This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40
by Howard Prosser
“Carnivals in History” (1981) is the only article Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie published in Thesis Eleven. The piece’s appearance, then and now, arguably says more about the journal than it does the esteemed historian. Having him appear in its early pages was a coup for the new publication. Other big names followed. And, mercifully, some lesser ones. To include his piece in the Top 40 offers a marker of the journal’s prestige as well as the persistence of critical thought among its many pages.
During the early 1980s, Le Roy Ladurie was visiting Australia to promote the translated version of his book Le Carnaval de Romans: De la Chandeleur au mercredi des Cendres, 1579-1580 (1979). He’d reached global academic celebrity status with Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (1975) a micro-social history of a French Occitanian village as it entered the early fourteenth century. The anticipated follow-up, which he was plugging in Melbourne, offered even more precision to the same south-eastern region: the Mardi Gras massacre of artisans in the Romans-sur-Isère commune in 1580.
One of the tour’s gigs saw him give a public lecture at La Trobe University’s Undercroft. The young Thesis Eleven editors attended and met the author afterwards. He was intrigued by the new journal and invited them to lunch in Melbourne the next day. They wined and dined at one of the city’s then fancy hotels. The charming historian charged it all to his publisher. There was a tense moment with the hotel staff, who he found unhelpful, and after which the aristocratic ex-communist simply raised his eyebrows and muttered something about the class struggle. On learning about the new journal’s approach, Le Roy Ladurie was keen to help out. He agreed to publish a version of the lecture he’d just given and gave the keen editors his “manuscript”.
“Carnivals in History” is promoted here as a reminder of those times and the journal’s imprint on the history of ideas. Like Thesis Eleven, Le Roy Ladurie was critical of unthinking Marxist orthodoxy in scholarship and politics, while remaining aware of elements of insights arising from that tradition about class, economics, and history. This positioning was not the focus of his article, or even a side note. Instead, he was trying to answer questions about the carnival’s meaning in medieval Europe. These questions appear in the article’s introduction: Carnival as pagan or christian? Paroxysm or ritual? Normal or something else? I don’t want to summarize his answers here. It’s worth reading yourself to find out what Le Roy Ladurie has to say. There are many moments of brilliance worth savouring in the short piece. Here’s a sip: “Carnival is both agricultural and social. The problem is generally to embody and expel pagan sin and evil, agricultural enemies of crops, and also social enemies of certain groups in the community, whether they be rich or poor.”
The combination of thinking socially and environmentally indicated a unique way of looking at a historical event like the medieval Carnival. Such interdisciplinarity is now common. But it wasn’t forty-odd years ago. At that time, Carnival was a central concern of social and cultural historians of Europe. They captured political dynamics primarily because they permitted transgressive behaviour. Seizing on such moments revealed distinctions in power, including class, that would be otherwise considered intransigent. The interest offered glimpses into the everyday lives of pre-modern European peasants. Historiographically, a number of important works were appeared at this methodological crossroads: the translated Carnival in Romans resides in a spectrum that extends from Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) and Hilton’s Bond Men made Free (1977) to Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (1984) and Hanawalt’s The Ties that Bound (1986). Le Roy Ladurie’s attention to social and environmental factors made him a unique voice because he pointed out how both of these elements interacted.
Yet he arguably became a leading figure in this historiographical moment because of his reputation and pedigree. In his youth he was yet another patrician Stalinist swept up by the fervour of postwar communism’s promise. This posture, though genuine, was most likely a direct rebellion against his comfortable conservative upbringing. (Le fils later dutifully explained his father’s fascist allegiance.) Like so many, Le Roy Ladurie left his PCF delusions behind when denying their night-terror reality could no longer be suppressed – Hungary 1956, yet again. His subsequent positioning within the Annales school genealogy saw him revise Braudel’s geographic determinism with a mind to social scientific methods when thinking about the past. This “nouvelle histoire” claimed people acted in socio-cultural landscapes. And he did this while keeping a prominent persona alongside other post-1968 intellectuels in the carnival of French public discourse. In this sense, his thinking is in keeping with Thesis Eleven’s critical tradition – intellectuals estranged from the communist experiment, but still disaffected by modernity’s capitalist realities, keen to understand how and why people act the way they do.
Le Roy Ladurie is now in his early nineties. I say that not in an ageist way. Thesis Eleven is getting older after all. We all are. He can be celebrated as a doyen of late twentieth century history and intellectual life, with strong reverberations in contemporary scholarship, especially the cross over between the social and natural sciences. This position is an important one in the history of ideas if not in the novelty of contemporary academe. Only through the precedent of elders, battle-hardened by many scholarly and public debates, can intellectual genealogies extend in new and different directions.
Often, in the English-speaking world at least, Le Roy Ladurie’s legacy is overlooked. We may no longer be so concerned about medieval Carnivals as during the 1980s. He continues to publish in this space – Brève histoire de l’Ancien Régime (2017). But now many more are interested in longer term visions – past and future – of humans and climate. Le Roy Ladurie’s work opened up this space in unforeseen ways. During the late 1960s, he foresaw quantitative data as the future for scholarly approaches to the past. Around the same period his Histoire du climat depuis l’an mil (1967), was another landmark Annalesque work on the way to environmental history becoming a thing. And his 2011 book Les fluctuations du climat, de l’an mil à aujourd’hui, co-authored with another historian and a climatologist, connects his earlier thinking with the latest in climate science.
All of this is not to position Le Roy Ladurie as some social-science soothsayer. Rather, the nature of scholarship is that ideas have their own roots. Knowing this history is important. But it seems at odds with the fast production of knowledge in today’s universities. This variance is certainly one of the first things that struck me about Le Roy Ladurie’s “Carnivals in History”: it is now an artefact from an earlier time in scholarly life that sits in contrast to today’s whackademia in Australia and elsewhere too. The patchy font, the speculative argument, the eight references, the invitation to lunch, the support for an upstart journal, the route to publication via Cabernet – all of this speaks to a time now passed. Vestiges remain. And many bad practices and injustices have fortunately gone. Thesis Eleven has changed throughout this period as well. Its commitment to slow, thoughtful conviviality continues. Dieu merci!
Reading Le Roy “Carnivals in History”, and dipping back into his other works as a result, reinforces the importance of an ongoing historical sensibility and methodological open-mindedness when understanding how everyday collective moments represent much more than what they seem. These moments or “instruments of action”, as Le Roy Ladurie puts it, point toward “some possible social progress, or sometimes toward sheer reactionary change.” That carnival is far from over.