Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is probably the cleverest and certainly the most versatile French historian of our day. Beginning with his thèse on the peasants of Languedoc in Early Modern times, he has ranged back to the everyday life of 14th-century heretics and forward to computers studies of 19th-century conscripts. His secondary thesis dealt with the weather since the year 1000. He has worked on land records and political archives, the registers of the Inquisition and the novels of Restif de la Bretonne. Now, in a fresh tour de force, he enters the lists of folklore by way of an 18th-century dialect story: the tale of 'Jean-l'ont-pris' (henceforth 'JLP'), the story of a villager from the Vaunage plain not far from Nîmes, whose cobbler father turned to thieving to improve his condition and that of his family. With the father soon arrested and executed (hence the lad's nickname, 'They took him'), the mother goes off with a knife-grinder, leaving JLP to be brought up by his grandmother and to turn into a juvenile delinquent. His pilferings and tricks lead to an encounter with a peasant landowner, Master Sestier, through whose local influence the erstwhile poacher literally turns gamekeeper, and on whose plump pretty daughter, Babeau, he begins to cast covetous eyes.
LRB 10 January 1983 | PDF Download