JASMIN'S WITCH By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie Translated from the French by Brian Pearce Braziller. 222 pp. $17.95
EMMANUEL LE ROY LADURIE is one of the best historians of France today and one of the most effectively prolific in the world -- as well as an original and entertaining writer. He has a gift for seeing in the most dull-sounding subjects a whole fascinating world hidden and waiting to be discovered through historical research. For his best known work, Montaillou, he took a great sheaf of records lying in the Vatican Archives concerning a diocese in southwestern France in the 14th century. He gleaned from it the most comprehensive and exciting tableau of medieval life in a French community ever written. Scholars were well aware of these manuscripts and indeed had already used some of them for research, but Le Roy Ladurie was the only one to see in them a treasure of information that would interest average as well as scholarly readers. To the great surprise of his publisher, this 1,200-page book became a best seller as well as a landmark in scholarship.
This time, interested in the phenomenon of witchcraft, he has lighted upon an obscure poem, written in the Occitan language and published by a barber who was also an amateur poet. It concerns Franc ouneto (the Occitan diminutive of the French Franc oise), the most attractive and courted young woman in her little community in southwestern France. A young soldier who believes he has won her hand is so bitter when he learns that she prefers another that he hires a sorcerer to start the rumor that she is a witch who will cause death to the man she marries. The community believes the rumor and readily turns against her because she was already suspected of having a tainted Protestant background. But her True Love stands by her and defends her when the neighbors march on her house to destroy her. He marries her despite the threat of death that hangs over him. He does not die! The villain confesses his wicked plot, repents and goes away. The villagers collectively swear never to believe in witches again.
How Le Roy Ladurie came across this obscure, romantic poem is not explained, but it is not surprising since nobody, repeat nobody, knows a region and its past as Le Roy Ladurie knows southwestern France. He does not explain why he became interested in this banal tale, but it would seem that he might have been provoked by two things. The first is that the poet dates the events he describes as taking place in the middle of the 16th century, probably because that was the period of the religious wars. To the historian this date did not make sense. If the poem was based on a real event, it must have been at another time. Le Roy Ladurie's interest was also aroused because there seems
to have been a lively interest in witchraft among historians around 1980. Perhaps Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou had even helped set it off. There was an international conference on the subject at Cornell in 1976, a series of lectures by the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg at the College of France in 1982, the publication of several good books on witchcraft in different areas. Le Roy Ladurie put his graduate students to work on the subject and enlisted the cooperation of archivists in southwestern France. Doctoral dissertations were written. This book provides his own answers to the questions he posed himself when he read Franc ouneto.
MUCH WORK went into this small work, and I'm afraid much work is demanded of you to digest it. Le Roy Ladurie's style is not obscure; on the contrary it is almost conversational. But he expects his reader to follow and retain all the details and to arrive with him at a conclusion. He seems to ignore our need for clarification, but that is apparently the habit of most French intellectuals today.
We are further hampered in this case by the ineptness of the translation. The translator just does not seem to know French well. For instance, "vases communicants" has meaning for both chemists and writers in France and is commonly used; "communicating vessels" mean nothing in English. A "bocage" is not a "wooded area" in French; it is an area in which fields are surrounded by dense hedges. "Vouer un enfant au diable" should not be translated as "to devote a child to the devil." Perhaps it is the editor who should have been more careful.
The book is divided into three parts.(That's good French style!). The first part is an attempt to show the function of witchcraft, but it is based on many books and lectures which Le Roy Ladurie seems to expect us to be familiar with. It is a comparative case study of a variety of witchcrafty events in Europe and Africa over the centuries. (You could skip most of this first part and read its conclusions.) The second part is a prose translation of the French translation of the poem. It is the third part that is fascinating. Through brilliant archival and anthropological research, Le Roy Ladurie shows that the poem was based on a real event in the 17th century (not the 16th), and the story was never written before but preserved only through oral tradition. He locates the precise village and the precise individuals who were involved.
The English edition contains a fourth section lacking in the original French edition. Having suffered a critical attack in Les Nouvelles litte'raires, in which the reviewer takes Le Roy Ladurie to task for ignoring the esthetic value of the poem, he responds very effectively in a 13-page postscript. He is kind in his reply. He could simply and honestly have said that the poem had little esthetic value. Instead he gave himself, and us, the pleasure of carrying out even more research to prove his points conclusively. Le Roy Ladurie is the Sherlock Holmes of the scholarly world.
Laurence Wylie is the C. Douglas Dillon Professor Emeritus of the Civilization of France at Harvard University and author of various books on France.