In the early 1300's the village of Montaillou & the surrounding mountainous region of Southern France was full of heretics.
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. (1975).
[Genre: History, sociology]
Montaillou has been on my to-read mountain for over three years. I was recommended it by a professor at my university who through a twist of fate was equally admired as an academic in the three subjects I majored in as an undergraduate (history, sociology and anthropology). Montaillou is a micro-history, pulling apart piece-by-piece the lives of the 250 or so inhabitants of a small alpine town in the early 1300's. It's made possible by Jacquest Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, who recorded everyday conversation after conversation during the Cathar inquisition. Fortunately for us Jacquest became Pope Benedict XII, so his tireless (and perhaps tiresome) efforts made their way into the Vatican Library and eventually into the hands of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
The book itself . . . is really something quite breathtaking. It's in an academic guise, but Le Roy Ladurie lays out 14th century life in a way that is so vivid it's like watching it all play out in front of your eyes. It shows just how much the world has changed (I'm quite glad that delousing is no longer an acceptable social activity) while simultaneously showing how human emotion and needs have not. The people Le Roy Ladurie focuses on could easily be people today: worrying about money, having affairs, getting tricked by their friends, marrying the right person, or the wrong one. Montaillou doesn't hesitate to get down to the nitty gritty. There are whole chapters on sex and passages examining attitudes to incest and family violence that are treated with exactly the same academic gravity as is given to the chapter on conceptions of time and space. It gives the reader the most wonderfully complete picture. I loved having some preconceptions about the period confirmed (people really did carry their belongings on a stick over their shoulder) and some knocked over. This isn't a work of historical interpretation or historiography. Le Roy Ladurie doesn't really make conclusions and I'm grateful, it's like he's recognising that it's not his job to do so. Instead, he advances from his unique, comprehensive source only so far as to group it in topics and put it in language that we can understand. Le Roy Ladurie also almost entirely ignores the inquisition itself which brought the source text into being, beyond references to characters being imprisoned or persecuted. On the one hand, sometimes I felt like I would have liked to know how it all related. On the other hand, it makes ethnography the true focus, resulting in a portrayal that is even more real.
What makes Montaillou even better is even though it's a thoroughly serious and brilliant academic work, it reads like fiction. There are characters that we love, my favourite being the thinking-man's shepherd Pierre Maury. There are characters we like less, like the lecherous priest Pierre Clergue. When I finished, I was sad to leave them and their stories behind. Like fiction, we don't find out what happens to most of them after the Cathar inquisition, unless they died in prison.
I wish I hadn't left it so long to get to Montaillou. It gives a unparalled perspective on a time we can't ever know and one that we can trust is grounded in fact, rather than historical interpretation, without being stodgy or hidden in academic jargon. If you feel like picking this one up though, I'd suggest reading at least a Wikipedia page on the Cathars first.