Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is probably the cleverest and certainly the most versatile French historian of our day. Beginning with his thèse on the peasants of Languedoc in Early Modern times, he has ranged back to the everyday life of 14th-century heretics and forward to computers studies of 19th-century conscripts. His secondary thesis dealt with the weather since the year 1000. He has worked on land records and political archives, the registers of the Inquisition and the novels of Restif de la Bretonne. Now, in a fresh tour de force, he enters the lists of folklore by way of an 18th-century dialect story: the tale of ‘Jean-l’ont-pris’ (henceforth ‘JLP’), the story of a villager from the Vaunage plain not far from Nîmes, whose cobbler father turned to thieving to improve his condition and that of his family. With the father soon arrested and executed (hence the lad’s nickname, ‘They took him’), the mother goes off with a knife-grinder, leaving JLP to be brought up by his grandmother and to turn into a juvenile delinquent. His pilferings and tricks lead to an encounter with a peasant landowner, Master Sestier, through whose local influence the erstwhile poacher literally turns gamekeeper, and on whose plump pretty daughter, Babeau, he begins to cast covetous eyes.
Babeau is willing, but Sestier makes it clear that JPL can only hope for her hand and heritage if he can show a large capital of his own. This apparently inaccessible wealth turns up unexpectedly when the grandmother dies and JLP, scouring her hovel for something to eat finds her hidden treasure: a chestful of gold watches, silver cutlery, snuff-boxes, valuable textiles and gold coins which the old woman textiles and gold coins which the old woman had secreted from his father’s haul, ‘when times were good’. Yet, with his goal in sight, JLP falls victim to a plot hatched by his patron, Sestier, who doesn’t want him as a son-in-law. Sestier, has got with child a local harridan, Judith Garouille, ‘the most miserable and horrible creature that ever lived ... a veritable knacker’s yard’, and has persuaded ‘this dunghill’, now in her eighth month, to denounce JLP as the sire. Arrested as his father had been, JLP finds a new friend and protector in the bailiff, who turns out to have been his father’s friend and accomplice: the bailiff informs him that Sestier has endowed the Garouille hag with a largish dowry and that, moreover, the woman is so tainted (rotten lungs, scurvy, scabies and gangrene) that she and her offspring will certainly die. On this assurance JLP marries Garouille, things turn out as predicted and, since, in the meantime, JLP has seduced the willing Babeau, who has become ‘round as a tennis ball’, the story ends on a hopeful – though still uncertain – note.
This is the tale Le Roy Ladurie sets in the social and cultural context of a rural Midi, the evidence of whose notarial archives he supplements with a review of 65 plays in local dialect, performed before popular audiences between the 16th and the 18th century. All these plays deal in various ways with marriage settlements, sometimes in twosomes, sometimes in foursomes, with ways of securing and conveying property and other wealth, with libidinous elders tricked by the young into giving up their fortune, or beneficent interventions providing the ‘riches’ without which ‘love’ can never triumph.
Love exists, at least in the plays, in the form of desire (‘I tremble like a pig pissing,’ cries a shepherd about his passion for ‘la Miramoundo’, in a 17th-century nobleman’s five-act pastoral), but love wins out only when the hero finds a way to finance it; and the plays with which Le Roy Ladurie compares the plot ‘JLP’ are all about the (usually young) hero’s access to, or extraction of, some kind of capital. This may be achieved by violence, witchcraft, crime, trickery, patronage, by the ritual intimidation of charivaris, local protectionism designed to keep strange competitors out, or by getting the girl pregnant, as JLP does Babeau and Sestier does Garouille (a strategy, comments the author, inspired by the social reality of very high rates of premarital conception and ‘the fantasies of male Languedocians’). As the last method suggests, honour is also a form of capital, which one can filch from a girl and from her lineage; or possibly from a rival, hence the importance of magic and counter-magic, of casting spells like that of the aiguillette designed to produce impotence, of turning spells against their initiator or demonstrating their failure, thus shifting dishonour and ridicule on to him. Honour is also something that can be acquired, whether by powerful patronage, or by securing some cultural advantage, as in a Marseille play of 1775, where knowledge of French, learnt in Paris, provides new status.
