In Praise of Laziness

An investigation into 14th-century heresy explains why the French refuse to get off their derrières.


All history is contemporary history — even for histories the future still holds in store for us. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the publication in France of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. The book’s subject — everyday life in an isolated village in 14th-century France — as well as its narrative (there isn’t one) should have led to instant and enduring obscurity.

Instead, the book became a surprise bestseller and remains popular enough to have justified an anniversary edition of the English translation a few years ago. The reasons for this historical investigation’s unlikely success in the France of the 1970s have endured through today; understanding them will help us fathom the massive strikes that are currently paralyzing the country and threatening to eviscerate the economic and social reforms proposed by the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Montaillou quietly placed itself in the French literary tradition that treats laziness with the gravity and intelligence it deserves. An earlier representative of this tradition is Paul Lafargue’s call to arms, The Right to Be Lazy, while a more recent addition to this genre is Corinne Maier’s Bonjour Laziness. While Lafargue’s pamphlet was published in the late 19th century and Maier’s small book appeared in the early 21st century, they address the same phenomenon: the soul-numbing nature of modern work. Whether it takes place at the factory or office, work has become mechanical and meaningless. Rather than a trend, it is a perennial subject in France.

It is not accidental that the syndicats, or unions, behind the recent strikes in Paris represent France’s great mass of fonctionnaires, or white-collar workers whose job it is, well, to make the state institutions function. This is the sort of job, according to Maier, where "qualifications are irrelevant — the only requirement is that you leave your intellect, personality, and imagination at the door." Lafargue would not have disagreed: The modern workplace, he declared, condemns man "to play the part of a machine turning out work."

But as Ladurie makes clear in his remarkable book, the jig was already up more than half a millennium ago.

At the turn of the 14th century, the small town of Montaillou attracted the attention of the Inquisition, whose efforts to extinguish the flames of heresy in southern France had nevertheless left burning embers in the most isolated parts of the realm. Few villages were more isolated than Montaillou — it was and remains buried in the Pyrenees — or more prone to the heresy du jour, Catharism. The world, in Cathar eyes, was a battleground between equally powerful forces of light and darkness, as well as a vast waiting room for souls that traveled from body to body until they were fully purified. The Cathars considered themselves true Christians and dismissed the Catholic Church as a pack of hypocrites and crooks.

This did not go down well with the papal authorities in Avignon, who dispatched an inquisitor to stamp out the sect. The Cathars’ great misfortune was Ladurie’s — and his readers’ — great luck: The papacy’s man in Montaillou was Jacques Fournier, an inquisitor of boundless energy and relentless curiosity. He grilled the villagers of Montaillou for days and weeks on end, leaving behind him not just dozens of terrified and shattered lives, but also a trove of transcripts based on his interrogations. Were it not for Fournier’s frightening meticulousness, the existence of this society would have been forever hidden from us. (This meticulousness applies equally to the Vatican Archives, where Fournier brought and stored his register upon being named Pope Benedict XII, and which many historians, including Ladurie, consulted for their work).

Ladurie plumbs these transcripts and discovers an old world stubbornly at odds with the new world slowly being born. As the centralizing and homogenizing pressures of national and transnational institutions like the French monarchy, Catholic Church, and Inquisition converged on this corner of France, the rural and archaic world of Montaillou resisted. There was nothing grand or operatic about this resistance; rather, it was the reflex of a society that did not think it was in need of repair. It was a world where social and class distinctions were largely irrelevant, where neither great wealth nor great poverty was tolerated, where a moral economy grounded in material life and common traditions had little in common with the new world’s emphasis on abstract laws and transcendental values. Six-hundred years before Samuel Huntington coined the term, civilizations had already clashed — with the difference that both belonged to the Western tradition.

Fournier’s inquisition uncovered a village guilty of heresy, but little else. Crimes against property were rare, as were violent crimes, largely because it was difficult to act in secret in a village so small and tightly meshed. But what must have surprised and disturbed the industrious and energetic Fournier, even more than the absence of crime, was the absence of ambition and hard work. The good folk of Montaillou might not be killing one another, but they were killing time — or they would have been, had time had the same importance then as it does now.

