Review – Le Roy Ladurie, “Montaillou”

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error” (1975) (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) – It’s been a while since I read this! Or wrote a review. I’ve been busy! More are down the pike.

Nobody makes a meal out of a good source like the Annales historians. The Annales School was mostly composed of French historians who minutely examined medieval and early modern European history, delving into archival sources to produce minutely detailed pictures of how people lived their lives, and deriving other things, like “mentalités,” roughly meaning “points of view,” from there. They were hot shit for a while- this one, “Montaillou,” was from the third generation of Annales School guys, and got write ups in the mainstream press both in France and elsewhere. But nowadays they’re somewhat out of favor. “No one wants to read them,” the dude in charge of our dissertation seminar, a taciturn Irish professor of nineteenth century America, once told us, “because their books lack arguments.”

I remember at the time arguing with Professor Kenny (I was the only one who’d argue back with him- I knew he didn’t mind) that history doesn’t have to have some big argument to be worthwhile. I’m of two minds about that now. I don’t think history HAS to be tendentious… but maybe it SHOULD. “Montaillou” is a good work of history, but probably could have been improved by a clearer argument. Maybe the argument simply was “this is history, like it or not,” and every argument it made in the historiography — I got the impression there was more than one — Le Roy Ladurie left implicit. Maybe that was always the Annales argument- “this is so clearly how you do history that we won’t even argue with others over how else to do it” (“typically French,” one is tempted to say).

Getting ahead of myself! Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie had a peach of a source- the records of a long-term Inquisition put on by the Catholic Church in the little Occitan village of Montaillou in the south of France, near the turn of the fourteenth century. Montaillou needed inquisiting because it was in the heart of Cathar country. The Cathars were dualists, perhaps influenced by Gnosticism, who held that the material world was evil, and nothing was more evil than the Church. They were big stuff in the south of France in the 1200s, even making some moves prefiguring Protestantism (they were popular with the proto-bourgeoisie, tradesmen and artisans). But then the Pope and the French king (the latter looking to extend his power more firmly to the south) mounted the bloody Albigensian crusade (that’s where the phrase “let god sort them out” comes from). Popular Catharism continued to linger for a while after, and inquisitors chased them around.

More than Catharism, what Le Roy Ladurie uses the inquisitorial record for is gleaning details of life in this little village. The head inquisitor was a deeply scrupulous fellow who questioned damned near everyone in the village at some point, and who kept detailed records. Since heresy could be anywhere, he got a lot of details of everyday life in his questioning.

And so, Le Roy Ladurie takes us into the life of Montaillou. He writes it as centered around the “domus,” roughly, the household, which meant family, servants, and boarders. Everyone was looking to boost the wealth and prestige of their domus, often at the expense of others, and you can be sure ratting people out as Cathars — and virtually every domus had a Cathar or two, some were all Cathar — was a winning strategy in this game. The people were materially poor in ways hard to understand today, but it wasn’t exactly Monty Python peasants lying in mud ditches, either. Really, it was more capital poverty (building a good house was very hard) and lack of insurance against disaster, like sickness or famine.

One way out of the domus situation was to go become a shepherd. Much of the Languedoc was unsettled at the time, and men tended flocks across transhumance paths that wandered all the way to Spain. The shepherds were naturally more independent than the domus-dwellers, a source of news, ideas, and outside products and money. As you’d probably expect, a lot of them were Cathars or otherwise unorthodox, and could get away with it more, being relatively footloose (great, now I’m imagining a “Footloose” remake where instead of dancing, it’s Catharism).

I’m no medievalist and so can’t say how “accurate” Le Roy Ladurie’s picture of Montaillou is. It more or less passes what sniff tests I have. It was an interesting read, but damn me for a plodding Anglo if the professor wasn’t right, and it would have been better with more of an argument (I’d also like more Cathar deets, but I know they’re hard to suss out, given the secrecy and lies swirling around them). I’d say it’s still worth reading, and I get why maybe French academics, especially ones with great sources, might want to avoid the superheated ideological atmosphere surrounding most arguments then going in their country, but still. ****

Review – Le Roy Ladurie, “Montaillou”

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