LE ROY LADURIE, professor of history at the College de France, achieved prominence as the author of montaillou, a book revealing the lives, minds and mores of a 14th-century French mountain town of heretical learnings as recorded in the inhabitants' own words through extensive questionings by the local Inquisitor. Montaillou 's sensational success in France in 1975 and harldy less notable one here last year were due to its intrinistic interest -- not unconnected with details, which reviwers hastened to emphasize, of adultery, fornication by priests and other aspects of medieval sex.

In his new book, Ladurie moves forward 200 years to a subject of more concentrated drama in another provincial town, Romans, situated about midway between Lyons and Grenoble. Via the events in and around Romans in 1579-80, he exposes to our view a living cross-section -- as in one of those glass-sided cages housing an ant colony -- of a 16th-century provincial society caught in the midst of a crisis of civil violence, specifically class war. Long exasperated by the inequities of taxation, commoners rose against the nobles and allied merchants, landlords and officials of the upper bourgeoisie. Complicated by the hostilities of Huguenot against Catholic, which had bloodied France eight years earlier on the terrible night of St. Bartholomew, the insurrection came to a head during the heightened circumstances -- as if designed for melodrama -- of pre-Lenten Carnival or Mardi Gras -- and culminated in massacre. Two hundred years too soon, it was the same fever that would not be quenched in 1789.

As he did in Montaillou , Ladurie has studied and drawn on firsthand material. In this case, he employs full accounts by two major participants -- Judge Guerin, the "evil Genius" and "angel of death" of the affair, as the author reather less than objectively calls him, and Eustache Piedmond, a notary on the side of the insurrection -- as well as on letters, memoirs and reports by others including the sovereign, Catherine de Medici. These are supplemented by tax rolls and records in the regional archives. All except the archival sources have been published in the course of the three centuries; the Romans affair is no discovery. It was a sensation in its time and was thoroughly examined during the 19th century when the Guerin and Piedmond accounts were edited and published in 1877 and 1885, respectively. Similarly, the primary source for Montaillou , the record of the Inquisitor, Bishop Jacques Fournier, was published in 1965 from a Latin manuscript in the Vatican Library. In neither case has Ladurie brough to light previously unknown material. Rather, through the methods of the Annales school, which is devoted to reconstructing a given society from painstaking assembly of its documentary minutiae, much as archeologists work from pottery shards and bone fragments, he has supplied the sociological and cultural background, analyzed and interpreted the course of events and acquainted modern readers with two remarkable case histories.

In 1576, rising anger at the tax exempt status of the landed nobles and their associates and the disproportionate burden borne in consequence by the commoners found expression in an eloquent Cahier de Doleance or Petition of Grievances presented on behalf of the Third Estate to the Estates General of the region. As the resistance to reform by the propertied class became more strenuous, agitation for a tax strike swelled. Resentment grew to wrath and rebellion; bands of armed peasants like the jacquerie of old attacked castles in the countryside and murdered their lords, and in the towns an organized movement threatened to seize control of the municipal governments. The leaders of the movement were educated and vocal spokesmen like Jan de Bourg, doctor of laws and elected representative of the Third Estate, Jacques Colas, a fanatic Catholic and well-connected town official, and the Master Draper Paumier, representative of the craftsmen, who was to become military captain of the revolt and chief target of the seigneurs.

Political maneuvering, betrayals and shifts of allegiancess, the summoning of troops, clashes inside and outside the gates, and the mutual hatred of opposing classes reached a climax of tension in the Saturnalia of Mardi Gras. Behind the masks and revels, a counterattack by the rulers, masterminded by Judge Guerin, took shape, marched, shot and killed Paumier, slaughtered his followers, and over the next 15 months, aided by the crown, imposed a savage repression throughout the region.

Ladurie has made the most, if not the best, of this vivid and fearful story. The trouble is that he wants to be popular while tranied to be scholarly. Seeking liveliness, he tosses inslang here and there ("well-heeled," "fat-cats," "we are in 1579, for heaves's sake, not 1789") which is embarrassing in the context. In addition, Ladurie is not well served by his translator whose strange locutions sometimes suggest that she is not native to English. Ladurie has tried to write narrative history while using the methods of the Annales , an impossible union. The result is a discordant and awkward text, exceedingly difficult for the reader to follow.

The author begins his account quite soberly and properly, if somewhat over-elaborately, with what he frankly calls a "sociological survey" of the urban and rural setting over the 30 years prior to the revolt. Drawing on the tax rolls, he calculates population figuress, income levels, heads of households, proportion per family of domestic servants and dependants, occupations and their economic status, share of each family in the tax burden, percentages of property owned at each economic level together with individual names, ranks and personal histories so that his is able to state exactly what groups and coteries and crafts the insurrection came from. All this is valuable and enlightening, although in some cases the information seems almost too precise.

A narrative of the insurrection follows, merges into an intricate and fascinating discussion of the rituals and symbolism of Carnival, and resumes toward the climactic counterattack where it is interrupted by a minute analysis of the unusual amount of wheat brought into Romas and carried away again by buyers prior to Carnival. The point of this is that the influx of of peasants frighteded the bourgeoisie, and the buying-up of wheat by the rich frightened the commoners, which the author could have explained in a sentence. Instead, he spares us not at setier (a measure of weight equal to 56 kg.): 240 setiers came in through the Jacquemart gate, 28 through the St. Nicolas gate; 64 buyers bought 166 setiers in lots of two or three; 71 buyers took wheat out of the city on February 5; 100 buyers on February 20 bought 220 setiers "that had come in the same day through the Jacquemart gate" and so on through many more figures until we learn that "3,763 setiers came into Romans; 4,619 went out -- a slight deficit." This is the Annales at its most suffocating.

The climax, the murder of Paumier, is reached midway in the book and is followed by a chapter on the sociology of the St. Nicholas quartier where he lived, down to the number of neighborhood butchers, shoemakers and innkeepers and their tax assessments. The remaining six chapters are filled with copious but disorganized information.

If there is one thing no sociologist has the remotest acquaintance with, it is the art of storytelling. Narrative is a form with its own discipline, rules, shape, pace and suspense. Ladurie's atatempt to combine a style he does not command with a metier in which he is expert results in incoherence and damages what would otherwise have been an impressive book. His skills, tranining and, one feels, his heart are in the tax rolls. He should have allowed his own talents to define his scope.