Rhythms of History

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who died late last year, was among the great French historians of the twentieth century. A researcher of singular ability and imagination, he trained as a social historian in the Annales tradition, and came to prominence with the publication of Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966), which legitimized his succession to the editorship of the Annales journal, launched by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929. Whereas his predecessor, Fernand Braudel, had widened the geographical sweep of Annales history during his post-war tenure, pushing beyond France to encompass the economic and social activity of the greater Mediterranean world, Le Roy Ladurie returned the focus to rural France. He would go on to undertake a series of methodological experiments in fine-grained, micro-level analysis. At the same time, Le Roy Ladurie developed a form of climate history that sought to grasp the interrelationship between the environment and human society, virtually inventing the field in the process.

He was born in 1929 in Calvados, a sea-facing department of Normandy. His mother, Léontine Dauger, was the daughter of a viscount, his father, Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, was an independent farmer who later became Secretary-General of the Union Nationale des Syndicats Agricoles, a Catholic peasant union that supported agricultural protectionism and allied itself with the agrarian fascist Greenshirts. In 1942, he was appointed Vichy’s Minister of Agriculture and Food Supply, but opposed the regime’s forced conscription of French civilians for labour service in Germany and resigned his post after a few months. Toward the end of the war, he joined a right-wing Resistance group, but was nevertheless arrested as a collaborator during the purges. His son later observed that the French Revolution had never quite reached this part of Normandy, that in many ways its patterns of life were continuous with those of the Ancien Régime.

Le Roy Ladurie studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure, then a bastion of communist organizing, and was soon radicalized. Mao’s peasant revolution inspired him to join the French Communist Party, in an experience he described as a ‘conversion, a metanoia’. For his master’s thesis, he chose a suitably ‘politically engaged’ topic, French colonial policy in late nineteenth-century Indochina. It was supervised by Charles-André Julien, a Trotskyist and one of France’s few specialists in colonial history. Another early mentor was Pierre Vilar, a socialist within the Annales fold, who, in his student’s estimation, represented the best in Marxian thought, namely a totalising analysis of social reality that employed both quantitative and qualitative methods.

It was customary at the time for doctoral students in history to be sent to the provinces to cut their teeth in the local archives. In 1953, Le Roy Ladurie was dispatched to Montpellier where he taught for ten years, first in a high school, and later as a junior professor at the University of Montpellier. Like Braudel – his future mentor and a fellow northerner – he was enchanted by the landscape, architecture and history of the Midi. Yet he found Party life more stultifying in the south. As a young militant eager to shake up the PCF’s internal culture, he and others like him were labelled ‘termites’. The Soviet invasion of Hungary soon prompted his exit from the party. With the war in Algeria unfolding, Le Roy Ladurie, wishing to remain politically engaged, founded a political action committee, gathering a contingent of local anti-war activists. The group was eventually absorbed into the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU), a key organization of the French New Left composed of different factions of communist and socialist parties.

In 1963, Braudel offered him a position in the Centre de recherches historiques at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Unable to resist the ‘Braudelian sirens’, Le Roy Ladurie returned to Paris, quitting the PSU in the process. It was at this point, he later reflected, that he chose to put his ‘political conscience on the back burner for a bit’; moving to Paris ultimately provided an opportunity to ‘quietly slip out of my own skin’. A combination of careerism and disenchantment would see Le Roy Ladurie move steadily rightwards over the coming decades.

He arrived back in Paris with a thesis manuscript already exceeding a thousand pages. It would be published in two volumes as Les Paysans de Languedoc. A history of rural life in Languedoc from 1500 to 1800, it was a work of striking erudition and creativity, which stands alongside Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean and Bloch’s Les Rois thaumaturges as one of the most innovative texts produced by the Annales school. Its main sources were the compoix, property records that allowed Le Roy Ladurie to study ‘the extent, nature and value of landholdings’ over the longue durée. Beginning the work while still a member of the PCF, Le Roy Ladurie had intended to trace the origins of capitalism. But he was led in a different direction: the evidence ‘mastered me by imposing its own rhythms’. It is an apt metaphor, for the book provides a kind of symphonic history, attentive not just to the economic and demographic cycles, but also to culture, psychology and the biological dimensions of human existence.

