Professor Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's The Peasants of Languedoc is an outstanding work of historical scholarship in the best tradition of that uniquely French institution, the monumental thèse d'Etat. It is, at the same time, a remarkable demonstration of the continuing vitality of France's Annates school of historiography (so named from the title of the journal founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre). Certainly no major study by an Annates historian since Fernand Braudel's classic The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II1 comes closer to realizing the purposes of a history without frontiers, "the sum of all possible histories." What is implied in such expressions is a readiness on the historian's part to employ the tools and concepts of the other social sciences in his reconstruction of the past. Pride of place is reserved for the study of economic, social, and-increasingly-intellectual ( or sociopsychological) structures and structural change-the "unconscious" history of human collectivities as distinguished from the surface history of individual events (t'histoire evenementielle). Annales scholars, in other words, tend to concern themselves with what is recurrent, or at least comparable, in the history of past societies ( and hence translatable into the common scientific language of statistics) rather than with what is unique-the delight of traditional historiography, with its noted bias in favour of great events and great personalities.
Le Roy Ladurie set himself the particular task of writing just such a ..total" history of peasant society in the ancient French province of Languedoc between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. His work combines elements of historical geography, demography, and sociology; of economic
1Paris, 1949; revised edition, Paris, 1966; English translation, New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972.
history; and of psychohistory in a single construction, baptized "a great agrarian cycle." These different structures are studied in their reciprocal relationships as component parts of a whole. Great events of the period - the Calvinist Reformation, the religious wars, the Camisard revolt-are reconsidered in the changing perspectives of this polymorphic histoire inconsciente (which is not to minimize their role or significance).
The author's two key statistical sources are land tax registers, or compoix, for shifting patterns of landownership and tithe accounts for the evolution of the gross agricultural product. But the successive phases of the long-term movement he has studied are also delimited and analysed in terms of more familiar kinds of quantitative data: hearth lists, prices, wages (including wages in kind), land rent, interest rates, and profits. The various series and samplings, like most Old Regime statistics, tend to be disparate and discontinuous, unsuited to the ingenious model building of the "new economic history ." To make them speak at all requires not only a perfect understanding of their nature and limitations but also a generous measure of improvisation (see, in particular, Part I, chapters 3 and 4, and Part IV, chapter 2).
The combined results of Le Roy Ladurie's calculations, which are carried out without resort to difficult statistical concepts (and, for that matter, without computers), serve to illustrate the book's central theme-the Malthusian dilemma of a traditional agrarian society incapable, over the long run, of preserving a balance between population and food production.
In the late Middle Ages, Languedoc - in common with the rest of Europe -had suffered a major demographic setback that resulted in the retreat of agriculture and sometimes rural land settlement. But the situation contained within itself "the seeds of anew advance": high wages, improved nutrition, consolidated ( that is, viable) peasant landholdings, low rents, and a "frontier" of potentially productive farmland. The sixteenth century was characterized, in the first instance, by a veritable population explosion (the "Malthusian Renaissance") which touched off a whole series of interrelated processes: a progressive division of landholdings, a decline of real wages, a rise in prices ( also induced by the notorious effects of bullion imports from the New World), and accumulating profits from direct cultivation in its various forms.
The first sixty years of the grand siècle, with profits shrinking and agricultural wages at rock bottom, were the heyday of the parasitic rentier landlord - the "feudal reaction" of an older historiography. If the ensuing "general crisis" ( to borrow a term favoured by English historians) , with its predictable
negative repercussions on population, brought some relief to the rural proletariat, it proved almost fatal to farm profits and to all forms of rente. The guilty variables, at this juncture, were soaring taxes, under Louis XIV, and a gross product that still obstinately refused to budge. It was not, in fact, until the age of the Enlightenment that improved yields, the spread of wine growing, and progress in manufacturing finally succeeded in exorcizing the Malthusian spectre of recurrent subsistence crises in rural Languedoc.
Le Roy Ladurie breathes life into his statistical blueprint of economic developments with innumerable concrete examples; the career of Guillaume Masenx, a cynical back-country capitalist, symbolizes "primitive accumulation" in the inflationary sixteenth century, and the story of the Lalle family debt to the canons of Beziers illustrates the unhappy predicament of borrowers during the Colbert depression (likened to that of American farmers during the Hoover depression).
But the book's horizons are not bounded by the facts of economic life - by what, with luck and ingenuity, can be counted and quantified. The work also represents a pioneer venture in the history of popular culture inspired, in turn, by the concepts of a Freud, a Weber, a Uvi-Strauss, a Foucault.
Thus, for example, if the extended peasant family of the late Middle Ages constituted a practical solution to the labour shortage, it also provided a needed psychological anchorage in an age of violence and insecurity. Or again, the primitive rebels of the late Renaissance (to say nothing of the acolytes of rural witchcraft) were motivated as much by irrational fantasies and Freudian anxieties as by a reasonable resentment against depressed wages and the "uneven growth of wealth." In the post-Revocation period, as a matter of fact, what passed for economic self-interest was often completely submerged in a sea of religious fanaticism. Finally, not all the roadblocks to sustained economic growth were economic in nature. What was also wanting, prior to the eighteenth century, was a spirit of initiative and a minimum level of education. In short, the complex processes described in the book were not determined by economic and demographic factors alone.
The Peasants of Languedoc contributes in numerous ways to our understanding of the problems and contradictions of peasant societies both past and present. At the same time, it offers the example of anew and demanding kind of historical synthesis inspired by the Annales ideal of a unified science of man.
The original French edition of The Peasants of Languedoc was published in 1966 in two volumes. In the shorter paperback edition of 1969, on which
this translation is based, Part One of the original version ( devoted to climate and human geography), much of the statistical appendix (tables and graphs), and a number of shorter sections were sacrificed, and Part Four (now Part Three, "The Rent Offensive") was summarized. The bibliography and the list of manuscript sources, which were also eliminated from the second French edition, have been restored, and an index has been added.
Professor Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie occupies the chair of Modern History and European Civilizations with the College de France. His other publications include Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000 (New York, 1971), Histoire du Languedoc (Paris, 1967), Les Fluctuations du produit de la Dîme (in collaboration with Joseph Goy, Paris, 1972), Le territoire de l'Historien (Paris, 1973), and many articles, especially in Annales: economies, societes, civilisations.
Paris JOHN DAY