Book Review: Montaillou

Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error paints a detailed and informed account of life in the titular French village throughout the early fourteenth-century. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie uses the Register of Jacques Fournier, a Bishop and inquisitor, to inform his ethnography of Montaillou, painting a comprehensive portrait of social and spiritual life in Pyrenees communities of the era. The author does not discuss the Cathar heresy at length, but instead focuses mostly on the daily lives of the people of Montaillou.  To the uninformed reader, the placement of the chapters dedicated to the heretical actions of Montaillou’s citizens is not ideal (288-356). For context as to the significance of the Inquisition in France and to the importance of Le Roy Ladurie’s work, these details would ideally come before the descriptions of relationships, occupations, and archaeology. In addition, modern historians continue to debate the validity and ethics of citing Inquisition peasant testimonies, as they were often obtained under circumstances of torture and coercion. Regardless, Le Roy Ladurie utilizes and directly references the extremely well-kept Fournier register to, while at points dryly, provide a unique and nearly complete work of historical non-fiction.

Le Roy Ladurie almost exclusively uses the Fournier register to form the foundation of Montaillou, which is certainly due to the lack of other credible resources, but does not excuse the lack of representation or possibility of bias in the work. In the many chapters dedicated to showing the multifaceted lives of the peasants and shepherds, there are only the descriptions provided by the register rather than autobiographical accounts that could have painted a more personal picture than what the inquisition subjects spoke about. In addition, the methods of inquisition were notoriously brutal, and many records detail these crimes. It is in being aware of this that readers and historians alike are meant to question the circumstances under which peasants and powerful individuals alike were forced to testify, and whether or not they may have been influenced to omit or stretch the truth. Historian Francis X. Hartigan acknowledges this, writing that ‘punishment or threat of punishment is a fact that must be taken into account in assessing the contents of the register’. Threats to loved ones or to social ostracism would disrupt the natural order of a peasant’s life and therefore could urge them to say whatever would protect their family and livelihood. 

What Montaillou lacks in perspective on this issue it makes up for in its awareness of its inability to represent all possible aspects of society. Le Roy Ladurie writes, “The study of Montaillou shows on a minute scale what took place in the structure of society as a whole. Montaillou is only a drop in the ocean. Thanks to the microscope provided by the Fournier Register, we can see the protozoa swimming about in it” (276). The author covers topics from the libido of the clergy to the shepherd’s mental outlook in order to fully encapsulate Montaillou, and focuses on particular characters including the powerful Clergue family and the less fortunate Pierre Maury and Guillaume Bélibaste who eventually disappear from the Fournier record after their captures (102). These characters and their places in society provide comprehensive context for Le Roy Ladurie’s ethnography and analysis, and while there is no way for the work to be completely unbiased and fully neutral, it is an immensely valuable tool for understanding the context and results of the French Inquisition and the Albigensian heresy.

Sources:

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy, and Barbara Bray. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error. New York: George Braziller, 2010.

Western Society for French History. Meeting. Proceedings of the … Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History. Las Cruces, N.M.: New Mexico State University Press, 1974.

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