Montaillou: Time, Space and Individuality in Medieval France

The ghosts of the past continue to entrance. While the topic of Montaillou – the thoroughly individual history of the village of the same name by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie – and memory is a particular enthralling one, it can also serve as an ultimately ineffable subject, something which could prove completely out of the grasp of those who no longer occupy the same space and time as those whose lives they study. The historian is well suited, however, to studying the concepts of time, space and individualism in Middle Ages Foix; and they are no less fascinating.

The inhabitants of Montaillou, and much of the rural peasantry in the Middle Ages more generally, lived within what Le Roy Ladurie calls ‘an island in time’; and they were as isolated from the past – which was largely rendered inaccessible by illiteracy and geographical remoteness – as they were from the future, which was scarcely discussed. Indeed, this reticence even extended to the structuring of memory itself, which can be seen in the way the residents of Montaillou interpreted their memories. These memories were strong – as is common in a culture effectively limited to oral transmission – but they were also inexact. While some more educated figures alluded to in the text did use absolute dates in both their recollections and their speech, most villagers did not.

The ‘rustics’ instead spoke of time in generalities; they measured it often in typically agrarian figures of speech: favourites included ‘how long it takes to plough a field’ and the like. (Longer-term prospects were often measured in an agricultural time-scale, too; there is reference in the book to lunar calendars, but these were the preserve of the wealthy and literate.) There were many religious holidays each year – including Sundays – and these served as convenient markers; they represented the pegs upon which many of the peasants hung their memories. But after a few years had passed, even the impressive powers of recollection enjoyed by the peasants faded. In the text one often reads of events which took place ‘between fifteen and twenty years ago’ and other phrases to that effect. (A few of the women appear to have been more exact in some of their recollections – especially those connected to the bringing up of children – but even then those memories are apparently sparse. But this is no surprise; after all, whose memory can be anything other than inexact when asked to recall conversations – both in terms of their content and the participants involved – as much as a quarter of a century after the events in question?)

The question of history is an altogether more philosophical one. As I have written before, those who lived in Montaillou did have a strong sense of tradition, which in their eyes was closely linked to the integrity and maintenance of the ostal or domus. The little contact they had with books was suffused with both a touching reverence and an indelible association with heresy. There was little contact with much of the outside world; yet many from Montaillou – especially young, impoverished men and those fleeing the Inquisition and the stake – crossed the mountain passes into Catalonia. The little history they did know contained elements of local interest; after the Inquisition had nearly every inhabitant of the village over the age of twelve arrested, for example, the event lived long in the memories of those who came afterwards.

There is scant reference to anything more ancient than that, though it seems the peasants used to enjoy recounting elements of religious pseudo-history around their fires and during their long meals. A particular favourite, according to Le Roy Ladurie, was a retelling of the Fall, which was used as a vehicle to stress and propagate Cathar doctrines. But here again the lack of books can be felt acutely. A marginal religious figure possessed some knowledge (and therefore likely a copy) of Ovid, from whose lasciviousness he drew inspiration.

Much of Montaillou is built upon small, thoroughly individual narratives like these; in their documentation, the writer builds a narrative that is a patchwork of interdependence. His writing includes a thorough survey of every household of note, and for this I am particular grateful. One aspect which appears at times to be lacking in Montaillou is the grand sweep which can categorise some of the most original and engaging history. The ‘microhistory’ espoused in this work is all well and good, it could be said, but sometimes the reading public thirsts for the macro analysis and all its charms. Of course this is a simplistic argument, but it must be taken on its own terms. Le Roy Ladurie achieves the required verve and scale with his concluding paragraph, which deserves replication in full.

Today Catharism is no more than a dead star, whose cold but fascinating light reaches us now after an eclipse of more than half a millennium. But Montaillou itself is much more than a courageous but fleeting deviation. It is the factual history of ordinary people. It is Pierre and Béatrice and their love; it is Pierre Maury and his flock; it is the breath of life restored though a repressive Latin register that is a monument of Occitan literature. Montaillou is the physical warmth of the ostal, together with the ever-recurring promise of a peasant heaven. The one within the other, the one supporting the other.

While some latter-day historians have accused Le Roy Ladurie of writing about Catharism in such a way as could not contain empathy for its adherents, I disagree. That assessment is too bleak, too foreboding – and it is not, at least in my reading, borne out in the text of Montaillou. What is the above if not an example of empathy? What is the above, indeed, if not a sincerely humane treatment of those who put nothing less than their lives in danger in pursuit of a now-disavowed and ultimately unloved god?

And there is more than that, of course, in this grand narrative; entire lives cannot be built upon dismal theology alone. The warmth of the fires of the village intermingles with its abundant humanity, something which Le Roy Ladurie chronicles with skill and sometimes unexpected humour. When Pierre Clergue the priest expands upon why he thinks incest is prohibited – apparently it may cause fights among brothers, each of them lustfully eager to possess their sisters (a problem with supposed biblical origins) – Le Roy Ladurie calls him ‘the Rousseau of Montaillou’, which is as good a gag as one is likely to get when reading about the history of a medieval French village.

Such irony at the expense of the dead is rare; and the work is better and more effective because of it. It is with great empathy and sincerity that Le Roy Ladurie recounts the lives of the villagers. Their hopes and dreams, aspirations and activities are not mocked or viewed with shallow, inattentive enthusiasm. Instead they are given the space necessary to chronicle their own lives, often in their own words. And those lives and their words survive; and they do so in spite of the Inquisition and its dread Register, and largely thanks to the efforts of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.