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Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: Language and Sources


The language is a clue to a phenomenon that often occurs within social history, especially in the detailed study of a small community: one gets an unmistakable sense that Ladurie has become very fond of the people he describes. This, indeed, is one of the effects of the book on the reader: we learn so much about the people of Montaillou that it is as if we knew them. The wording of ‘though she might forget sometimes to go to Mass on Sunday’ has a tone of indulgence, while ‘did not neglect’ gives the sense that Ladurie is seeking to excuse her, setting her diligence in lighting the candle (which, he adds, she had made herself) against her occasional forgetfulness about going to Mass. The sense of friendly familiarity is enhanced by the use of first names for the characters, appropriate for the period and context, but nevertheless inviting the reader into the characters’ world rather more than is usual.

Note also the careful use of provisional language. The passage begins with the apparently straightforward claim that elite honoured the Virgin; this is immediately qualified by ‘at least with external signs of piety’. Whether they actually honoured her in their hearts and minds Ladurie cannot know; he – and we – can only go on external evidence. Similarly ‘Sancta Maria’ ‘perhaps’ indicates the women’s devotion; or it might just be an exclamation, long since divorced from its original meaning. We know (from Jean Maury’s evidence) that some peasants prayed to the Virgin; ‘it may be’ that some of them knew the ‘Ave Maria’. Ladurie keeps strictly within the boundaries of his evidence.


Montaillou is unusual (though not unique) in being so heavily based upon a single, albeit comprehensive, source, in this case the proceedings of the Inquisition. Ladurie takes care never to advance too far from his source: the numbers in brackets refer the reader to the precise references within it. He is careful too not to leap to conclusions, however tempting; not assuming, for example, that Rixende’s prayer was the Ave Maria. Where the original words are important to put across the feelings behind what is being described, as in Rixende’s proud boast ‘But I went on praying to Mary!’ he quotes directly from the record; otherwise he positions volume and page numbers within the text to support each reference to something in the original. This is an excellent example of how it is possible to build an account from a single source without simply rewriting it.

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