“With Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, I discovered a social history, as scientific as it is human”

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie embodied for us, his overseas colleagues, the profession of historian: making people understand the human condition. He was erudite, certainly. He had immersed himself very young in the archives of Montpellier, he mastered all the secondary literature.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie seemed to know medieval and modern France like the back of his hand. But it was his vision of small people struggling to carve out a place in the sun, crushed by immeasurable economic and social forces, that made us understand what the vocation of the historian is.

I will never forget my first reading of his work The Peasants of Languedoc (University Presses of France, 1972). The rigor of the research, as well as its fine description of a peasantry confronted with the difficult distribution of land, allowed me to appreciate what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called the “breathing” of a population that increased and decreased over the centuries. I discovered a social history there, as scientific as it is human.

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He liked to quote Marc Bloch (1886-1944): “The good historian resembles the ogre of the legend. Where he smells human flesh, he knows that there is his game. » However, he launched a climate history where man is non-existent – ​​at least, until the 20th century.e century, when its intervention began to transform nature itself. This means that Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has surped Marc Bloch, our master, by using social sciences of a more exact scope than those available to his predecessor.

Open-mindedness and generosity

That’s for sure Montaillou, Occitan village from 1294 to 1324 (Gallimard, 1975) which made Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie the most widely read historian in the world. The well-deserved success of this book represents another aspect of the genius of its author: literary talent. He knew how to tell stories, he could even make people laugh. He taught us that the historian is allowed to have a sense of humor.

His direct and funny manner could confuse you. When I first met him, in 1970 if I remember correctly, he told me, “Your name is Bob, right?” » I was still only a young researcher, I did not know what to answer, nor how to stand in front of such an eminent historian who spoke to me informally without knowing my name. In fact, he thus expressed his open-mindedness, the generosity that has always animated him.

I often wonder why French history attracts so many foreigners. France played a central role in the formation of the modern world, that much is obvious. But France touches us closely because French historians have been able to revive its past, not in a narrowly hexagonal spirit, but in a way that helps us understand what it was like to be a man or a woman in a society far from ours. Better than all his contemporaries, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie transmitted to us this imperfect but solid knowledge, which will always mark Western culture.

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