Monday, March 14, 2016

Two kinds of history

Not much seems to be going on in my window on Canadian history right now. And Canadian politics, meh.  Let me switch territories for a moment.

Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie's great book from the 1960s, The Peasants of Languedoc -- and I have read it, so don't give me that look -- is almost entirely, he says, an agrarian history, concerned with peasant society in Mediterranean France, and particularly with its long demographic fluctuations. In that historical territory, he sees what he calls "a great society breathing," the opening and closing of "Malthusian scissors," the passage of a historical wave, the turning of a centuries-long cycle. The Peasants of Languedoc takes almost no interest in war, or politics, or dynastic change, or developments in art or culture or religion during the time he studies. Those are just one damn thing after another, he implies, hardly a change at all compared to the big slow demographic evolution that shapes how his people live.

LeRoy Ladurie mentions the Hundred Years War precisely once, as a chronological signpost: his period runs roughly from the start of that war in the mid-1300s to the French Revolution of the late 1700s. On the other hand, he is profoundly interested in the Black Death of the late 1340s. Before the Black Death, Languedoc had been crowded. The peasants had gradually been forced to expand from the fertile valleys up to the hillsides where the soil was thin and water drained away.  They were poor, undernourished, ill-housed. Inevitably the plague cut an enormous swath through them.

Once the plague crisis and the associated traumas subsided, however, the survivors regrouped on good land that could now provide for them all. They began to live better, for their reduced numbers enjoyed much increased per capita production. For the first time in centuries, peasants ate white bread. And bargained over the rents they had to pay.

Being better fed and housed and generally healthier, they also reproduced themselves without fear. And so Ladurie's cycle resumes, his wave begins to crest again. To skip over a lot of detail, by the mid-1700s, the peasants were again crowded, poor, and hard pressed to pay their feudal dues and obligations. It's not that the demographic cycle in Languedoc caused the French Revolution... but it was in there. And for Ladurie the Black Death is practically the starting point of his whole story. It is almost the asteroid crash that killed the dinosaurs and started the history of mammals. Hundred Years War, what's that in comparison?

Currently there is another historian Jonathan Sumption, who is writing The Hundred Years War, a history in five fat volumes of six or seven hundred pages each. His second volume, Trial by Fire, begins just as the Black Death strikes France and England. Since he is alert to every relevant detail, I wondered how Ladurie's momentous plague would affect his war and his warriors.

Barely at all, thinks Sumption, who is hardcore in his focus on his war and will not be distracted by anything else:
"By far the most significant consequence of the epidemic was its impact on the financial resources of the French Crown." 
Tell that to all the dead peasants, their survivors, their orphans, and their heirs! Or to Ladurie with his many-centuried vision.  But Sumption's subject is the war, and for the war, he argues effectively, the aristocracy who were the main warfighting group mostly survived the plague. Their armies were so relatively small that recruiting was hardly affected, and no prince would be long deterred from war by the sorrows of the people. The war went on pretty much regardless, and even if the taxpayers dodged their burden by dying like flies, the money was found one way or another.

Talk about the varieties of history.  In one enormous book by one very capable historian, the great plague is almost the only dated temporal event worth mentioning and the Hundred Years War that runs through the centre of his period is entirely irrelevant.  In an even larger book by another, the war is the all-consuming topic and the plague barely rates two summary pages, some of it about taxation.

I took up Sumption's book partly wondering what historian today would devote five massive volumes to a meticulous reconstruction of the Hundred Years War that focusses entirely on the war and things directly relevant to the war.  It turns out he abandoned a history prof's job at Cambridge to go to law school. He soon became pretty much Britain's leading civil litigation barrister and a very wealthy man from the court battles of London-based Russian oligarchs, before accepting appointment as a high court judge.  So he writes this huge and laboriously documented history in his spare time  -- sometimes in the medieval chateau he owns in the south of France, now equipped with an excellent private library. Yeesh.

Somehow The Hundred Years War proves to be a surprisingly compelling history; Sumption is a very able marshaller of evidence and organizer of narrative. I have read much more of it than I expected or intended, though there are thousands of pages still ahead.  It's not because he gilds his lilies with added drama or vivid characterization. In the first couple of books, two of his key protagonists are Edward III of England and his son "the Black Prince," but the author forthrightly declares that the generic praise of the chroniclers provides almost no insight into the character or personality of either, and he does not waste any effort trying to imagine them.

He's not much for lessons and conclusions, either, but I do begin to wonder if there is something there about the value of the rule of law. You may already have guessed this, but the whole hundred years of intermittent fighting seems in his meticulous telling to have been nothing but semi-organized brigandry. There never was a point or casus belli to the whole thing, particularly for the English. It is all just willful and irresponsible aristocrats with nothing better to do than to lay waste to as much of France as they could reach. For instance, in one two month campaign:
No battles had been won, no territory conquered, and no castles garrisoned.  But the Anglo-Gascons, had destroyed about 500 villages lying in a band about 200 miles long by forty miles wide across southern France
Had there been a good medieval International War Crimes Tribunal, not one of these people would ever have seen the light of day again.  They make today's Middle East... well, maybe the whole thing is an allegory for today's Middle East.

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