Claude Jacques

Aedeen Cremin

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Illustration: Elsie Herberstein

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Jacques is the old French nickname for a peasant, and a jacquerie is a peasant revolt. The late Claude Jacques, urbane and erudite, hardly fit the profile, but he was a radical in his own way. This is most clearly expressed in his large-format book The Khmer Empire (2007), with magnificent photographs by co-author Philippe Lafond. It works brilliantly as a guidebook but is in fact Jacques’ clearest statement on Khmer history, shorn of the periphrases and allusions of his more scholarly articles. He knew well that no statement on Khmer — or any — history can be definitive, and positively delighted in new discoveries, even when they contradicted his views. That flexibility is probably his greatest contribution to scholarship.

Jacques was one of the foremost epigraphers of his time and therefore a historian, since Angkor’s history is entirely constructed from temple inscriptions. The ambiguity of Sanskrit and the idiosyncracies of Old Khmer make for considerable uncertainty, enjoyably endless debate and vertiginously circular argument. It amused Jacques to point out that a reference to “King Jayavarman whose first queen was the younger sister of King Yashovarman” could equally well be translated as “King Jayavarman whose younger sister was Yashovarman’s first queen”.

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