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Jasmin's Witch by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie; translated by Brian Pearce : (George Braziller: $17.95; 222 pp., illustrated)

July 26, 1987|Jeffrey B. Russell | Russell, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is the author of six books on witchcraft and diabology.

"Jasmin's Witch" is the latest book of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, one of the most influential members of the "Annales" school of historians centered in Paris. The "Annales" school emphasizes social history, especially the place of the non-elite in society. At their best, the "Annales" historians offer penetrating insights into the minds--the "mentalities"--of common people in the past, enabling us to get the flavor of mind-sets very different from our own. Yet, ironically, each "Annales" work has the definite taste of post-World War II France, and at their worst, "Annales" historians end up imposing their own materialist, vaguely Marxist, views upon their material. Ladurie is deservedly one of the most popular of the "Annalistes:" His famous book "Montaillou" was a brilliant exposition of the values of late medieval peasants in a remote village.

"Jasmin's Witch" is most successful as a work in historical detection; those who enjoyed Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose" may find it attractive. Ladurie investigates a narrative poem, "Francouneto," written in Gascon dialect in the 1840s by a wig maker of Agen in southern France, a man whose pen name was Jasmin. Jasmin based his poem upon folk traditions current around the village of Roquefort near Agen in the 1830s. He shaped the material for his own artistic purposes, but Ladurie makes a good case for his having followed the traditions reasonably closely.

"Francouneto" tells the story of a young woman by that name (dialect for Little Francoise ) , whose life Jasmin places during the French Wars of Religion in the 16th Century. As a young girl, Francouneto seems to have caused ill fortune to those around her; two of her unfortunate suitors broke limbs while courting her. Neighbors grew hostile and suspicious, and she eventually was accused of witchcraft. She supposedly destroyed other people's crops by causing hailstorms, increased her own wealth at the expense of others, and physically harmed and weakened other villagers, especially interfering with their sexual powers and fertility. Francouneto vigorously denied that she had supernatural powers, but later she began to wonder about herself (a theme brilliantly explored in the Danish film of the 1950s, "Day of Wrath"). In the end, however, she attracted the love of a good man, was happily wed, and thereby dispelled suspicion. The poem ends triumphantly with the villagers saying, "Never again will we believe in sorcerers."

With the Annaliste's nose for a good story behind the story, Ladurie visited the region around Agen to see whether there was any historical basis for Jasmin's poem. Here the book is at its best. Using his understanding of religion, folklore, and language, he works back to a historical Francouneto who lived not in the 1500s as in Jasmin's poem but about 1660-1690.

One of the best aspects of Ladurie's work, like that of Carlo Ginzburg ("The Cheese and the Worms") and Robert Darnton ("The Great Cat Massacre"), will be to prompt historians to keep a sharp eye out for other trails to the past that seem unpromising to begin with but turn out to lead to new kinds of material.

The first section of Ladurie's book, after summarizing the Francouneto story, constructs a typology of Gascon witchcraft in the 17th and 18th centuries by comparing the heroine with two historically verified witches. But he tells us nothing new about witchcraft: that most accused witches were women, that women might resort to sorcery because of their lack of material power; that ruining crops and undermining sexuality and fertility are typical witch charges. All of this is old news.

The Annaliste approach both clarifies and distorts our understanding of historical witchcraft. By investigating folk traditions, Ladurie shows us how simple sorcery persisted from the Middle Ages into the early modern period. But by emphasizing such traditions, he runs the danger of making us forget that European witchcraft in the early modern period was for the most part an invention of the theological, academic, and judicial elite. It was the devil-centered witchcraft largely invented by the elite, rather than simple sorcery, that usually led people to the stake.

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