s most famous historians, he had realised that there was something strange – even extraordinary – lurking in the archives. It was in the mid-1950s that it dawned on him. Then a lowly lecturer at the University of Montpellier, he was working on a study of the French peasantry. He spent most of his days buried among the stacks, searching – often vainly – for the dates of harvests and other such minutiae. Then, quite suddenly, he spotted something remarkable: ‘a strange, almost unknown landscape, which until then, few historians had the opportunity or the leisure to look at for long’ – a society, with ‘its own rhythms, its own chronology, its own particular truths’.

He was, admittedly, not the first to spot that something unusual was there. Even before he had set foot in the archives, a revolution was taking place in French historiography. Known as the Annales school – after the journal founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929 – this had set out to turn traditional approaches to the past on their head. It completely rejected the emphasis on politics, diplomacy, and war – indeed, the whole notion of the ‘event’ as the central focus of historical analysis. However striking events might seem, Bloch and Febvre argued, they are merely flotsam and jetsam, scudding across the surface of history. The historian’s task was to uncover the deeper currents of human existence – the hidden, socio-cultural structures which shape and influence actions and behaviour in the longue durée. This demanded a radically new approach to writing history. The old ‘cult of the document’ was forgotten; and a whole range of other disciplines – from anthropology and ethnology to sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis – were brought to bear on historical problems for the first time.

At first, the Annalistes had been interested primarily in what they liked to call ‘mentalités’. In works like Marc Bloch’s La Société féodale (1939-40), the goal had been to explore the hidden mindset shared by historical societies, as reflected in specific cultural or political phenomena. By the end of the Second World War, however, a new – more deterministic – approach had begun to take hold. The most striking example of this was Fernand Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (1949). A vast, sprawling work – the bulk of which was written while Braudel was interred in a prisoner of war camp – this sought to explore how the dizzying whirl of 16th-century politics had been shaped by the sea, its climate, and topography. At its heart was a simple, if remarkable, contention. According to Braudel, history unfolded along three timeframes: the epochal time of geography and climate; the socio-cultural time of mentalités; and the rapidly moving, if ultimately insignificant, time of events. Only by understanding how each determined the next, from longest-term to shortest, could the historian comprehend anything about the past.

Like many others of his generation, Le Roy Ladurie was greatly taken with Braudel’s insight. But its relentless determinism made him queasy. As he worked his way through piles of land registers, tithe books, and tax registers, he realised that history was too varied, too complex – too unpredictable – to be reduced to such a simple heuristic framework. While societies may indeed be shaped by environmental factors, their mentalités are more than the product of their surroundings. Indeed, at times, they may even act against it. And the same was true of events. Sometimes, things just happened – changing everyday life in profound, if unexpected, ways. The key, he realised, was to examine the deeper currents, without losing sight of what was happening on the surface – in other words, to bring the ‘human dimension’ back in. It all came down to how you read the archives.

It was perhaps only natural that Le Roy Ladurie should have come to such a realisation. Born in 1929, into an old and wealthy Norman family, his childhood was framed by tradition and faith. His grandfather, also called Emmanuel, was a cavalry officer, who had been discharged from the army after refusing to close Catholic schools in compliance with the Third Republic’s policy of laïcité. His father, Jacques, was every bit as independent minded. An agricultural moderniser with a fiercely royalist streak, he served as minister of agriculture in the Vichy government, only to resign in protest at German requisitioning. He then joined the Resistance and fought with the maquis around Orléans.