Ladurie notes that for the village’s shepherds, in particular, wealth was not measured in terms of money, property, or possessions. Instead, a rich life was one filled with travel and daydreaming, conversations and meals with friends. The shepherd, exempt entirely from feudal and religious oppression, was the freest of men in Montaillou. Sheep equaled freedom: A shepherd, Ladurie writes, would never "trade that liberty for the plate of gritty lentils often held out to him by friends and employers [in order to] settle down."

But even those serving up the lentils — the local farmers and artisans of Montaillou — appreciated those same liberties. They willingly worked to live, but most unwillingly lived to work. Rather than devoting themselves to hammering out a better plow or plowing a better field, the peasants of Montaillou did what was necessary to keep food on their table, but nothing more. Instead, they were suckers for lounging on a bench with a friend on a sunny day or sitting in front of a fire with a lover or spouse at night, exchanging stories while picking out lice. This, it seems, was the extent of their multitasking. In a word, Ladurie concludes, "Hard work did not rate very high in their scale of values."

Medieval Montaillou is not postmodern France, of course: Much has changed in the more than half-millennium* that has passed since Fournier shut down this network of Cathar peasants. But did the Inquisition — and more importantly, the Protestant, French, and Industrial Revolutions that followed — put paid to the Cathar attitude toward the good life? And just how specific was the art de vivre practiced by the Cathars?

Ladurie suggests that Fournier had stumbled across a rural mentalité, or worldview, that extended far beyond southwestern France. In this archaic ethos, the notion that our personal identity or salvation was based on our jobs was as foreign as were the French coins only then beginning to trickle into the regional economy. The meaning of life was instead predicated on the sorts of things that, today, we lump into the rubric of "leisure activities": conviviality and conversation, singing and gossiping,
good food and good sex.

Ladurie wrote Montaillou in the wake of the student rebellion of 1968 — a seismic event sparked by the postwar generation’s dissatisfaction with their parents’ preoccupation with work and money, along with their severe attitude toward sex and alternate paths to self-realization. Although Ladurie, a historian at the Collège de France, does not make any explicit references to this social and political upheaval, he surely had his students in mind when he described the Cathars’ world as one not "yet afraid of either sex or idleness." The ethos of 14th-century Montaillou merged with that of 20th-century Paris in the famous slogan of the student protesters: "Sous les pavés, la plage" — beneath the pavement lies the beach.

Maybe it still lies there. A cartoon in the New Yorker, published the same year as Montaillou, shows a fortuneteller holding the hand of a client: "I can read your future or, as so many seem to prefer these days, I can reminisce nostalgically about your past." In a sense, Ladurie does both.

Consider events today in France, along with the world’s reaction. The strikes, whose goal is to prevent the government from pushing back the retirement age from 60 to 62, have spurred jokes, derision, even anger among commentators — particularly Americans. The general tone on this side of the Atlantic has veered between the smug and uncomprehending. In a way, our reaction — "How dare they?" — echoes the same impatience as that of the inquisitorial emissaries in Montaillou.

For a brief moment at Montaillou, the Inquisition peeled back an archaic world, less heretical than one teeming with underachievers and slackers. The global economy and transnational institutions like the European Union have now done the same in 21st-century France. Inevitably, and to our own great satisfaction, today’s French strikers, like the good citizens of Montaillou, will eventually bend to the political and economic forces of the age.

But will the embers of a different kind of heresy continue to burn? And, if they do, should it not be cause for celebration? Lafargue approvingly quotes the Enlightenment writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who declared: "Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy." In a similar fashion, Maier insists that the laziness she abhors is the intellectual and moral laziness encouraged by the corporate world. Instead, she values — as did the Cathars of Montaillou — a life fully lived.

Hello laziness? The French never said au revoir. It’s no surprise this is annoying to American sensibilities: If we were honest with ourselves, we never would have wanted to say goodbye, either.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.