Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Archeology of Montaillou by Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie

Man not only had a soul, which most people believed to be immortal, but also a spirit.  When someone was asleep or dreaming, the spirit might escape from his body.  The people of Montaillou in general, and Pierre Maury in particular, were fascinated by the problem of dreams and by the exemplum of the lizard. Variations of this exemplum had been circulating for centuries.

 Once upon a time, said Philippe d’Alayrac of Coustaussa, two believers found themselves close to a river.  One of them fell asleep. The other stayed awake, and from the mouth of the sleeper he saw emerge a creature like a lizard.  Suddenly the lizard, using a plank, (or was it a straw?) which stretched from one bank to the other, crossed over the river.  On the other bank there was the fleshless skull of an ass. And the lizard ran in and out of the openings of the skull.  Then it came back over the plank and re-entered the sleeper’s mouth.  It did that once or twice.  Seeing which, the man who was awake thought of a trick: he waited until the lizard was on the other side of the river and approaching the ass’s skull. And then he took away the plank!  The lizard left the ass’s head and returned to the bank. But he could not get across! The plank was gone! Then the body of the sleeper began to thrash about, but it was unable to wake, despite the efforts of the watcher to arouse it from its sleep.  Finally the watcher put the plank back across the river. Then the lizard was able to get back and re-enter the body of the sleeper through the mouth. The sleeper immediately awoke; and he told his friend the dream he had just had.

‘I dreamed’, he said, ’that I was crossing a river on a plank; then I went into a great palace with many towers and rooms, and when I wanted to come back to the place from which I had set out, there was no plank! I could not get across: I would have been drowned in the river.  That was why I thrashed about (in my sleep). Until the plank was put back again and I could return.’

The two believers wondered greatly at this adventure, and went and told it to a parfait, who gave them the key to the mystery: the soul, he told them, remains in a man’s body all the time; but a man’s spirit or mind goes in and out, just like the lizard which went from, the sleeper’s mouth to the Ass’s head and vice versa.

Every self-respecting Montaillou shepherd, whether in Sabarthes or in Catalonia, told the Cathar myth of the Fall over and over again.

At the beginning of the story the spirits, seduced by the Evil One, fell straight through the hole in Heaven down to earth. Around the fire in the evening, the peasants went over the details.  At first God did not notice what was happening, then he was surprised and did not understand, finally he grew angry and hastily put his foot over the hole in Heaven.  But it was late, and many of the spirits had already fallen to earth, where they became victims of the feminine wiles and of the tunics of human flesh prepared for them by the Devil.  Then began the lower part of the mythic cycle –metempsychosis [the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body]. After various incarnations, both in the bodies of animals and in those of human beings, some souls would succeed in coming full circle.  Having been the souls of parfaits , or of believers who received the consolamentum  [the most significant ceremony in Cathar theology, marking the transition from ordinary believer  to a Parfait, one of the elect] , they ascended after death into the Heaven from which they had originally fallen.

When all the good souls had left the earth and gone back to their home in Paradise, there would be no just man left on earth and it would be of no further interest.  Then the end of the world became possible.  The four elements would merge. Then, said the shepherds of Montaillou, echoing the brothers Authie, the sky would fall down on the earth, the sun and the moon would go out, the sea would be consumed by fire and fire would be consumed by the sea.  The earth would be a lake of pitch and sulphur: Hell.

Believers, who had been ‘consoled’ now united in the great confraternity of those villagers of Montaillou who had attained salvation, and danced on the Last Day, trampling underfoot all unbelievers, as the lambs dance on the grass in the meadows, or on the stubble of the fields when they have been harvested.

What did the happiness of the souls of the just consist in, when they lived in Paradise?  According to Pierre Authie, there every soul will have as much wealthy and happiness as every other; and all will be as one. And all the souls will love one another as if they loved the soul of their father or of their children. One again, the sacred is only the social, transfigured.  Not a word about any beatific vision.  For the people of Montaillou, Heaven would be one huge domus.  .  .