The young Le Roy Ladurie inherited much of his family’s conservatism. As a child, he idolised Marshal Pétain and harboured dreams of becoming a priest, but the violence and uncertainty of the war scarred him deeply. After the Liberation, he underwent a radical conversion to Communism – much to the horror of his parents. Like many others, he was convinced that, after the nightmare of Nazism, Communism represented the only hope of safeguarding humanity’s future. As a student at the École normale supérieure (ENS), he threw himself into politics. He debated against a young Jean-Marie Le Pen; fulminated against the Korean War in the pages of a Communist newspaper; and was so blindly devoted to his cause that he even convinced himself that Arthur Koestler’s biting satire Darkness at Noon was really a vindication of Stalin’s rule.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 shattered his faith. Appalled at the brutality of the Soviet crackdown, he resigned from the French Communist Party in disgust. He then switched his loyalties to the socialists. He served as the local secretary of the party and was even attacked by the OAS (Organisation armée secrete) at his home for supporting Algerian independence. But he nevertheless retained a deep – if not uncritical – debt to Marx and Durkheim, which would gradually make itself felt in his studies.

After graduating from the ENS, Le Roy Ladurie spent some time as a schoolteacher in Montpellier, before deciding to commit himself to scholarship. In 1958, he secured an attachment to the Centre nationale de la recherche scientifique – a powerhouse of graduate research – before moving to the faculty of letters in Montpellier, and finally to the École pratique des hautes études in Paris, where he came into the orbit of Fernand Braudel for the first time.

During this period, he completed his doctoral thesis, under the direction of the pioneering economic historian, Ernest Labrousse. Later published, as Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966), this offered a radically new interpretation of its subject, and showed the full potential of Le Roy Ladurie’s new approach for the first time. At its heart stood a paradox. In the period c.1500-c.1800, France underwent immense change – not only political, but also technological and economic. Yet in Languedoc, rural communities remained essentially static. While they experienced moments of economic growth and decline, they underwent little, if any, transformation. The question was: why? Part of the reason was physical – or rather, environmental. The topography of the region, the demographic recovery after the Black Death, and the climactic conditions placed a certain limit on agricultural innovation. Far more important, Le Roy Ladurie, argued, was the role played by culture. Particularly in the 17th century, peasant communities failed to increase their productivity simply because they were unwilling to change. Their natural conservatism made them regard agricultural innovation with scepticism – if not open hostility – meaning that, with only rare exceptions, rural society remained stubbornly mired in difficulty. Even ‘events’ played a part. Take the Wars of Religion (1562-98). Called into existence by mischance, these caused the people of Languedoc to become obsessed with religious questions, almost ‘to the point of self-immolation’. Their hopes for social betterment became confined either to the unrealised promises of reformers, or the futile, fantasy world of witchcraft – further limiting their capacity for transformation in the here and now.

Les Paysans de Languedoc propelled Le Roy Ladurie to the forefront of French academia. Following its publication, he secured a series of ever more prestigious posts, first at the Sorbonne, then at the University of Paris-VII. Finally, in 1973, he was elected to succeed Braudel in the chair of modern history and civilisation at the Collège de France – then, as now, the foremost research institution in France. All the while, he continued to publish a stream of dazzlingly original new works, including, most notably, a history of the climate since the year 1000 (1967), and the first part of a landmark study of the historian’s art – Le Territoire et l’Historien (1973).

As he climbed the academic ladder, his political views began to shift once again. The events of May 1968 filled him with a ‘profound disgust’. As he later explained, the student protestors’ commitment to the ‘destruction of the university’ seemed to him ‘like an unprecedented step backwards’. Unable to justify such a ‘destructive rage’, he found himself drifting ever more sharply towards the liberal right – and, eventually, into sympathy with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was shortly to be elected president of the Republic. Already pronounced for a member the Annales school, his interest in events – and individuals – began to grow.