In this light, it is difficult to understand how Le Roy Ladurie can argue that ‘of the two great human passions ... love and ambition, Occitan literature concerned itself above all with the first.’ He himself demonstrates that the first, love, centres on the second; and that ambition, looking for satisfaction in the acquisition of goods and chattels (including the girl) and in social ascent (which marriage can facilitate), tends to hide behind love. By his own showing, as in the evidence of proverbial lore, a girl’s virtue consists of not allowing a lubricious swain ‘to stick his peg in her hole’, amorous attraction amounts to sensuality ‘heating up like an oven’, marriage – as two unmarried girls agree – means children who cry and breast that droop. Whatever his wishes, JLP does marry the repellent Garouille (as they say in Tarn-et-Garonne, ‘Per aver la boursa, l’om pren l’oursa!’) and then, when she dies, celebrates by buying festive headgear: the first hat he’s ever worn (‘Dead wife, new hat!’ or, more explicity: ‘Sorrow for a dead wife lasts as far as the door’).
The author of ‘JLP’, the Abbé Fabre (1727-1783), himself of humble birth, had achieved social advancement by more acceptable means. Tonsured at 12, ordained a priest at 25, by the time of his death he had produced a fairly large body of work, some in French, some – more lively – in Occitan dialect, including traditional Christmas hymns in which the shepherds speak local patois (as Fabre himself called it) and the angels French; and also burlesque patois versions of the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Born at Sommières, now in the Gard, about twelve km from Solorgues where the action of ‘JLP’ takes place, Fabre knew his home ground well: as he did his parishioners, whom he described, a bit unkindly, as semi-savages. His comments give a sense of the conditions of those days, as does the stress JLP places on the difficulty of travel by bad roads between Solorgues and Langlade – about three km north of Solorgues – where the powerful Sestier resides. Le Roy Ladurie, in his explication de texte, compares Sestier in Langlade to the King who lives in the almost equally distant Paris, whence, as the dictons of the region tell us, ‘neither good wind nor good people ever came’. Nothing good could be expected from Nîmes either, that Babylon of Protestantism, or from the Huguentos who fill JLP with symbols of evil and end, like JLP’s grandmother, buried like beasts in mere holes in the ground.
Fabre did not believe in marriages without dowry or other property to back them up. As they say in Gascony, money doesn’t make happy marriages – but it helps a lot. For Fabre, those who have no money might be happy at first, ‘but they will be poor, and poverty sustains neither love nor virtue.’ A phrase to remember, for these people were poor, like JLP’s own family. They were sometimes very poor, as in a play which we are told was played by peasants from Montélimar in 1576, where the ‘fortunes’ involved are ridiculously small: a ‘large’ plot of land is conveyed that produces one measure of peas a year while another gives two measures of acrons.
Such standards are borne out not only by Fabre’s novella but by other tales that Le Roy Ladurie goes on to analyse in search of deeper sources. For him, ‘JLP’ is more than ‘flat village realism’. It is ‘a coded, marvellously disguised adaptation of a folk-tale’: immediately speaking, that of another Jean – ‘Jean-de-trop’ (‘John too much’) whose father, seeking a godparent for his latest child, accepts Death in that role; more generally, a masked version of the widely-told tale of Godfather Death, well-known to folkorists the world over.
Le Roy Ladurie is well aware that such tales are realistic, even their fantasies cling to everyday experiences and problems. Like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Jean-de-trop’ is about poor people who have too many children. Some, like the poor woodcutter in the Grimms’ grim tale, abandon those they cannot feed. Others, like Jean-de-trop’s father, ‘as poor as a church rat’, look for a godparent and run out of friends to take on the responsibility since, as we’re told, ‘there weren’t many of them because he was poor.’ They are hungry – often, like JLP, desperate for a bite to eat, even an onion, even a scallion, let alone for a chance to eat their fill. Wedding feasts, when they do not reflect human improvidence or superhuman gifts, are not very rich – lots of grain cakes and berries, and little meat. White bread is a luxury, red meat scarcely appears at all (JLP’s parents devour a fox at their wild wedding feast): those who can afford it eat noble fowl, or ignoble birds like magpies.
