On Microhistory and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou”

To extract meaning from the historical record is, more often than not, the historian’s chief goal. The means of doing so, however, have varied from time to time. Microhistory is one expression of historical methodology that evolved in the 1970s and strives to represent the individual relationships within a community by shrinking the scale of observation. This, microhistorians argue, allows us to discover aspects that would otherwise remain unknown if research were done using a more standardised method. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s 1978 work Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village, 1294-1324 is an example of microhistorical research as it is an exhaustive investigation into the way of life of the residents of the medieval town of Montaillou. Microhistory is a useful way of looking at history. This assertion can be shown by presenting how the methodology itself operates and how it is utilised by Ladurie, the connection to the past that microhistory offers and its appeal to the public through its readability. Naturally, the method can be faulted, but it can be concluded that “what is gained… offsets such deficiencies.”[1]

Microhistory offers a recording of history that departs from the more widely used macrohistoric methods such as using quantitative data and historical demography. Instead it is an intensive study on the individual, a community or a particular event and moves away from making formal institutions a focal point. It is through this reduction of scale that a new history emerges and attempts to encompass the social and cultural ways of the subject. One criticism, discussed by Muir in his introduction to the influential work Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, is how the unit of study can very easily fall into triviality. He asks: “how can historians concerned with trifles avoid producing trivial history?”[2] If, as Sahlins states in his review of Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, each case is treated as “at once extraordinary and normative”[3] how does the historian select what to include in their history and avoid it lapsing into frivolity? This can be difficult as microhistory provides no criteria as to processes of selectivity and significance.[4] Ladurie, however, evades this through his clearly defined areas of investigation that all contribute meaningfully to the study. He separates the book into two parts: “the ecology of Montaillou” and “an archaeology of Montaillou,” and within each part is a number of delegated themes, such as “death in Montaillou” or “marriage and love.” As a result a sort of historical itinerary is developed – we travel through Montaillou with an idea of what to expect from each chapter, learning about a particular facet of existence in Montaillou that cannot stray into triviality as it is woven into the whole.

This new strand of history turned its attention to those forgotten in history as historians could generally not shed their “enthusiasm for a history shaped by grand general structures and forces.”[5] Microhistory attempts to bring the “lost people of Europe” into history – those on the social periphery – with micohistorians tending to focus on the outliers of society rather than looking for the average individual who would normally be found as a statistic if applying quantitative research methods. As a result, it can be immediately seen how this methodology would be effective in relaying Ladurie’s study of the village of Montaillou, as Muir mentions  “rebels, heretics, and criminals are the most likely candidates… to leave sufficient traces to become the subject of microhistories, their behaviour is, by definition, exceptional.”[6] This “exceptional” behaviour, such as the following of a heretical sect, has resulted in the wealth of material available as subjects would often come under the scrutiny of authorities who would in turn leave details on such behaviours. For Ladurie, his reconstruction of the village of Montaillou in the years 1294 to 1324 is derived solely from the register of Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers and inquisitor who sought out heretics, questioned them and had their confession recorded. Of the 114 supposed heretics that came before his court, 25 were residents of Montaillou. Fournier’s thorough inquisition has laid bare all aspects of peasant living: social relations, the treatment of wives and children, literacy and education, concepts of time and space, fate, magic, religion and myths. The register of Fournier would be edited and published by J. Duvernoy in three volumes in 1965 and is viewed as one of the most important documents of social and religious history from mediaeval times. While this is a very comprehensive source, it can be seen through Ladurie’s Montaillou that the reliance on one source has its drawbacks as there is no way to cross-reference, for example misinterpretation of the Latin, and instances can be distorted and used to support the argument of the author. Herlihy chides the “carelessness”[7] inherent in Ladurie’s work – the departures from the original Latin of the register are often manipulated for dramatic effect – for example “at the time when the heretics were in this land” appears as “at the time when the heretics dominated Montaillou.”[8] Herlihy also mentions the witness Raymond Vayssèire who Ladurie writes as saying that all the houses in Montaillou, except two or three, were infected by heresy as the parish priest read the book of heresy to the people. Herlihy then points to the actual instance in the register that the priest in fact still administered the rites of Catholicism and there is no mention of him reading heretical texts to the people.[9] It must be noted, however, that manipulation of sources can occur no matter the methodology used.