More generally, the case of Montaillou corresponds to the models put forward by the Russian economist A.V. Chayanov in his Theory of Peasant Economy, and applying to rural life almost everywhere in the West before the time of Adam Smith. In this kind of society every homo oeconomicus is the organizer of one family economic unit in which employees play only a small or occasional part, and in which the overall economy is made up of the interrelations between the family units. The general features of the domus in the Pays d’Aillon correspond to those of this ‘domestic system’, with division of labor according to sex.  The women are in charge of the fire, housekeeping, cooking, gardening, green-stuff for the animals and for the family and the fetching of water.  The men look after the fields and woods and flocks, with occasional female help which may be seasonal and migrant, or local and supplied by the family. In such a system the woman deals with ‘indoor’ details’ and the man with ‘outdoor matters’. Production for the market is not neglected (mostly sheep, with poultry and eggs as a subsidiary contribution), but the main effort is directed towards the more or less satisfactory subsistence of the family itself rather than towards ‘the creation of accumulated surpluses’.

The aim is not so much ‘the extended reproduction of agricultural capital’ as ‘the production of usable values’ such as food and clothing. Abundance is not asked for, but want can be avoided and dealt with.   People are not necessarily lazy, but without the blandishments of surplus or the ever-increasing accumulation of capital there are no inordinate incentives to work.  The peasant family, when it is large enough, with sons and daughters old enough to work, as well as adults, functions below its capacity.  It thus exemplifies Chayanov’s law that ‘in a system of domestic production for use, labor intensity varies inversely with labor capacity in relation to the unit of production’.  This refusal to over-exert oneself is reflected in all the naps taken, the time spent sitting in the sun and the many allusions to days off and saints’ days.  Childhood, which will eventually produce the labor that makes leisure possible, is the center of this domestic system, which therefore surrounds young children with love.

The absence of increasing surpluses makes usury and the infliction of heavy tithes difficult. In a society where almost everyone is poor without being too afflicted by about it, and where no one aspires to ever-growing wealth, the real poor and the landless proletariat show little aggression,.  In Montaillou, lads whose probable lot is poverty simply go away with the migrating flocks to the masculine, bachelor civilization of the shepherds, and thus to a true market economy.  The producer’s ownership of the means of production is a rule of the system fairly closely obeyed in Montaillou itself; the men of the domus, even if they are not particularly well off, own a piece of land as well as their house; and when the poor shepherds grow older and return to the village they usually possess a few dozen sheep.

With the shepherds we emerge from the cellular universe of the domus.  The young bachelors go off to the mountain pastures and Catalonia.  As freelance employees they are more modern and emancipated than their fathers and brothers who stay at home.  The shepherds, obliged but not unwilling to be the lovers of Dame Poverty, sometimes manage to give their exacting mistress the slip. The Inquisition, detaching this wandering group from its base, confers a fascinating independence on Pierre Maury. The Cathar pastor’s cabin contrasts with the villager’s domus, just as true masculine friendship contrasts with parochial propinquity and all its rancor.

The harsh repression which fell on the village between 1308 and 1325 grew lighter afterwards, and finally disappeared. The Black Death struck in 1348, though its impact may have been comparatively light in upper Ariege.  Then there were other plagues, and the ravages of different armies.  By 1390, there were only twenty-three hearths in Montaillou, half or less than half than what there had been between 1300-20.  But even though they were decimated, the leading families were still there, despite the Inquisition, despite epidemics, despite wars. The inhabitants of Montaillou in 1390 were called Benet, Clergue, Maurs, Ferrier, Baille, Fort, Azema, Pourcel, Rives, Authie, Argelliers. There is only one name which may be new. The domus held out. They were not adulterated by immigration; the mountains were too forbidding.  Montaillou continued much as it was throughout the following centuries – in the 1970s there was still a Clergue in the local telephone directory.  Now its people are abandoning the fields up in the mountains, and so threatening the stability of an ancient habitat which neither repression nor contagion was able to destroy.

  Montaillou culture was directed towards mere reproduction, self-preservation and the perpetuation of the domus in the world below. The only element of ‘growth’ which happened to manifest itself in the fourteenth century had little to do with economics.  It was concerned with the after-life and with a kind of spiritual transcendence, locally centered on the Albigensian idea of Heaven.

Jacque Fournier took it upon himself to remedy all that. Today Catharism is no more than a dead star, whose cold fascinating light reaches us now after an eclipse of more than half a millennium.  But Montaillou itself is much more than a courageous but fleeting deviation.  It is the factual history of ordinary people.  It is Pierre and Beatrice and their love; it is Pierre Maury and his flock; it is the breath of life restored through a repressive Latin register that is a monument of Occitan literature.  Montaillou is the physical warmth of the ostal, together with the ever-recurring promise of peasant heaven. The one within the other, the one supporting the other.

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