The paratrooping truffler

October 9, 1998

Harriet Swain talks to former Stalinist and priest manque, historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

A tale of political passions, violence, religious angst and class and family tensions - the life of French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie reflects in microcosm the troubled history of postwar France.

Master of the monograph, Le Roy Ladurie has earned such accolades as "arguably the best-known historian alive" by charting the lives of groups of French men and women from medieval times to the revolution. But it is only recently that he has recognised the historical value to be drawn from his own life. The result is an autobiography, Paris - Montpellier, and publication of the memoirs of his father, former Vichy minister Jacques Le Roy Ladurie - in Memoires 1902-1945.

In fact, the story of the Ladurie family offers insights into French history stretching back to the French revolution and beyond. The Laduries are of old Norman stock descended from a former Catholic priest who left the church and married. Originally called "de Ladurie" they had to drop "de" in the 18th century for fear of being persecuted as nobles in the run-up to the revolution.

A strong vein of Catholicism remained in the family and continues in Le Roy Ladurie despite his own long attachment to communism. His grandfather, a monarchist army officer, was stripped of his rank and expelled from the army when he refused to carry out orders to close religious schools and exile nuns. He returned to the family estate at Villeray in the Calvados, serving as mayor of the commune and, after the first world war, helping set up a trade union for the peasantry. Agricultural interests and family connections brought him into contact with Marshal Petain and he joined the new Vichy government as minister of agriculture and food supply but soon became disillusioned, leaving to fight the Nazis via the French Resistance. Arrested in 1945, beaten and eventually released, he left a family shamed by the burden of a Vichy past to this day.

Le Roy Ladurie, himself a supporter of Petain as a child, recalls the respect given to him as a schoolboy as "fils de ministre" as well as his later fall from grace. "I have remained fascinated since with what we call decline and fall," he says. "France is full of people who became very important then became nothing. My fascination is probably due to the fact that my own family was once important and then became zero." At the same time, Le Roy Ladurie's own reputation was growing. "In the end I had a rather brilliant career," he says. "There was a contrast between my own career and the feelings in my family."

But there were other reasons for tension between Le Roy Ladurie and his parents. He had been expected first to become a priest, then a soldier, then a businessman, but in 1949 he joined the Communist Party and emerged as a confirmed Stalinist. He attributes the decision partly to the pessimism of the times, partly to the mystique of the movement but admits he cannot fully explain it. "It was dangerous for young people during the war," he says. "If we are subjected to violence, we will in turn be violent towards others. It is like someone who is sodomised and then sodomises others."

Perhaps it is because he is getting older - he is now 69 - that Le Roy Ladurie is clearly reflecting more and more on the war years. He would like to write about them but doubts he will live long enough to do it.

Although still prolific, working now on the second volume of his history of the 16th-century Swiss Platter family, his heyday as a historian was 20 years ago. He was already respected as a historian of southern French peasants when in 1975 he wrote Montaillou, the best-selling account of a 14th-century village, subject of an inquisition over the Christian heresy of Catharism. Le Roy Ladurie claims he wrote a masterpiece because he was lucky. Forced to find a subject for research from local archives in Montpellier, his wife's home town where he had gone as a lycee teacher and then research fellow at the university, he came across a reference to the inquisitor's document on which Montaillou is based. Historians recognised that the obsessive delving of inquisitor Jacques Fournier into the lives of these heretical peasants made the document a research goldmine. But Le Roy Ladurie used it as an anthropological study of how ordinary people lived and thought, bringing to life a cast of characters and gossipy details of sex, births, deaths and adulteries as thrilling as those of a soap opera.

He followed this with Carnival in Romans, which described the social unrest around the mardi gras carnival at Romans in the Dauphine in 1580, exploring the results of population expansion, religious warfare, conflicts over taxation and the symbolism of the carnival using official documents and diaries from the time. Next came Love, Death and Money in the Pays Doc, in which he deconstructs an 18th-century Languedoc short story to explore what it says about life at that time and the longer-held oral traditions of the region.

In these and his succeeding works, he displays a constant interest in those whose voices are rarely heard - the working and peasant classes - and in social groupings. This is a hangover from his Communist past, along with his view of history as a science. While he left the Communist Party in 1956, he remained active in leftwing politics, standing as a candidate for the United Socialist Party in Montpellier in 1957. He received just 2.5 per cent of the vote. He finally left the Socialist Party in 1963, disenchanted with what it had become. More recently he has publicly supported Chirac.

Politics reared its head again when, as a director of the Biblioth que Nationale, he tried to steer a path between French president Francois Mitterrand's plan for a new national library and its more cost-conscious critics. His efforts were not well received and in 1994 he was sacked.

So well known in France he is considered "part of the furniture", writing regularly for newspapers from across the political spectrum, he has always been open to influences from other countries. For a brief period he taught regularly at Cornell, although this was not a great success. He is described as "a difficult colleague". He says he went to America to make money to buy his Paris apartment and became fascinated with it, moving on to spend time in England once he had made his money. What interested him, he says, was the experience of northern culture. Norman French by birth, but living for a long time in Montpellier, he has always been intrigued by the interplay of north and south.

This is perhaps mirrored by his interest in the warm, vibrant history of people's minds and feelings - the history of mentalites - and his fascination for qualitative history, meticulously compiling facts and figures.

He prides himself on applying Malthusian population theories, using tree-dating techniques, social and economic statistics and computer cataloguing, to illustrate his work. This balance between mentalites and social science number-crunching is typical of the Annales tradition of historical study of which he is a part. An editor of the Annales journal since 1967, he is a direct successor to Fernand Braudel and Ernest Labrousse.

But Le Roy Ladurie is more interested in the quirkiness of individual lives and social groups than his predecessors. He says the history he likes doing best is the kind that involves drawing the largest amount of interest from the smallest amount of work. "When you are not young you need a digestible amount of data," he says, explaining historians can be divided into two types: paratroopers, who comb vast tracts of territory, and trufflers, who snuffle about looking for particular gems. Le Roy Ladurie claims to be both, although he suggests these days he is more of a truffler.

Oxford historian Robin Briggs, who has known him for 30 years, describes him as a loner. Le Roy Ladurie says the same in his autobiography. Yet his books express a deep understanding of humanity and sensitivity to what makes people tick. Through lively prose he brings life to communities from the past, even while scattering through them the statistics that define them more drily.

Although dominated by the religious and class conflicts that have interested him all his life, Le Roy Ladurie's best books somehow manage to overcome these conflicts by drawing universal insights from particular cases. Towards the end of our interview, he becomes obsessed by finding the English word for the tree that exactly describes the sort of historian he is. He roots around in ever bigger dictionaries until he finds it. It is one with lots of branches going in all directions, he says. "Ah, a Mangrove."

"I think it is a good metaphor," he says.

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