When something is exceptionally good, like a miller’s exquisite flour in a tale from the Quercy, it is attributed to magic. So, as we shall see, is wealth, especially the unlikely enrichment of classically penurious forest folk: woodcutters, charcoal-burners, sabotiers, who lead dark solitary lives in their mysterious wilds. Like professional shepherds, such figures are marginal and not a bit bucolic: disquieting, often frightening, though possibly beneficent. When they acquire wealth, as Sestier has done in ‘JLP’, it is by crime or magic.
What else could it come from? Le Roy Ladurie’s review of plays show that, outside Marseille, the cultural stereotypes of a stagnant Occitan economy did not admit access to sudden wealth, or men self-made by licit, natural means. It is worth recalling that the same rules hold for fairy-tales, where flax is spun, harvests are mowed and forests levelled, not by human effort, whose range is recognized as sadly limited, but by supernatural intervention. Le Roy Ladurie implies that fairy-tales are optimistic – so many end: ‘they married and lived happily ever after.’ But we have seen what the tellers of tales thought of marriage. The optimism of fairy-tales, if any, lies, rather, in their fantasies of revenge and retribution: treacherous kin and wicked stepmothers, brutish nobles, exacting priests and other oppressive villains get their comeuppance in fiction as they so seldom do in fact.
Le Roy Ladurie does not dismiss the relation between fiction and social reality. He simply thrusts beyond the stage at which literature and popular culture are treated as mere copies of life. He does this when he notes, as a first step, the discrepancy between notarial records, all of which stress the bride’s dowry, and a significant body of Occitan fiction which emphasises the husband’s contribution. It is not enough to say that the fiction reflects the (financial) obsessions of men rather than the social reality. If the men were so obsessed by the problem, it must have been real.
The female dowry, Le Roy Ladurie reasons, was no more than the marginal complement of male patrimony – land, worked by the man: the visible part of an iceberg of which the male dowry must constitute the decisive mass. Hence the crucial importance of male capital and, given the difficulty of acquiring what you or your lineage don’t have already, the general rule that people marry at their own level and within their own milieu. Whatever the fiction, the rich married the rich, and the poor the poor. As late as 1790, when egalitarian tendencies were challenging social conservatism, a popular Toulon play about a cobbler’s delusions of grandeur concluded that, at least where marriage is concerned, one should remain in the estate to which one was born. (Nineteenth-century proverbs still retained these views: ‘Don’t fart higher than your arse!’ ‘Swineherd in this world, swineherd in the next!’) Le Roy Ladurie concludes that Occitan literature does not propose a model of how things are, but of how they might be if, and what might be done in order to get them the way you want. Which is why ‘JLP’, despite its strong realism, ‘is not simply a flat description of real life in a Languedoc village, but quite definitely a fairy-tale ... disguised’; and why three-quarters of Le Roy Ladurie’s book will be devoted to identifying the elements of parody, parable and riddle that make up the disguise.
Specialists know the vast variety of versions and the wide geographical proliferation of the story of Godfather Death. It is simple. A poor man overloaded with children, or merely a poor man alone, attracts the friendly attention of Death, who becomes his protector, or godparent of his child. Death tells his protégé to become a physician. If he sees Death standing at the head of a sick person’s bed, he will know the patient is lost: at the foot, that the patient will recover. The hero makes his predictions in consequence, grows rich and famous, but eventually tricks his benefactor for love, for money, or to prolong his own life, and, sooner or later, encounter’s Death’s revenge: his neck is broken or the light of his life put out, and he dies.
