Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has long been a contrarian—or as he prefers to call himself, a free electron—in a culture whose mandarins sheathe themselves in seamless ideological armour. Many of them, of course, enter public life from the left but exit from the right, in which case their conversion obligates a comprehensive reversal of previous convictions in order to become the mirror opposite. This was well illustrated in the case of Le Roy Ladurie’s friend François Furet, a former Communist, who after rejecting the political left, declared war against ‘Stalino-Marxist historicism’ in all of its guises, including even the Annales school, which he denounced as ‘merely a Gallic substitute for Marxism’.footnote1 Le Roy Ladurie, in contrast, is a chimera: quasi-reactionary in politics and semi-Marxist in methodology. He describes himself as a ‘not very progressive Catholic’, contributes to Le Figaro and calls May 1968 a ‘disaster’, yet stubbornly espouses the most unfashionable paradigm on the Seine, historical materialism.footnote2 He lionizes Tocqueville, whom he calls the John Wayne of French liberalism, but claims that Marxism, as a theory of the economic infrastructure, is ‘totally complementary’ to la pensée Tocquevillienne as a theory of the political superstructure.footnote3

In his life he has been a privileged child of Vichy, a fierce young cadre in the ranks of the pcf, a founder of the new-leftish Party of Socialist Unity, a cultural celebrity supporting the centre right, and now an old sage who refuses to sum up his beliefs for the convenience of posterity. Likewise his scholarly work, ever-changing but somehow staying within a coherent domain, has always confounded simple categorization. With the possible exception of Régis Debray, Le Roy Ladurie is as close as a French intellectual comes to being an incompressible algorithm. His bibliography, for instance, includes articles or book chapters on such subjects as the radio-isotope dating of silver coins, symbolic castration, the outsourcing of breastfeeding in the eighteenth century, Brazilian gold, provincial costumes, epidemiology, the geography of place-names beginning with ‘Saint’ (hagiotoponyms), salt taxes, the history of the book, abandoned villages, Vauban’s ideas for tax reform, tree rings, folk tales about fatal donkey farts, the height of military conscripts, witchcraft and France’s regional identities.

But this joyous eclecticism, which recapitulates the creative spectrum of the Annales tradition in a single curriculum vitae, is for the most part gravitationally bound to the grands projets upon which he has worked for more than half a century: a ‘total history’ of the French countryside under the ancien régime and, arising from this, the history of the west European climate since the fourteenth century.footnote4 Over the decades, each project has evolved through innumerable case studies and interdisciplinary collaborations, yielding multiple volumes in various revisions and dozens of articles, all within a unique French system of team research in the humanities. Although seldom acknowledged by his reviewers and critics, Le Roy Ladurie from the beginning framed his investigations as ‘ecological’ or ‘environmental’ histories, making him a pioneer of the discipline. Similarly he was in the vanguard of the new historical demography and has often complained about the inattention of other historians to crucial issues of epidemiology, nutrition, contraception and fertility. If Braudel’s comparative sweep was broader—a unified geohistory encompassing both the Christian and Islamic Mediterraneans—Le Roy Ladurie’s work has been more epistemologically radical, despite—or, perhaps, because of—its narrower focus on rural France, especially the Midi. In refusing to amputate social from natural history in his The Peasants of Languedoc, he took the totalizing vision of the second-generation Annales school to its highest stage of development, where climate change, disease evolution and sexual repression became historical forces interacting with and overdetermining class and religious conflicts. In an interview he once likened himself to a mangrove—with countless interests branching in every direction, but all growing from the same massive tree.footnote5 The image is apt.

Because of a curious and incurable penchant for putting himself in harm’s way with ambiguous formulations and hyperbolic slogans that don’t accurately reflect their actual context, he has also been more misrepresented by selective quotation and spurious stereotype than any other major figure in the Annales camp. Indeed he seems to take an almost prankish delight in challenging his critics and interpreters to fit his awkward frame into their favourite procrustean bed. As his Annales colleague Jacques Le Goff once told an interviewer: ‘Emmanuel enjoys that sort of thing—a play on words, a provocation.’footnote6 It usually works. In the 1980s, for example, Lynn Hunt cited Le Roy Ladurie’s alleged shift in interest during the previous decade from quantitative history to anthropologized micro-histories and mentalités as dramatic evidence of the ‘disintegration of the belief in a coherently unified interdisciplinarity’ that had been the cornerstone of the Annales school.footnote7 She was referring, of course, to his studies of the ‘existential past’: Montaillou, village occitan (1975), the best-selling biography of a fourteenth-century Cathar village in the Pyrenees, and Le Carnaval de Romans (1980), a complex account of a sixteenth-century massacre. In Hunt’s view these books signalled a turning away from the social-scientific framework—demographic and economic—of Les paysans de Languedoc (1966).

But any ‘epistemic break’ in Le Roy Ladurie’s work during the 1970s is an illusion. If he now used a microscope to study small historical milieus, Hunt was wrong to suggest that he had, in turn, thrown away his old telescope.footnote8 In the 1970s he also wrote a major macro work, ‘Les masses profondes: la paysannerie’, part of the first volume of the Histoire économique et sociale de la France edited by Braudel and Labrousse that was later published separately in English translation as The French Peasantry 1450–1660. Likewise he contributed a revelatory ethnography of peasant daily life across France under the ancien régime to the equally monumental synthesis, Histoire de la France rurale, and wrote a book with Joseph Goy about tithes as measures of farm output which includes a crucial essay that revises and expands the arguments in Languedoc. Another book, Anthropologie du conscrit français, was a very ingenious if not altogether successful attempt to explore class and geographic differentials in national health through comparisons of the stature of conscripts in the French Army. He also edited several research anthologies and published a dozen major articles on economic and climate history—all quantitative and in the best spirit of Annalist interdisciplinarity. What distinguishes his work from 1970 to 1985 is not a sea-change in Le Roy Ladurie’s agenda but rather his staggering ability to advance that agenda on so many fronts at once. Hunt, who should have known better, confused the chromatic complexity of his palette with faddish eclecticism or, worse, the ‘cultural turn’.