A shepherd and shoemaker argue about who has greater money woes. A misogynist peasant grouses about women. A village priest becomes a double agent, pretending to care about his breakaway flock while working secretly with the Vatican to save his own skin.

We are eavesdropping on the French hamlet of Montaillou, in the Pyrenees foothills, six centuries ago. Our guide is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a historian and best-selling author, who reconstructed the past through the lives at the lower rungs – the clerks and farmers, the maids and midwives – instead of the lofty perch of monarchs and moguls.

Or, in the case of Montaillou, Pope Innocent III. The village was in the crosshairs of the Inquisition, seeking to crush a Gnostic splinter group known as the Cathars, whose beliefs were branded heretical by the Vatican.

For Le Roy Ladurie, who died Nov. 22 in Paris at 94, the withering persecution of Cathars became a landmark study in ways to reexamine history from the streets and alleys and taverns.

His 1975 book “Montaillou: Village Occitan de 1294 à 1324” (published in English in 1978 as “Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error”) helped establish him as a leader in an academic discipline known as the Annales movement, which seeks the widest possible views in historical analysis and often rejects traditional historical framing that focused on rulers and military leaders.

“The Sherlock Holmes of the scholarly world,” wrote anthropologist Laurence Wylie in a 1987 Washington Post Book World essay and review of his work.

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In more than 25 books, he teased out stories and narratives from details found anywhere he could shake them loose: court transcripts, diaries, funeral records, weather data, and mercantile ledgers. He called it the “mental universe” of daily life. There, he said, were tales that offered a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the past.

His style, too, pushed historical scholarship in new directions. He brought a journalist’s eye for detail and a travel writer’s feel for a sense of place, describing the smells of open-air meat markets in medieval towns or the mossy chill of a jail cell. Some academics cringed at his departure from traditional approaches. Reviewers, though, were widely impressed, helping boost “Montaillou” and several of his other books into transatlantic bestsellers.

“Witty and sophisticated, fertile and inventive, (he) bubbles over with ideas and comparisons, though sometimes with a faint touch of slickness,” wrote British historian Keith Thomas in the New York Review of Books in 1978.

In “Montaillou,” one chapter includes a Cathar cleric’s confession – whether coerced or genuine is unclear – about the seduction methods and threats he used as a sexual predator among village women. “Carnival in Romans” (1979), probed how Mardi Gras festivities in 1580 in the French village of Romans-sur-Isère turned into a class conflict over taxes, leading to a deadly ambush and later court-ordered mass executions.

In 1984’s “La Sorcière de Jasmin” (published in English as “Jasmin’s Witch” in 1987), he investigated the power behind beliefs in witchcraft, based on an old poem put to paper by a barber whose pen name was Jasmin. The verse tells of how a spurned lover spread rumors that his old flame, a woman named Francouneto, was a witch.

With academic sleuthing, he traced back to what could be the real Francouneto, who lived in the late 17th century. Reviewer Jeffrey B. Russell, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called the book “a work of historical detection” and drew comparisons to Umberto Eco’s medieval murder thriller “Name of the Rose” (1980.)

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The Annales movement, named after a Paris-based journal that debuted in 1929, exerted influence before Le Roy Ladurie with French historians such as Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, as well as scholarship in the United States that increasingly blended sociology, economics, and politics.

The power of Le Roy Ladurie’s commercial success, however, helped define a genre of micro-histories aimed at telling bigger stories, such as Barbara Tuchman’s examination of life and tumult in the 14th century, “A Distant Mirror” (1978). In “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1983), historian Natalie Zemon Davis dissected 16th-century French village life by recounting a tale about a peasant who completely assumes another man’s identity. (A film version was made in 1982 with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.)

He liked to say that the past never fully vanishes. In an interview with the U.N. World Heritage agency UNESCO, he described once meeting a woman in the French countryside who described a sound she called “the wild hunt,” which was believed to be the souls of dead children rushing over the treetops.

“This is a very old myth,” he said. “She told it with great conviction. She was close to an ancient rural culture of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.”

NORMANDY ROOTS

He was born on July 19, 1929, in Les Moutiers-en-Cinglais in Normandy. His father served as minister of agriculture in the collaborationist Vichy government but later joined family members in the resistance against the Nazi occupation. His mother descended from a family that was part of the aristocracy.

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He graduated with an undergraduate degree in history from the École Normale Superieure de France in 1953 and received a doctorate in 1956 from the University of Paris. He took various teaching and lecturing positions in France before becoming a professor of the history of modern civilization at the Collège de France in Paris, a position he held for decades.

He said he first took an interest in the overlooked subject of rural history because of his family background. “My father’s side came from the rural bourgeoisie of Normandy,” he told a Syracuse University interviewer in 1995. “This relation with my father had been a conflictual one, but I decided nevertheless to make this my field of research. It had not been my intention to do this for the rest of my life.”

The shame of his father’s links to the Vichy government also added another element: a lifelong fascination with “decline and fall.”

He remained a member of the French Communist Party until the early 1960s, partly in dismay over Soviet actions in Eastern Europe such as crushing a pro-independence uprising in Hungary in 1956. His left-leaning political views later brought criticism from more tradition-minded scholars.

In one showdown in the early 1970s, he joined with colleagues to oust his mentor, historian Fernand Braudel, from positions including as editor of Annales magazine. The rift was opened by Braudel’s resistance to his emphasis on historical research into the rural poor and powerless.

In some early projects, he dug deep into historical data on subjects such as child mortality, birth rates, and the use of contraception. Some of the research was used for his first book, “Les Paysans de Languedoc” in 1966 (published as “The Peasants of Languedoc” in 1974). Later works included “Love, Death, and Money in the Pays d’Oc,” (1982), and “The French Peasantry 1450-1660” (1987).

He married Madeleine Pupponi, a physician, in 1956. They had two children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. The family announced the death but gave no further details.

He divided historians into two groups. There were the “parachutists” who looked at the general contours of a subject from a high-altitude perspective. He put himself in the other group, the “truffle hunters,” who look for events and vignettes that speak to bigger truths about a time in history.

The truffle hunters, he said, keep “their noses buried in the details.”


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