HERE ARE THREE essay-collections by a trio of prominent historians. Barbara Tuchman, the winner of a couple of Pulitzer prizes, has been highly successful with such books as The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, and, as if to show she does not feel confined to the era 1890-1914, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Lawrence Stone, an Englishman domiciled at Princeton, is well known to scholars, especially for his wide-ranging The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who replaced Fernand Braudel at the College de France in Paris, has reached a large public with Montaillou, the portrait of a medieval village in the Pyrenees, and with Carnival in Romans, the latter a 16th-century French community.

It should be said that, despite their reputations, their latest books are not likely to become best sellers. One reason is that the volumes are not exactly new, but selections of previously printed lectures, reviews and articles. Ladurie's is indeed a second volume, translated (most proficiently) from his Territoire de l'Historien (1978). The great sweep of description and interpretation is inevitably crimped in samplings of this kind. Miscellanies are apt to seem miscellaneous, risking either repetition or contradiction -- their lack of unity perhaps revealed unwittingly, as in these cases, by the authors' failure to furnish an index. Some of Professor Stone's splendidly speculative contributions to The New York Review of Books, when revised for inclusion in The Past and the Present, remain not altogether emancipated from the works they initially discussed, yet are no longer quite adequate as book reviews. Moreover, Stone has changed his mind on certain points. That is a reasonable, even a desirable thing to do. But it can have puzzling consequences. In one or two essays we find approving references to the Freudian vocabulary (e.g. to analerotic behavior); yet we have already been told by him that psychohistory is "a disaster area." There are similarly abrupt signs of a diminished respect for statistical or "cliometric" history.

But these are minor complaints; and best-sellerdom ought not to be our yardstick, even if Barbara Tuchman occasionally invokes it. All three books have other merits. They are, as the Victorians used to say by way of compliment, "amusing and instructive" -- lively, accessible to the layman, and concerned in different ways with how best to recapture and explain the past.

The most conventional approach is that of Barbara Tuchman. To her, the historian's basic mode is that of narration: movement through time, so as to disclose to the reader in a clear, compelling sequence a set of significant events. "Narrative," she declares, "is the life-blood of history . . . the medium through which the historian communicates what he has to tell. Primarily I think of the historian as a storyteller." In another essay Tuchman implies that historians are mainly concerned with powerful (or in Sidney Hook's term, "event-making") people: "captains and kings, saints and fanatics, traitors, rogues and villains, pathfinders and explorers, thinkers and creators, even, occasionally heroes . . . They may be evil or corrupt or mad or stupid . . . but at least, by virtue of circumstance or chance or office or character, they matter. " Readers, she continues, "want to see man shaping his destiny or, at least, struggling with it."

The great historians for her, not surprisingly, are Thucydides, Gibbon, Macaulay, G. M. Trevelyan -- fine phrasemakers, craftsmen of the narrative act, and as perceptive as novelists in conveying character and motive. She dislikes the distinction sometimes drawn between professional and amateur historians. "The faculty people are professional historians, we outside are professional writers. Insofar as they borrow our function, and we borrow their subject, each of us has a great deal to learn from the other."

In style Barbara Tuchman is certainly a professional. Her prose is tighter than that of Lawrence Stone, who can be relaxed and slangy, and she digresses less than Le Roy Ladurie. She dispenses with footnotes, to which they might be deemed professorially addicted. She has a nice wit, as in an address on "Generalship" she was invited to give by the commandant of the U.S. Army War College. "No doubt he could safely assume that the subject in itself would automatically interest this audience in the same way that motherhood would interest an audience of pregnant ladies." She has an eye for apposite anecdote, for instance on the Kaiser, recounting with emotion some criticisms of himself in the international press: "a tear fell on his cigar." She pounces upon the discrepant insistence, in Kissinger's memoirs, on realpolitik and also upon "honor" or "innocence," in the conduct of American foreign affairs. Sometimes, though, her comments sound orthodoxly middlebrow.

Moreover, history of this variety would seem far away from and out of step with the scholarship represented by Ladurie, Braudel, Chaunu, Goubert, Duby, and others in the prodigiously active, resourceful and confident French school of postwar Annalistes, who in turn have built upon the work of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre. Their name derives from the formidable historical journal Annales, Economies, Societes, Civilisations, formerly produced as Annales d'Histories: Economique et Sociale. The nearest equivalent in English is perhaps Past and Present, a periodical with which Stone has been closely associated. There is no single, unified formula followed by every member of the Annales group. But in general they are sympathetic to Braudel's three-stage conception of the material of history. The base, and in this respect the most fundamental level, is geographical. It has to do with soil, climate and other givens that predate and in important degrees determine human history. Human activities enter at the second level, shaped by primary conditions. Ideological and aesthetic considerations appear only at the third level, but as expressive ornament rather than as decisive factors in historical evolution.

