Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Author, Arthur Goldhammer, Translator with Jean-François Fitou, trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Univ. of Chicago $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-226-47320-8

Halfway through this marvelous analysis of courtly life under the Sun King, the reader finds a complex chart of cabals with a striking resemblance to a map of the Paris Métro. Kinship, friendship and other links are carefully plotted, in accordance with the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon (composed in the 1740s). The resemblance proves apposite: fellow Annales School historian Lucien Febvre suggested that the social structure of the ancien régime was more closely related to a large city's infrastructure than to the neatly stratified layers of the Marxist paradigm. Le Roy Ladurie suggests another analogy for life at court in Saint-Simon's fondness for the game of billiards, in which one ball acts on another through the action of a third. There were in fact 10,000 human billiard balls at Versailles; the duke memorably described the lives and intrigues of these rapidly moving political atoms. Here, following the microcosmic approach used to excellent effect in his bestseller Montaillou, Le Roy Ladurie and collaborator Fitou analyze the ideology of this miniature world: small behavioral strands illuminate a larger web of culture and ideology. The study focuses on the almost comical obsession with hierarchy and rank, on the subtle distinctions that governed who might sit on a stool, who might take the armchair and who must necessarily stand. The bipartite structure of the book (cultural sociology/political narrative) draws immediate comparisons to Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean; in both cases it is the sophisticated dissection of behavior and mentality is most memorable. (June)

Forecast: Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou is a classic. When the University of Chicago published his The Beggar and the Professor (1997), it was widely and favorably reviewed, and it sold remarkably well—breaking boldly out of its niche. This new book, with its ever-popular royal subject, might surpass even these previous successes.

Reviewed on: 05/14/2001
Release date: 07/01/2001
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