The picture that emerged from this ‘total history’ was of a society locked into cycles of Malthusian pressures and unable to generate the conditions necessary for the development of capitalism. As the population began to multiply in the late fifteenth century, agricultural production remained sluggish, making growth all but impossible. Le Roy Ladurie discerns frustration at this impasse in the cultural and political spheres – in the preoccupation with heavenly salvation during the Reformation, a rise in anti-tax revolts, the frenzy over the witches’ Sabbaths. In the end, it was the expanding French state that acted to intensify social contradictions, its increasingly muscular tax policies aggravating the problems of underdevelopment, leading to a surge in rural protest in the seventeenth century. Like Tocqueville, Le Roy Ladurie saw the absolutist state as a major engine of social development in the Ancien Régime, though with the crucial difference that he regarded it as a force of instability rather than an instrument of order.

A year later, Le Roy Ladurie published his second thesis, the epic Histoire du climat depuis l’an mil (1967). In many ways a drier exercise, the book sought to establish a rigorous methodology for studying climate history. This involved freeing it from anthropocentric prejudice and discovering data sets that could furnish clear patterns of change. In particular, Le Roy Ladurie hoped to confirm the existence of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in Europe, a period of cooling that lasted from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. He relied on the evidence of wine harvests to trace the fluctuation of temperatures: late harvests showed a high correlation with rainy and cold weather. Though he abstained from passing final judgement, he noted that the process of working through the data would make climate history scientific much in the way ‘alchemy eventually turned into chemistry’. Once climate history established its scientific credentials, he argued, it could move into studying the natural environment’s impact on human civilization, in which case ‘climatic history would become ecological history’ and help shed light on wars, epidemics, migrations and political revolts. In this respect, Le Roy Ladurie’s first two books formed a complementary analytic: from different angles and with different temporal schemes, they surveyed a human world closely bound up with the dynamics of nature.

From these first histories, Le Roy Ladurie generated a complex research programme that branched off in different directions. One was the social history of rural areas in France, with a book produced on tithes in the Ancien Régime, multiple studies of the peasantry and an analysis of conscripts in the early nineteenth-century French army. This last work tabulated reports from medical examiners, which documented, among other things, rates of diseases, malnutrition, goitres, hernias and bad teeth in young draftees. For Le Roy Ladurie, this was a step toward building a bio-ecological history of France. It was in this social-historical mode that he participated in the ‘Brenner debate’ on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Robert Brenner had argued that the origins of capitalism lay in the social-property relations and dynamic class structures of seventeenth-century England, and that Malthusian accounts of the transition, focused on repetitive cycles, failed to capture such dynamism. In his response, Le Roy Ladurie defended his methodology, maintaining that its correlation of production, population, land rent and prices was highly compatible with Marxist analysis. He also challenged what he took to be Brenner’s narrow path to capitalism, one that required the destruction of the peasantry – what Le Roy Ladurie called teasingly an ‘Augustinian view of history’. This, he insisted, underestimated the resilience and ‘remarkable potential of the peasant family model’ as seen in Belgium, Holland, northern Italy and Catalonia during the early era of industrial capitalism.

A second line of research brought Le Roy Ladurie into the domain of popular culture. His initial foray, Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (1975), was based on an archival trouvaille: Inquisition records documenting a bishop’s attempt to stamp out Cathar heresy in a remote southwestern enclave. From these, Le Roy Ladurie was able to reconstruct in ethnographic detail the mental and material world of these secluded peasants. The influence of the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss was evident, for in the absence of both the centralizing state and powerful aristocratic demesnes, the main organizing principle of village life was the local family unit, which dictated social alliances and conflicts. Wheras Le Roy Ladurie’s quantitative histories had tracked long-term shifts and fluctuations, Montaillou appears in a seemingly eternal state of patriarchal-economic relations.

Montaillou sold a quarter of a million copies and was translated into dozens of languages. Two years earlier, Le Roy Ladurie was elected to Braudel’s former chair at the Collège de France, his candidacy supported by Lévi-Strauss and Georges Duby. With a bestseller and a berth in France’s most prestigious academy, he had ascended to the very top of his profession and become the standard-bearer of the ‘third generation’ of Annales.

The next decade would see him widen his study of peripheral mentalités, often in unpredictable ways. In L’Argent, l’amour et la mort en pays d’oc (1980), he analysed a well-known eighteenth-century folktale, Jean-L’Ont-Pris, often taken to be a straightforward description of rural life in the pre-Revolutionary Midi. Le Roy Ladurie refused any realistic interpretation of the récit and offered instead a formidable reading that assembled more than sixty examples of vernacular literature to explore the deeper themes and structures of Languedocian consciousness.