History as narrative? The opening essay in Ladurie is entitled "History That Stands Still" (L'histoire immobile ) -- a survey of the period 1300-c. 1730. This is "long duration" (longue duree ), a favorite concept among the Annalistes, though for them not incompatible with close scrutiny of a particular place and time. The immobility for Ladurie consists in the fact that over a stretch of four centuries the population of France increased hardly at all -- or rather, increases at certain periods were canceled out by the catastrophic effects of famine, disease, plague (the Black Death being only one of many visitations), and war. Ladurie's vision of hisotry is in large part "eco-demographic"; he connects broad considerations of diet, health and population.

History as the influence of the powerful" Ladurie would concede that dynastic warmongering affected the shape of things, but chiefly in incidental ways through the transmission of disease or the destruction of crops. Sieges, battles, alliances, monarchs, orders of chivalry are in such a perspective of little significance. Knights are almost equivalent to fleas or rats -- ignorant carriers or scavengers, ermine as a form of vermin. Ladurie and his colleagues disapprove of histoire evenementielle, traditional narrative or biography. They seek to deal with whole communities, or with individuals who exemplify collective behavior. These are the annals of the poor -- "history" (Ladurie says) "as it might be written by the bailiff's man" -- whose entire possessions could be loaded on the back of a cart. Lawrence Stone writes of Ladurie's Montaillou, a book he obviously admires, that "it does not tell a straightforward story -- there is no story -- but rambles around inside people's heads." He also notes that it has been a sensational best seller in France.

We appear to have an irreconcilable difference between Ladurie's sort of history and that practiced by Tuchman. We also, it seems, need to account for the acceptance by the public (in France at any rate) of history that "rambles around" eventlessly. The first point to make is that Barbara Tuchman is less conventional than her essays suggest. The Proud Tower, for instance, focuses on certain individuals. The American chapter highlights Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives. On the other hand, the book covers several countries, and presents people in groups: English aristocrats, anarchists, socialists, peace advocates. A Distant Mirror tries to build around the family of a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy. The effort is not altogether successful. Yet his can be regarded as a representative story, serving to unify the history of a whole century. Lawrence Stone has been an exponent of "prosopography" -- the biography of a group rather than a single person. Barbara Tuchman could almost qualify as a prosopographer, though she would probably think the term pompously obscure.

A second point is that her books seem to reach a conclusion not essentially unlike Ladurie's. The activities of her leading characters usually turn out badly. Their belief that they control events is in the main illusory. Folly, greed, bigotry (as in the recurrent persecution of the Jews, a theme that clearly engrosses Tuchman) --these, we gather, are omnipresent and at times omnipotent. A Distant Mirror compares the Black Death to the later calamity of the 1914-18 war, creating "a climate of pessimism." The four horsemen of the apocalypse ride through her narrative as they do in some of Ladurie's writing.

As to Ladurie's popularity with the public, a long essay by Stone on "The Revival of Narrative" provides valuable clues. In common with other Annalistes, Ladurie once argued that history must be above all statistical. In recent years, according to Stone, the passion for quantification has waned. What Ladurie offers is not the history of castles and palaces. It is nevertheless a history of people, observed in sharp, abundant and often entertaining detail.

True, they sometimes starve; they succumb to appalling illnesses (such as the dysentery which Ladurie believes was rife in Anjou throughout the 18th century); and they massacre one another in fits of religious and tribal hysteria. But the particularity of the record becomes fascinating, as in a Balzac novel, and sometimes titillating: in Montaillou there is plenty of sex. Ladurie does provide a kind of narrative, like the vignettes in a book by Studs Terkel. In addition he imparts a sense of drama, of history being shaped, even of the preciousness of bygone lives. I suspect that his French readers respond unconsciously (as they do to Braudel's vast book The Mediterranean ) to certain evocative signals that emanate from Ladurie. His is the world of the Midi, of paysans, garlic vineyards, olive trees, immemorial villages and towns. It conjures up memories of old movies (Raimu, say, as the village baker in La Femme du Boulanger ). Braudel introduces a geographical term, "transhumance," to describe seasonal movements of people such as herdsmen. One can easily imagine Parisians, whose transhumance empties the city each August, basking in the sun of Provence with volumes of Ladurie to absorb and, yes, console them.

Stone maintains, as no doubt Tuchman would, that the Annaliste approach has limitations. Ladurie and his colleagues are much more at home with the medieval and Renaissance era than with modern history. Their quasi-geographical determinism underestimates the possibly decisive intervention of individuals, and the power of ideas to motivate mankind. Stone drily comments that contraception is "as much a product of a state of mind as it is of economic circumstances or technological inventions." The material for Ladurie's Montaillou exists because of controversy over religion: the village was a stronghold of heresy.

What we can all agree upon, and take pleasure in, is, however, the renewed vitality of professional historical scholarship during the last 40 years. It has widened and deepened to embrace every aspect of human life, borrowing at need from sociology, psychology, and anthropology. The general public still on the whole prefers history in traditional guises. But those too, as the career of Barbara Tuchman illustrates, have been considerably modified -- and enriched in the process.