All history is contemporary history -- even for histories the future still holds in store for us. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the publication in France of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou. The book's subject -- everyday life in an isolated village in 14th-century France -- as well as its narrative (there isn't one) should have led to instant and enduring obscurity.
Instead, the book became a surprise bestseller and remains popular enough to have justified an anniversary edition of the English translation a few years ago. The reasons for this historical investigation's unlikely success in the France of the 1970s have endured through today; understanding them will help us fathom the massive strikes that are currently paralyzing the country and threatening to eviscerate the economic and social reforms proposed by the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Montaillou quietly placed itself in the French literary tradition that treats laziness with the gravity and intelligence it deserves. An earlier representative of this tradition is Paul Lafargue's call to arms, The Right to Be Lazy, while a more recent addition to this genre is Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness. While Lafargue's pamphlet was published in the late 19th century and Maier's small book appeared in the early 21st century, they address the same phenomenon: the soul-numbing nature of modern work. Whether it takes place at the factory or office, work has become mechanical and meaningless. Rather than a trend, it is a perennial subject in France.
It is not accidental that the syndicats, or unions, behind the recent strikes in Paris represent France's great mass of fonctionnaires, or white-collar workers whose job it is, well, to make the state institutions function. This is the sort of job, according to Maier, where "qualifications are irrelevant -- the only requirement is that you leave your intellect, personality, and imagination at the door." Lafargue would not have disagreed: The modern workplace, he declared, condemns man "to play the part of a machine turning out work."
But as Ladurie makes clear in his remarkable book, the jig was already up more than half a millennium ago.
At the turn of the 14th century, the small town of Montaillou attracted the attention of the Inquisition, whose efforts to extinguish the flames of heresy in southern France had nevertheless left burning embers in the most isolated parts of the realm. Few villages were more isolated than Montaillou -- it was and remains buried in the Pyrenees -- or more prone to the heresy du jour, Catharism. The world, in Cathar eyes, was a battleground between equally powerful forces of light and darkness, as well as a vast waiting room for souls that traveled from body to body until they were fully purified. The Cathars considered themselves true Christians and dismissed the Catholic Church as a pack of hypocrites and crooks.
This did not go down well with the papal authorities in Avignon, who dispatched an inquisitor to stamp out the sect. The Cathars' great misfortune was Ladurie's -- and his readers' -- great luck: The papacy's man in Montaillou was Jacques Fournier, an inquisitor of boundless energy and relentless curiosity. He grilled the villagers of Montaillou for days and weeks on end, leaving behind him not just dozens of terrified and shattered lives, but also a trove of transcripts based on his interrogations. Were it not for Fournier's frightening meticulousness, the existence of this society would have been forever hidden from us. (This meticulousness applies equally to the Vatican Archives, where Fournier brought and stored his register upon being named Pope Benedict XII, and which many historians, including Ladurie, consulted for their work).