Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who looked at history from the bottom up, dies at 94

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Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who looked at history from the bottom up, dies at 94
He led a movement that rejected historiography’s traditional emphasis on great events and leaders in favor of mining the “mental universe” of peasants, merchants and clergymen.

by Jonathan Kandell

NEW YORK, NY.- Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a French historian at the forefront of a scholarly movement that sought to understand the past from the bottom up, by probing the beliefs and psychology of anonymous peasants and priests rather than the exploits of triumphant generals and rulers, died on Wednesday. He was 94.

His family confirmed the death, according to Agence France-Presse and other French news organizations. The magazine L’Obs said he died in Paris.

In a statement from the Élysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron of France called Le Roy Ladurie “one of our greatest historians,” adding, “His work truly extended history’s domain — the discipline was enriched because he was able to invent new tools, new approaches, and new subjects.”

A prolific and eminently readable scholar, Le Roy Ladurie was most familiar for his books “Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error” (1975) and “Carnival in Romans” (1979), both of them bestsellers and instant classics on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was a leading member of the Annales movement, which rejected traditional historiography, with its emphasis on great events (the War for Independence, the Bolshevik Revolution), ideologies (capitalism vs. Marxism) and protagonists (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky).

Before the influence of Le Roy Ladurie and other, mainly French, scholars, students were confidently assumed to have mastered the outlines of history if they could recite the dates, describe the cataclysms and memorize the names of the greats. But according to Le Roy Ladurie, they would have only scratched the surface of the human experience through the ages.

The Annales school, named after the Paris-based scholarly magazine that was launched in 1929, extended its influence throughout Western Europe and the United States even among historians who did not formally identify themselves with the movement. Its appeal is felt in histories as disparate as the accounts of peasant revolts in pre-Revolution France, slavery in the Americas, witchcraft in Renaissance England and rural bandits in 19th-century Mexico.

Le Roy Ladurie sought to explore the “mental universe” of peasants, workers, merchants and clergymen in Europe’s preindustrial era. In “Montaillou,” he focused on a medieval village in southwestern France, whose inhabitants were swept up by the 13th-century conflict between Roman Catholic orthodoxy and a local heretical group known as the Cathars. A crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III to wipe out the Cathars in Montaillou and dozens of other nearby villages. But hidden heretics persisted for another 100 years.

Le Roy Ladurie drew upon the confessions extracted from Montaillou farmers and shepherds by Inquisition officials. Besides religious beliefs, these interrogations revealed everyday work and household routines, friendships and rivalries, family relationships and sexual practices of the defendants. In one startling chapter, a heretical, womanizing village priest explains his seduction techniques in great detail and color.

“Montaillou” gained enthusiasts among scholars and popular audiences. “A wholly successful demonstration of the historian’s capacity to bring together almost every dimension of human experience into a single, satisfying whole,” British historian Keith Thomas wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1978.

Le Roy Ladurie explained the book’s appeal among nonacademic readers in less august terms. “A question of histoires de fesses,” he told an interviewer in 1985, meaning “sex stories” in French slang.

He followed “Montaillou” with “Carnival in Romans.” Set in the southeastern French town of Romans-sur-Isère in 1580, the book investigates a bloody ambush that takes place during the annual Mardi Gras festivities, reconstructing the tensions between craftsmen and peasants on one side and merchants and aristocrats on the other.

The book implied that the class and cultural conflicts in this little known river port were part of the road to the French Revolution two centuries later.

“Le Roy Ladurie’s fascinating, social, political, anthropological and psychological approach to the revolt at Romans, sets us sure-footedly on the journey,” British historian Olwen Hufton wrote in a 1980 critique for History Today.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie was born on July 19, 1929, in Les Moutiers-en-Cinglais, a village in Normandy. His father, Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, was a former minister of agriculture in the collaborationist Vichy government who joined the resistance against the Nazi occupation of France. His mother, Léontine Dauger, was the daughter of a viscount.

Emmanuel was a brilliant student who gained a doctorate in history at the University of Paris and went on to head the history of modern civilization department at the prestigious Collège de France. He published more than 30 books and still found time to make frequent contributions to Le Monde, Le Nouvel Observateur (now L’Obs) and L’Express.

Among his other notable works were “La Sorcière de Jasmin” (“Jasmin’s Witch,” 1983), about sorcery practices in a 17th-century village in Gascony; “Histoire des paysans français de la peste noire à la Révolution” (“A History of the French Peasants From the Black Plague to the Revolution,” 2002); and “Les fluctuations du climat de l’an mil à aujourd’hui” (“Climate Fluctuations From the Year 1000 Until Today,” 2011).

From 1987 to 1994, he was director of the Bibliotèque Nationale, France’s national library.

His wife, Madeleine Pupponi, a physician with a strong interest in climate change, helped him research the environmental impact of retreating glaciers in climate history. They had two children. There was no immediate information on his survivors.

Le Roy Ladurie joined the French Communist Party as a teenager in 1945. Though he said he began to regret his Communist affiliation after the Red Army crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he remained in the party for seven more years. He continued to hold strongly left-wing views and often clashed with more conservative historians.

He had a particularly nasty dispute with his former mentor, Fernand Braudel, himself a leading exponent of the Annales school and a famed historian of capitalism. Le Roy Ladurie and his younger colleagues took issue with Braudel’s more global approach to history in favor of a so-called history of mentalities, which focuses on the biographies of the downtrodden. In 1972, they forced the older scholar to give up his post as editor of Annales magazine and to step down as director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, the institution most identified with the movement.

Over the next two decades, Le Roy Ladurie’s vision for the Annales school gathered strength among his peers. In Italy, Carlo Ginzburg published “The Cheese and the Worms” (1976), the story of an obscure miller burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his insistence that God and the universe were created from rot.

In the United States, Princeton University scholar Robert Darnton published a 1984 bestseller, “The Great Cat Massacre,” whose title essay explained why apprentices at an 18th-century Paris printer thought it was great fun to slaughter their bosses’ pets.

And “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1983) by another Princeton historian, Natalie Zemon Davis (who died last month), was made into a 1982 movie about a 16th-century French peasant (played by Gérard Depardieu) who assumed another person’s identity so successfully that he managed to fool the man’s wife, parents and friends.

But already by the mid-1980s, the pendulum had started to swing away from the historiography of Le Roy Ladurie and his Annales colleagues. Complaining that their approach was too dismissive of the drama of great events and the influence of political leaders, other scholars argued that any history of ancient Rome still left Caesar, Augustus, Pompey and Nero at center stage, or that the life of Isaac Newton mattered more than any witches burned at the stake in 17th-century England.

The Annales movement also seemed reluctant to tackle the modern era beginning with the Industrial Revolution and culminating in the two world wars.

“We have tended to fall back on the old prejudice of historians against dealing with subjects that are too close to the present,” Le Roy Ladurie conceded in the 1985 interview. “But this should not discredit the Annales method. Perhaps it is less important that the Annales method has not yet succeeded in satisfactorily explaining the last 100 years if it has helped us to illuminate the thousand years before then.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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