Sous la plage, les archives

Richard Vinen on Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1929-2023) was known for his work on the early modern period and an audacious border raid into the late Middle Ages that produced his most famous book, Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (1975). He was also a shrewd observer of events that unfolded in his own lifetime, and often read the past through the prism of the present.

His ambitious history of climate, grounded at first in a deterministic sense that premodern life was governed by forces beyond human control, was increasingly influenced by his awareness of man-made global warming. He studied ‘the microbiological unification of the world’ between the 14th and 17th centuries, when bubonic plague spread west from Asia, but he also recognised that the growth of air travel might produce new pandemics. He famously distinguished between historians who are ‘truffle hunters’, sniffing out exemplary nuggets of evidence, and ‘parachutists’ who seek a more panoramic view. Readers today tend to assume that the parachutists in question were floating over a serene landscape. But Le Roy Ladurie was actually thinking of the French paratroopers during the Algerian war (1954-62), roaming on foot over wide areas of the Bled as they hunted down units of the Front de Libération Nationale.

His approach to history was shaped by the social and economic change of the trente glorieuses that transformed France between 1945 and 1975. Montaillou reconstructed life in a Pyrenean village from the records of the Inquisition and in particular from the interrogations conducted by Jacques Fournier (bishop of Pamiers and later, as Benedict XII, pope at Avignon). Fournier was trying to root out the Cathar heresy, but his inquiries unearthed details about every aspect of village society – from the role of delousing in social relations to beliefs about contraception.

The book’s success owed much to the mystique that the distant past acquired in a modernising society – a mystique reflected, for example, in the new fashion for extravagant son et lumière displays at ancient chateaux. Even the genesis of the book was associated with modernisation: the amateur historian Jean Duvernoy, who drew Le Roy Ladurie’s attention to Montaillou, worked for Electricité de France and had seen many ancient sites vanish under the waters of hydroelectric projects. The last line in Montaillou alludes to postwar social change because it notes that the mayor of the village in 1975 was a woman, Madame Durand. Until 1945, French women had not been entitled to vote.

Le Roy Ladurie’s fascination with what he referred to in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1973 as the ‘immobile’ history of France from the late 14th to the early 18th century sprang partly from the contrast it presented with the trente glorieuses. His own youth had been spent in the conservative, Catholic milieu of rural Normandy where four of his twenty aunts and uncles belonged to religious orders and a pre-Voltairean version of the 18th century seemed, as he put it, ‘present in every haystack’. He had hardly set foot outside Normandy until he fled the German advance in 1940 with his mother and siblings. Parts of his childhood world were blown apart. Caen, a ‘Balzacian’ town when he went to school there, was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and rebuilt in concrete in the 1950s and 1960s.

There was also a political dimension to Le Roy Ladurie’s sense of historical change. Pétainism was taken for granted in his family. His father, Jacques, was the minister of agriculture in Vichy for six months in 1942, before resigning and joining the Resistance. Emmanuel moved sharply to the left after he went to Paris in 1945 to continue his education. He was a member of the French Communist Party for seven years and went on to join the Parti Socialiste Unifié, established in large measure to oppose the French conduct of the Algerian war. Later he swung back to the right and, though he never sought to exonerate the Vichy régime, he argued that allowances should be made for the constraints under which men such as his father had operated.

Vichy underlay Le Roy Ladurie’s complicated relationship with François Mitterrand, whose move from Pétainism to resistance resembled the trajectory of Le Roy Ladurie père. It was this, the historian believed, that accounted for the interest the politician took in his career. Mitterrand expressed admiration for Montaillou, suggesting that Pierre Clergue, the village priest who exercised authority over both secular and religious matters, was a ‘kind of collaborator’ with the Inquisition. Le Roy Ladurie was in turn intrigued by Mitterrand, whose association with Vichy was much discussed towards the end of his presidency. On occasion, Le Roy Ladurie adopted a pseudonym to write about the president: an article in the LRB in 1995 was published under the name Jean-Pierre Chapelas.