Carnaval de Romans (1979), an account of a massacre of workers in the Dauphiné during the winter festival of 1580, was treated by many as a follow-up to Montaillou, due to the folkloric and symbolic dimensions of the protest. But in many ways, Le Roy Ladurie was investigating new terrain. It was the first time he had studied an urban setting, with its different orders of craftsmen and consular powers. What is unveiled is not a cultural or religious interpretation of the massacre, but – atypically for the Annales school – a political-economic history of class struggle. In Le Roy Ladurie’s telling, a group of local notables had seized control of municipal institutions, availing itself of fiscal privileges and suppressing the popular classes. When a threat arose from the lower orders, the oligarchs launched a pre-emptive attack and killed twenty of the movement’s leaders. Whereas Montaillou appeared frozen in time, Romans was at a critical point in the history of the Ancien Régime, poised between the folk traditions and popular assemblies of the past and the radicalization of oligarchies that would define the struggles of the future and lead to revolution.

The 1980s saw a further rightward drift in Le Roy Ladurie’s outlook, occasioned, at least in part, by the election of Mitterrand. What alarmed him, he wrote in the memoir Paris-Montpellier: P.C.-P.S.U., 1945-1963 (1983), was not so much Mitterrand himself, but rather the Faustian bargain he had struck with the PCF, a party still committed to the ‘totalitarian’ principles of Marxism-Leninism. With fascism defeated, he had come to believe that communism posed the greatest threat to that ‘island of liberty’ known as Western Europe. Le Roy Ladurie’s work underwent a parallel shift. In 1987 came L’État royal, 1460-1610, followed by its sequel, L’Ancien Régime, 1610-1770 (1991). Striking in both instances was the abandonment of the ‘from below’ perspective, which had previously been a unifying principle of his writings. Gone were the peasants, famines, Sabbaths and rural protests, as attention turned to courtly life and high politics. Surprising too was how he tended to identify with the absolutist state in his account (he remarks, for instance, that ‘the War of American Independence was intelligently pursued by the French, despite various reverses on the naval side’). Yet even if at stark variance with the Annales’ tradition, this work nevertheless showed traces of Le Roy Ladurie’s distinctive anthro-historical approach to the Ancien Régime, as when he proposed, in the second volume, to study the exercise of power along the lines of anthropologist Georges Dumézil’s ‘trifunctional hypothesis’, breaking down authority into sacred, economic and martial components.

In 1997, Le Roy Ladurie then published an ethnographic account of court society through the eyes of the Duc de Saint-Simon, whose Memoirs, a classic of Baroque literature, had been a livre de chevet of the historian’s since his teenage years. He argued that the petit duc was the most thoroughgoing proponent of hierarchy that court life had ever known. Historians had mistakenly enlisted Saint-Simon among the modernizers at Versailles, whereas in fact he was ‘an archaic specimen’, ‘a ruin ripe for excavation’. All Saint-Simon’s observations were subordinated to this axial belief: bastardy, which Louis XIV legalized for the purpose of legitimating an heir, could not be tolerated on the grounds that it resulted from a ‘perversion of procreation’; seating arrangements at court had to scrupulously follow the order of ranks.

Had it stopped here, Le Roy Ladurie’s career trajectory would have had a clean arc, moving from ‘low’ to ‘high’, social to political, radical to conservative. But after his retirement from the Collège in 1999, he returned to the climate history he had inaugurated in the 1960s, publishing the massive Histoire humaine et comparée du climat trilogy. In this forty-year interval, Le Roy Ladurie had never stopped collecting data on wine harvests and glaciers, and here he employs this mountain of evidence to produce a detailed and complex longue durée history of human beings’ relationship with the climate. This totalizing eco-history marks the culmination of a life’s work in the furrows of Annales history, and leaves no doubt as to the warming of the planet during the industrial era. As Mike Davis suggested in NLR, Le Roy Ladurie has left behind an intricate map for scholars to puzzle over as they tackle the climate emergency. This would require close collaboration between historians and scientists, and a continued focus on human history as eco-history; or, Annales at its very best.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘Taking the Temperature of History’, NLR 110.