Book review: “Montaillou” by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie Previous item Book review: “Resistance”... Next item History Poems

Book review: “Montaillou” by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

laduri.montaillou.combo..2.Most editions of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic Montaillou, first published in French 40 years ago, have one of two subtitles, neither of which is very helpful.

For some, the subtitle is Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294 – 1324 which is somewhat descriptive except who knows what a Cathar is? And, even if you know that they were heretics from the Catholic faith, also called Albigensians, why would you want to read a longish book about some religious dispute from seven centuries ago?

For others, the subtitle is The Promised Land of Error which has the virtue and the fault of not saying anything.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why the publishers didn’t take a phrase from the last page of Ladurie’s text and subtitle the book: A Factual History of Ordinary People. (To be fair, the cover of a more recent paperback edition skipped a subtitle and, in its place, described the book as “The bestselling portrait of life in a medieval village.”)

As it was, despite seeing endless copies of this book in new and used bookstores for decades, I waited a long time to read Montaillou.

Now, having finally gotten past those tin-eared subtitles and into Ladurie’s pages, I have to say Montaillou is one of the best books I’ve ever read.


“Lifted up the roof”

This book is rooted in what’s called the Inquisition Register, a unique, exhaustive record of seemingly endless interviews conducted between 1318 and 1324 by priests aiming to root out heretics. The investigation focused on the small town of Montaillou in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border, but also extended out into neighboring areas.

This Inquisition Register was put together by Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Pamiers, who later was elected to the papacy as Pope Benedict XII. When he went to Avignon (where the Popes of the time lived), he took along the Register which ended up in the Vatican Library and was saved for future historians.

The questioning by and on behalf of Fournier, while seeking to learn the extent of heretical thinking and actions — Cathars believed in dual Gods of good and evil and rejected the sacraments — went into virtually every aspect of the lives of those under suspicion.

Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Pamiers, who later was elected to the papacy as Pope Benedict XII.

Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Pamiers, who later was elected to the papacy as Pope Benedict XII.

What Ladurie did was to comb through the Register for insights into the lives of the rich and poor (not a very wide divide between them), the townsfolk and the shepherds, men and women, young and old. Not only does the Register provide facts about those lives, but the actual voices of the residents — their descriptions of their activities and thoughts in their own words. The result is what is called microhistory.

Here, for instance, are some sentences from the deposition of Raymond Sicre about his efforts to learn who was visiting his neighbor:

I went to the corner of the house, which was near the door. And with my head I lifted up a part of the roof. I took good care not to damage the roof covering. I then saw [in the kitchen] two men sitting on a bench.


“Oh! Oh!”

One thing scene that tells us is that neighborly snoopiness is always with us. Another — which we might not have learned any other way — is that the houses were constructed in such a manner that the roof could be lifted in order to get a look inside. That’s an example of the richness of the detail of these interviews and of the insights they provide.

By the way, these are and they aren’t the words of the people of Montaillou. Although Ladurie doesn’t explain this, Fournier’s scribes took what the suspects said and put those words into a form that filled in gaps and covered over grammatical mistakes and so on. This was the way depositions were taken throughout the centuries. It wasn’t the sort of word-by-word transcription a court reporter does today.

Even with such scribal tinkering, these words ring true. They are the closest we will ever get to the people of Montaillou, and the closest we’re ever going to get to the voices of any group of ordinary people before the invention of oral history in the 20th century.

Consider Ladurie’s account of one of many trysts recounted in the book:

“Oh! Oh! How can we do such a thing in the church of Saint Peter?” said Beatrice de Planissoles, in Prades, when she entered the local church where her lover the priest had prepared a bed for the two of them for the night. To which the lover replied: “Much harm it will do St. Peter!”


“An energetic lover”

As I’ve said, Montaillou is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The interviews in the Register and Ladurie’s analysis of them represent an amazing treasure.




Throughout the book’s pages, the people of Montaillou stand out in all their humanity and idiosyncrasy, and they made the book, for me, endlessly readable, even though there is no “story” here, no arc of a narrative, no beginning, middle and end. In the background are the two major waves of Inquisitional oppression that swept over the town of about 225 people and its environs. But this book isn’t an account of those.

Rather, Ladurie takes an anthropological approach to Montaillou, examining its people and its life, category by category. For instance, he has chapters on how the people of the village thought about time and space, their attitudes toward magic and morality, their thinking about death and childhood and sex. There are, in fact, three chapters on sex, and those don’t include the two on marriage.

One of the many vivid characters who stand out in the pages of Montaillou is the village priest Pierre Clergue, part of the socially dominant and often violent Clergue family, who, it seems, was always in heat.

The priest of Montaillou [writes Ladurie]…was a swashbuckler, Cathar, spy and rake — he was everywhere…He scattered his desires among his flock as impartially as he gave his benediction, and in return won the favors of many of his female parishioners….An energetic lover and incorrigible Don Juan, he presents the spectacle, rare in records of rural history, of the typical village seducer of ancient times. No question of this great carnivore restricting himself to one woman….He coveted all women.


“What do you want?”

Ladurie provides a list of a dozen of Pierre Clergue’s lovers — “certainly incomplete” — that includes another intensely alive figure out of the Register’s pages, Beatrice de Planissoles. This is the same lusty Beatrice who was shocked when another of her lovers, another priest, Barthelemy Aurilhac, set up a bed for them in church.