Then, in 1975, came Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324 – his most famous work. Retracing the history of a small village in Languedoc, during the last years of the Cathar heresy, it was not an obvious bestseller. Nor, indeed, was it even the first book on the community. What set Montaillou apart was how Le Roy Ladurie approached his subject. By reading the records of the inquisitor, Jacques Fournier, ‘against the grain’ – with an eye for hidden details, overlooked by other historians – he was able to reconstruct, not just the proceedings against suspected heretics, but the physical and mental world of the entire village. The result was a staggeringly vivid portrait of rural life. After piecing together the ‘ecology’ of Montaillou – the daily struggles of shepherds, tending their flocks in the Pyrenees – Le Roy Ladurie laid bare the inhabitants’ attitudes towards love and death, deviance and conformity, magic and salvation, and much more besides. Personalities – forgotten for centuries – suddenly leapt back into life. This was especially true of the village priest, Jacques Clergue. A complete rogue, Clergue held his vow of celibacy in open contempt. He slept with almost every woman in the village – including two sisters – and even bedded the glamourous Countess Béatrice de Planissoles, who had previously been the mistress of his bastard cousin.

Montaillou was not without its critics. Some reviewers pointed out that Le Roy Ladurie had taken Fournier’s records too much at face value – and had failed to give due weight to the fact that many of the statements on which he had relied were given under torture. Others queried how much such ‘microhistories’ revealed about society more generally. And a few even challenged some of Le Roy Ladurie’s translations. These were minor quibbles. Even those who were no fans of the Annales school recognised it as a masterpiece – and the public agreed.

It was an instant success. Much to the publishers’ surprise, Montaillou sold over 250,000 copies in France alone – an almost unheard-of figure for a work of history – and was soon translated into dozens of languages. Even Francois Mitterand – then the leader of the Parti socialiste – was unable to hide his admiration.

Le Roy Ladurie – still only in his mid-40s – was now an international star. Basking in the warm glow of well-earned fame, he was free to extend his approach to an ever-greater range of subjects. As well as a series of further micro-histories, focussing on popular culture and belief – Le Carnaval de Romans (1979), Le Sorcière de Jasmin (1980) and the three-volume Le siècle des Platter (1997-2006)   – he wrote acclaimed studies of politics under the ancien régime, climate in French history, and socio-economic life, not to mention an important meditation on the historian’s craft (L’Historien, le chiffre et le texte [1997]). Unusually for an Annaliste, he even published a handful of biographies, as well.

In recognition of his scholarship, he was appointed administrator of the Bibliothèque nationale in 1987, and six years later, was elected a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques at the Institut de France. He became its president in 2003. Thereafter, few honours were denied him – either at home or abroad.

Yet despite his eminence, Le Roy Ladurie never became stuck in his ways. Though he occasionally courted controversy in the press – most notably with ill-judged comments on civil marriage and homosexuality – he prided himself on keeping up with the times. As early as 1968, he was converted to the potential of computing. In an article provocatively entitled ‘Le Fin des Érudits’, he declared that ‘[t]he historian of tomorrow will be a programmer or nothing at all’ – and recognised that digitisation could reveal patterns in quantitative evidence that would be invisible to the scholar. Nor, indeed, did he ever lose his warmth. His wit was legendary. Like Braudel, he always regarded himself as an author – rather than a historian, per se – and saw it as his duty to enchant and entertain, as much as to inform. Even in his final works, his writing sparkled with charm and humour.

His legacy is formidable. Montaillou still regularly appears on undergraduate reading lists; and Le Roy Ladurie’s works on climate are rightly recognised as foundational texts in what is still a burgeoning field. His role in ‘bringing the event back’ into the Annales school is undoubtedly responsible for rescuing much of French historiography from the dangers of abstraction – and, in this respect, thanks will still be owed for generations to come. Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that his death marks a deeper loss. His sweeping ambition, his drive to capture the totality of human experience seem to have died with him. Though each year brings a new crop of enormous books devoted to exploring some vast topic, these works rarely show much appetite for the true complexity of human existence – for the lives of ordinary individuals adrift on the seas of time, for the ebb and flow of the natural world, the shifting sands of custom and habit, the sudden shock of unexpected events. The low door to a hidden humanity which he opened seems, imperceptibly, to have closed. Perhaps the best monument would be to prise it open once again.


Alexander Lee