There was nothing unusual about Le Roy Ladurie’s stint in the Communist Party, and he wasn’t the only historian to have grown up in a conservative family. What made Le Roy Ladurie distinct was the complicated interaction of his political associations. Even as a loyal militant at the height of Stalinist orthodoxy, he never broke with his parents. In 1950, he accompanied his cousin Renée on a pilgrimage to Rome. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary on 4 November 1956, Le Roy Ladurie pulled a pair of trousers over his pyjamas and rode his moped to the Communist Party office to hand in his card. His wife, who came from what the party regarded as a ‘good family’, hung onto hers until 1963.

In his autobiography, Paris-Montpellier: PC-PSU (1982), Le Roy Ladurie wrote that ‘the year 1980 keeps questioning the year 1950.’ He came to see his youthful communism as a kind of faith that provided a glimpse of what religion might have been like in the days when it could be a matter of life and death.

His portrait of a premodern society locked in a Sisyphean struggle, as each burst of prosperity and population growth was cut off by failed harvests, famine and plague, had political implications. He rejected the romantic view of the ancien régime that was common in Catholic circles. But he also questioned Marxist views of progress, envisaging a history ‘without a motor’ that could be better explained by ‘biological facts than class struggle’.

He saw the Third Republic (1870-1940), especially in its early years, as a benign version of the immobile society that he had described in the pre-modern period – benign because its demographic stability was achieved primarily through birth control rather than the horsemen of the apocalypse. This was not, though, a banal case of conservative nostalgia. A celebration of the Third Republic was a subtle way of marking his distance from both his reactionary childhood and the communism of his early adult years.

Some of Le Roy Ladurie’s admirers remember him as the leader of a third generation in the Annales school: the first generation was led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the second by Fernand Braudel. Le Roy Ladurie said of the Annales school that its approach was ‘slow’, like ‘the societies it studied’. But no one would call him a ‘slow’ historian. He re-evaluated his approach as he came across new sources or assimilated the social and political changes in his lifetime. Pierre Nora, his editor at Gallimard, compared him to a fish darting around in an aquarium: ‘one never knows where he is going to go.’

He wrote about the memoirs of Saint-Simon; he was fascinated by the military history of the Second World War – in his later years, he admired the works of Ian Kershaw and Antony Beevor. He created panoramic histories that stretched across centuries, but he was also a truffle hunter: Le Carnaval de Romans (1980), about a popular revolt in south-east France in 1580, was confined in place to a single town and in time mostly to a fortnight. He seized on techniques from the physical as well as the social sciences. In the 1990s, he tried to settle the question of whether 16th-century inflation was rooted in the import of gold from the New World by asking physicists to examine coins to determine whether the metal came from South America; he elucidated a point about mortality rates in the late Middle Ages by referring to a study of dysentery in monkeys.

Quoted out of context, Le Roy Ladurie’s generalisations imply a degree of certainty that he rarely felt. He is remembered for saying that the historian of the future ‘will be a computer programmer or nothing’ but he wrote his own books by hand and insisted that the most sophisticated statistical study of Renaissance Florence would not explain Botticelli. In Paris-Montpellier: PC-PSU, confidence is often undercut by doubt. He recalls a conversation about Tito and Stalin in 1948 with one of his sisters. We’re told with assurance that it was Marie, and then, after a moment of hesitation: ‘or was it Cécile?’

In Montaillou, Le Roy Ladurie makes the distant past seem present. There’s a sense in which his death last November makes the recent past seem distant. He flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, when the intellectual life of the West seemed to revolve not only around Paris, but around a few dozen people who had known each other since they were pupils at elite Paris lycées. Those decades now seem as remote as the time when Le Roy Ladurie’s ancestors ploughed their Norman fields.

But his work holds up. It was remarkable even by the standards of an extraordinary generation of historians, in part because of the zest with which he wrote. No one conveys better the excitement of historical research. In his autobiography, he recalls a tour of archival deposits in the south of France in the 1950s. Visiting Béziers, he saved money by taking his sleeping bag to the beach and woke in the morning to see the local rugby team plunging into the surf after their training. He captured the fun of it all with a play on the soixante-huitard slogan ‘Sous les pavés, la plage.’ ‘Sous la plage,’ he wrote, ‘les archives.’