On April 1st of this year, the great French medievalist Jacques Le Goff died at the age of ninety (1924-2014). There were obituaries in the newspapers of Britain and Europe, but not much in the American press. This is unfortunate. More than a mere historian, Le Goff was a strongly pro-European public intellectual whose historiography helped support the formation of the European Union.
Le Goff sought to help Europeans recognize themselves as still connected by the cultural fabric of a common medieval civilization. Along with his fellow members of the Annales school, he also strengthened the case for the long Middle Ages, extending them all the way to the mid-nineteenth century. Le Goff’s body of work, then, stands as a challenge to historians who argue for the Italian Renaissance and Reformation as a break that unleashed a series of forces, intended or not, ultimately leading to the current social imaginary.
Le Goff argued for a history of the imagination that stressed how the human person is embedded within a cultural framework. This history of mentalities (histoire des mentalités) was not a history of individuals or ideas, but of a shared mental outlook as revealed in the rites and images that shape a society. Le Goff sought to unearth a cultural history that revealed the outlook of common people as well as the upper orders of medieval society.
Because of this emphasis on mentalités, Le Goff preferred to speak of birth and genesis rather than origins, decline, or decadence. Hence he wrote The Birth of Purgatory (1981) and The Birth of Europe (2003) (the French title posed a question: L’Europe est-elle née au Moyen-Age?) to communicate the gradual emergence of mental structures within societies in terms of continuity rather than discontinuity. His preference was for “a history of the evolution of deep structures, both material and psychological” over against what he considerd a cursory examination of rapid-moving events. This did not mean that there could be no intellectual revolutions, but such transformations must be viewed as organic extensions within rather than volcanic upheavals of society.
This is why the Middle Ages for Le Goff began at the end of antiquity in the third century and extended to the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth. To cite one of his claims, he suggested that the notion of a retrieval of antiquity in a renaissance is present at least from the Carolingian renaissance and continues through the Enlightenment. Retrieval and re-appropriation of the past was a structural impulse within medieval civilization and a sign of its creativity. For Le Goff one could only speak of a united Europe in terms of this long Middle Age. As he reminded his European readers, the construction of modern Europe depends upon the recognition of its medieval birth, infancy, and youth. In all of this, Christianity was and is central as Le Goff acknowledged, even pointing out that it was Pope Pius II in the fifteenth century who first possessed a clear idea of Europe as a single entity.
Behind his work, one sees the republican values of Le Goff’s father and the robust Catholicism of his mother. Le Goff’s championing of urbanism and the medieval city was a manifestation of the republican values he inherited while his singling out Christianity as the single most important source of medieval society evinced a deep Catholic impulse. Ultimately, he thought of history as an art form capable of mediating between diverse parts of society, all of which participate in a form of collective memory. This is one reason why he viewed amateur and professional historians as standing alongside one another in the task of supplying “the needs of man’s memory,” a task that requires just as much “taste, style, and passion as it does rigor and method.”
One regrets Le Goff’s absence from the pages of books like Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation or Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Both attempt to make massive structural arguments to convey the emergence of the current social imaginary, a task to which Le Goff has much to contribute and correct. For example, whereas Gregory suggests that medieval Christians fled towns for the forests because of the moral effects of money, Le Goff’s work shows how the forests occupied the medieval imagination as a place of adventure and trial.
The title of a 1998 Festschrift sums it up best: Le Goff was an “ogre historien.” The phrase comes from Marc Bloch, who, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of French historians to which Le Goff belonged. According to Bloch, “the good historian resembles the ogre of legend. Wherever he senses human flesh, he knows that there lies his prey.” Le Goff, who also never shied away from a good meal, was a voracious consumer of the past. Historians will continue to disagree with his conclusions, but no historian, regardless of his or her period of expertise, can ignore them.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University School of Divinity.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?