What Le Roy Ladurie does is to mobilise scores of these versions, as presumed literary and oral sources of inspiration for ‘JLP’. He follows the twists and turns of the narrative over four hundred years and several continents; suggests how the Medieval myth evolved into the fairy-tale that eventually inspired Fabre’s fiction; indicates how oral transmission might have worked, and what Fabre probably adapted and adopted, via ‘Jean-de-trop’ but not only ‘Jean-de-trop’, to produce a highly literary version of a family of oral versions of a folk-tale about supernatural forces; finally, how, through Godfather Death, ‘JLP’ might be linked to far-distant myths of supernatural initiation and to rites of passage to manhood from youth.
With one of his views I must take issue. Death, says Le Roy Ladurie, has to choose whether or not to make his protégé ‘a dishonest man and swindler’ like JLP’s father. If he does not make him a swindler, he makes him a physician, avoiding crime by the gift of magic powers that allow Death’s godson to work honestly (travaillar honestament). But, in real life, honest travail can only be travail: suffering. So when Death sets out to keep his protégé honest, he does so by giving him a chance to avoid real work: either by endowing him with second sight which saves him from harsh travail, or by advice that leads to trickery and quackery. That is one reason treasure plays such an enormous part in ‘JLP’, as it does in fairy stories: because it can sometimes provide access without crime or guilt to otherwise inaccessible wealth. JLP, finding his grandmother’s treasure, is not burdened with the guilt of being, as she was, an accessory to his father’s crimes (in any case, the argument demonstrates that the grandmother is simply a fictional substitute for Death itself). Another of Fabre’s works, Lou Trésor de Substancion, is about a hidden treasure that can make lovers rich. But the resourceful abbé fills the lover’s pockets, not by miracle, but by making them benefit from a wager that the miracle will not happen. The treasure does not reveal itself, and scepticism triumphant provides the windfall no longer to be expected from supernatural agencies.
So Fabre’s 18th-century transpositions are a big step away from the fairy-tale world from which he drew inspiration. The problems that they set out, like those of the plays and tales which Le Roy Ladurie cites in his rich book, were those of the ordinary people who watched their performance or listened to their telling. These problems changed as the historical situation changed. Slowly. After the mid-19th century, the hierarchical society dominated by fathers like Sestier lost its vigour, once-relevant strategies and techniques came to look like the feeble little tricks they were: dramatic inventions no longer to be taken seriously. Social promotion could be tackled more rationally in literature – as in real life, where its possibilities were becoming increasingly apparent. By 1859, Mistral’s Mireille had swapped the vital bawdiness (already sapped by prudery imported from French) for romantic langour and profitless death. By 1899, Eugéne Le Roy had condemned his ‘Jacquou le Croquant’ to a sociopolitically ‘positive’ fate: not allowed to marry his noble love, Jacquou must settle for a nice, dowdy peasant, with whom he has lots of class-conscious children. It is not immediately evident that we have gained a lot by shifting from the lusty selfishness of the Ancien Régime to the social conscience of more progressive literature.
Le Roy Ladurie begins with a monograph about 18th-century village life in the Midi, drawing us into a world of rural craftsmen, migrants and rustics, of Huguenots and Catholics, of parvenus and the wigs they wore to show new standing, of vineyard-keepers, huntsmen, lawmen, poachers and gamekeepers, of physicians and quacks, above all of marriage and money in a mercantilist world where you could not become rich without making someone else poor. Then he brings before us the only power that could help in these circumstances: the supernatural force of Death.
The performance is so dazzling that I cannot be sure whether all of the comparisons (there are lots of diagrams and tables, some of them illuminating) hold water; or whether, at some point, the sleight of mind has blinded me with science. But if, as Le Roy Ladurie claims, Fabre’s encoding of the great old supernatural motif secularised the baroque Death of earlier tales, Le Roy Ladurie’s decoding offers a splendid key to the interrelations of orally-transmitted folk-tales and provincial dialect writers – and, hence, to the literature of Languedoc in the classical era.