As Christiansen emotively says: “in microhistory the reader feels that he is coming directly to the people of the past, closer than it is otherwise possible in other historical studies.”[10] Szijártó asks if “this fascination with detail really give more to the reader than traditional social history?”[11] In Ladurie’s Montaillou, all aspects of peasant life are evoked sensitively and curiously and dealt with in such a way we can relate to these people who are long dead. Ladurie himself said that “historians must write well, entertain their readers, and move them, as do artists, to feelings of delight, wonder and dread,”[12] in no other discipline of historical methodology would a historian have such artistic license and be able to conjure up such images of days gone as Ladurie does in Montaillou. His work educes essences of medieval existence – the spirituality (whether it be heretical or accepted), the reliance on the land, the rituals and superstitions and the other parts which have remained unchanged such as love, sex and disagreements – “social and cultural history unite in the micro-processes of everyday life.”[13] This creates a relationship between the reader and the work as personalities are allowed to be established and personal stories are recounted. Indeed, Szijártó likens microhistory to the plays of classical Greece with its culmination of place, time and action.[14] Indeed Ladurie’s Montaillou has the elements of any drama – the many sexual conquests of the priest Pierre Clergue, the endogamic marriages and concubinages, the love affairs of Béatrice de Planissoles – resulting in the work being highly appealing and accessible to the modern reader. Ladurie’s engrossing recollections of sex and relationships within Montaillou dominates the second part of book and is the reason why, Herlihy states, that the book became such a commercial success. This “frank and extended treatment of sex”[15] is undoubtedly used as a narrative tool by Ladurie in order to draw in the reader which therefore begs the question: does Ladure write chiefly to excite? Stone alerts us to the fact that narratives found in the historical record will draw historians toward the sensational and result in them being fascinated by stories of sex and violence.[16] Herlihy makes mention of cases in which Ladurie happily ignores the fact that parts of the register are not concerned with the upper Ariège. The story of Arnaud de Verniolles is an explicit account of the friar’s homosexual acts that takes place in Parmiers and Toulouse which are outside the boundaries of the chosen area of investigation and as a result goes against the very essence of microhistory.[17] While such retellings of the more human aspects of history will colour the text and make history more alluring to the common reader, Szijártó insists that the historian is at fault for concentrating their efforts on appealing to the general public and that “to try to write strikingly is just a means to bring history to the readers.”[18] For it must be remembered that this is the writing of history, not mere fiction. Montaillou’s treatment of sex is undeniably a captivating saga and while it may be reproached for placing more weight on entertaining the reader, rather than adhering to precise methodology, surely the fact that the general public is being brought an accessible history that they can learn from, whilst be entertained, cannot be too harshly reprimanded?

It can be shown through Ladurie’s Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village that microhistory is a viable way of extracting meaning from the historical record – its resurrection of the long dead individual through the writing of lives that would otherwise be forgotten is at once educating and humanising. While microhistory may have some inherent problems, as Muir delightfully says about: “when you understand why nature’s complexity can only be unravelled this way, why individuality matters so crucially, then you are in a position to understand what the sciences of history are all about.”[19]


[1] Peter Sahlins, “Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (1993): 769.

[2] E. Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” in Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, eds. E. Muir and G. Ruggiero (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xiii.

[3] Sahlins, “Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe,” 769.

[4] Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” xiii.

[5] Ernst Breisach, On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 148.

[6] E. Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” xiv.

[7] David Herlihy, “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324,” Social History 4, no. 3 (1979): 518.

[8] Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324, trans. Barbara Bray (London: Penguin Group, 1990), 141.

[9] David Herlihy, “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324,” 518.

[10] Palle Ove Christiansen, Kultur og historie: Bidrag til den etnologiske debat (København: Studiebøger, 1995), 9.

[11] István Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 210.

[12] Quoted in: Herlihy, “Review,” 519.

[13] John Brewer, “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 1 (2010): 97.

[14] Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” 209.

[15] Herlihy, “Review,” 518.

[16] Lawrence Stone, The Past and the Present Revisited (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), 95.

[17] Herlihy, “Review,” 519.

[18] Szijártó, “Four Arguments for Microhistory,” 211.

[19] Muir, “Introduction: Observing Trifles,” viii.

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Breisach, Ernst. On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Brewer, John. “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life.” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 1 (2010): 87–109.

Christiansen, Palle Ove. Kultur og historie: Bidrag til den etnologiske debat. København: Studiebøger, 1995.

Herlihy, David. “Review: Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324.” Social History 4, no. 3 (1979): 517-520.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: Penguin Group, 1990.

Muir, E. and Ruggiero, G. Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Sahlins, Peter.“Review: Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (1993): 768-769.

Stone, Lawrence. The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Szijártó, István.“Four Arguments for Microhistory.” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 209-215.


Reference this post (Chicago): Veronica Fitzpatrick, “On Microhistory and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s ‘Montaillou.’” Veronica Fitzpatrick (blog), March 27, 2016, http://veronicafitzpatrick.com/on-microhistory-and-emmanuel-le-roy-laduries-montaillou/

2 thoughts on “On Microhistory and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou””

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’m almost totally unfamiliar with newer aspects of historical enquiry, and microhistory is something I never even knew existed. It is a very striking and human departure from the grand narrative approach I’m used to.

    The treatise following this one is admirable too, the great British Professor John Harold Plumb always insisted on beginning the Renaissance with Dante and Boccaccio, but perhaps it would be better to start it even earlier. The twelfth century translations were at least a necessary prerequisite for it if not actually part of it. While your work was just concerned with mathematics in particular, I have little doubt that translations encompassed many more subjects than that, setting the stage for the extraordinary intellectual blossoming of the Renaissance in Florence, Rome, and Venice.

    1. Thank you for your comment James. Microhistory is a fairly new methodology, having came into prominence in the 1970s. It would be interesting to do more work in it as we tend to hear only of the “big guys” in history. Who of course are important too!

      I am very interested in the idea of “renaissance”… but that is a thesis in itself!

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