Professor Ladurie declares, near the beginning of this immensely detailed volume: 'I hope in this study to bring to life the country people themselves.' Such a reconstruction, he thinks, is bound to be fraught with difficulty, since so little attention has been focused on this stubborn main stratum of the pre-industrial population, the food producers themselves: 'we know much more about "the way of life" of the Magdalenian hunters of Pincevent (8800 BC) than about the French peasants of 1450.' Ladurie seems to be unnecessarily despondent here: this book shows how much there is to know, while his own previous books, especially Montaillou (1975) and Carnival (1979), have excelled in giving down-to-earth detail of an almost journalistic kind about popular risings and establishment repression. However, one can sympathise with his feelings. He is trying to anatomise some seven generations, with an average population of twenty million people, the overwhelming majority from the 'peasant classes'. And the close, detailed, day-by-day written evidence, strikingly preserved in the Bishop of Pamier's Inquisition Register, or the anonymous reports of the Archives Départementales de l'Isère, is simply not available. How can a 'way of life' be reconstructed?
LRB 2 April 1987 | PDF Download