A woman of wit and witticisms, Beatrice had husbands and lovers well into middle age, and told Barthelemy:

You priests and priors and abbots and bishops and archbishops and cardinals, you are the worst! You commit the sin of the flesh more, and you desire women more than other men do.

Beatrice began her affair with Barthelemy with typical directness. He ran the school where two of her daughters were students, and, one day, she told him to come to her house in the evening.

I did. When I was in her house, I found that she was there alone. I asked: “What do you want of me?”

And she said: “I love you: I want to sleep with you.”

And I answered: “All right.”


“The child began to laugh”

Ladurie’s analysis of the Register enables the reader to get a clearly focused look at day-to-day life in Montaillou. For instance, on the subject of cleanliness, he writes:

In Montaillou, people did not shave, or even wash, often. They did not go bathing or swimming. On the other hand, there was a great deal of delousing, which was an ingredient of friendship, whether heretical or purely social. Pierre Clergue had himself deloused by his mistresses…; the operation might take place in bed, or by the fire, at the window or on a shoemaker’s bench, the priest taking the opportunity to air his ideas about both Catharism and love.

Who would have thought that lice could function as a sort of social (and even romantic) glue?

Vue_Montaillou.made by Yann Gwilhoù..smaller

There is the general idea that, before the Industrial Revolution, life was slower, and Montaillou shows, with great specificity, how that was true:

The people of Montaillou were not afraid of hard work and could make an effort when necessary. But they did not think in terms of a fixed and continuous timetable, whether in their own fields or, in exile, in the workshops of Catalonia. For them the working day was punctuated with long, irregular pauses, during which one would chat with a friend, perhaps at the same time enjoying a glass of wine.

The book also shows the fallacy of the somewhat popular theory that, in the Middle Ages, when so many children died at birth and in their early years, parents weren’t emotionally attached to their offspring. Consider this charming scene:

One of these ladies had a child in the cradle and she wanted to see it before leaving. When she saw it she kissed it; then the child began to laugh. She had started to go out of the room where the infant lay so she came back to it again. The child began to laugh again; and so one, several times, so that she could not bear to tear herself away from the child.

Like neighborly snoopiness, the delight of a parent at the laughter of a baby seems to be part of our DNA.


“The easy-going hero”

In addition to Beatrice de Planissoles and that priestly sybarite Pierre Clergue, the third star of Montaillou is the shepherd Pierre Maury.

Ladurie is clearly disgusted by the predatory priest who was also an informer, and delighted by the free spirit Beatrice. But he is filled with endless admiration for the shepherd.

Pierre Maury, a wage-earner, not alienated, informed, informal, and sociable, enjoyed parties and entertainment, and even just a good meal among friends. There was nothing outstanding about his ordinary meals, but he had plenty of solid, nourishing food — meat, goat’s liver, pork, mutton, eggs, fish, cheese and milk — in people’s houses, in taverns and in the open air, with brothers, relatives, friends, comrades, enemies or bravos who had been sent to confiscate his flock and whom he had got round by making a big pie which they all devoured together.

In fact, Ladurie likes that pie story so much that he tells it twice. Here it is with a little more detail:

Twelve of the Bishop’s men, enraged at this trespass [of grazing his sheep on the Bishop’s land], came up specially from Bisbal de Falset in order to confiscate Pierre’s sheep. Pierre only extricated himself from this tight corner by cooking an enormous pie which was shared between the Bishop’s henchmen and the shepherd’s friends from Cerdague, Catalonia and Ariege.

Pierre was a Cathar, but, over and above any religious beliefs, he was loyal, as in this story about his brother Jean’s illness:

One day when Jean was ill and delirious, he threatened to have all the heretics taken prisoner: he had never been a complete believer. Guillemette Maury, who was nursing him, said in alarm, “We must kill him; otherwise, if he gets better, he will send us all to prison and the stake.”

Pierre at once replied, “If you have my brother killed, I will eat you alive with my teeth, if I can be revenged no other way.” Guillemette soon changed the subject.

Yet, Pierre wasn’t someone who did much threatening. He wasn’t someone who held a grudge or was very prone to anger. He was, writes Ladurie, “the easy-going hero par excellence, the embodiment of cheerful openness towards the world and other people. When he greets anyone, even someone he scarcely knows and whom he has good reason to mistrust, he welcomes him with a ringing shepherd’s laugh.” In summary, Ladurie writes:

Well-shod for his long journeys in a pair of good shoes of Spanish leather — the only luxury he allowed himself — detached from the goods of this world, careless of the almost inevitable certainty of being arrested at some time by the Inquisition, leading a life that was both passionate and passionately interesting, Pierre Maury was a happy shepherd.

This happy shepherd, this lusty Beatrice, this predatory priest — these and so many others in Montaillou could fit well into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The people in Montaillou (left) would fit right in with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales pilgrims.

The people in Montaillou (left) would fit right in with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales pilgrims.

Or they could make the basis for a fascinating novel.

Yet, it’s a delight to know that they aren’t make-believe. They are — with their yearnings and curiosity and fear and pride — you and me.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Jim Strickler Posted March 23, 2016 9:16 pm

    Read this book decades ago, and loved it. Time to read it again.

    • Patrick T. Reardon Posted March 24, 2016 4:41 pm

      Jim, I was amazed at the book. I liked it a great deal, to the point that I consider it on the same level as the Caro books or nearly there.

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