Thursday, November 30, 2023

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, historian of France (1929-2013) RIP

The New York Times recently noted the death of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the historian of France.

Ladurie did not write Canadian history, our usual turf here, but he had influence. In the late 1990s, a friend studying in France told me the book everyone there was reading was Ladurie's Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324.  I found a copy in the French-language section of the bookstore in the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It took me a hellacious long time to get all the way through this long book in small print and scholarly French prose. But I was rivetted throughout, and when finished I felt like the only anglo in the world who knew his book. Shortly after, I was browsing the magazine rack at a supermarket checkout and saw a review in Time magazine of the English translation .

Montaillou remains on my bookshelf and my shortlist of great history books of all time.  

At the time I was beginning to write the book that became Louisbourg Portraits. I don't compare the two (okay, maybe a little), but Montaillou certainly increased my confidence that one could write the lives of people from the past who were quite insignificant in their own times, with historical seriousness and in an entirely nonfictional voice. I needed such inspiration at the time.

Later I interviewed him (studio link, Toronto-Paris) for a CBC Radio "Ideas" series called "Four New Historians" that examined the 1980s vogue for big histories about otherwise anonymous people. Other historians I interviewed for the series included Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jonathan Spence, and Robert Darnton, almost all of whom are cited in the Times obit. 

I recall Ladurie talking of reading the verbatim transcripts of the Inquisition's heresy-trial interrogations of the unhappy people of Montaillou. He described how people in our situation -- interviewer and interviewee -- were used to putting our thoughts in order before answering a question. But thirteenth century peasants, or his own relatives in rural Normandy, would tend to ramble on in endless detail while getting to the point. "Of course this is very boring," he said (he spoke English well, but I remember how he said 'vairy beurre-ing'), "but for the historian it is useful!" 

We met him later when he came to Toronto (to accept an honorary degree, I think), and Timothy LeGoff of York University invited us to a party for him. He was very engaging. He was delighted to discover my wife's Irish ancestors had come to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. "La famine de patates!" he said instantly. (It was the 1830s, actually, but still.)

The Times' obit writer is not very well informed on exactly what the Annales school of French historians aspired to do, but it's still an intriguing life. Father a Vichy cabinet minister who went over to the Resistance, mother the daughter of a viscount, himself a militant communist in his youth, and a lot of books, including an early study of climate change in history.

He disliked the abridged English translation of Montaillou. I guess you will have to grind through the original as I did. 

Ladurie Photo Credit: New York Times.


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