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Jacques Le Goff 1924-2014

Jacques Le Goff, who died aged ninety on Tuesday at the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, was the leading French medievalist of his generation, and perhaps the country’s most respected historian. “The last of the greats has left us,” said his friend and colleague Pierre Nora. Le Goff was a leading exponent of the historical method of the Annales school (Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Georges Duby, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Philippe Ariès and others), which distanced itself from the analysis of power and military or political change and emphasised instead slow change over long periods (la longue durée) and the evolution of popular perceptions of the world, or indeed the otherworld (mentalités).

After Le Goff, writes Nicolas Truong in Le Monde, the Middle Ages were never the same, never quite the same “dark age”, even if Le Goff did not hide the darkness, from the isolation of lepers to the persecution of heretics. Rather after his many books, both scholarly and addressed to a more popular audience, including one for children, the Middle Ages appeared the matrix of our modernity, from the growth of towns to the creation of the university. Le Goff saw a “long Middle Ages”, which extended from the establishment of Christianity in Europe in the fifth century right up to the eighteenth century and the industrial revolution.

Le Goff was both historian and historical anthropologist. Certainly he was inclined to put man at the centre, following the maxim of the great scholar of whom he said he was the posthumous disciple, Marc Bloch (murdered by the Gestapo in 1944): “The good historian is like the ogres of legend: wherever he sniffs out human flesh, there he knows he has found his prey.”

An extract from his 2010 work L’Europe est-elle née au Moyen Âge (Was Europe Born in the Middle Ages?) gives some indication of the comprehensiveness of his thought (the rough translation is mine):

But in general [in spite of differences between Catholicism and Protestantism/s] one can say that Europe, largely speaking, followed the same course, whose roots go back to the Middle Ages. A more or less clean separation between Church and State, the Christian rendering unto Caesar that which is his; the rejection, in contradistinction to Islam or Byzantine Christianity, of theocracy; the advance of women, of children, of lay people, an equilibrium between faith and reason. But these characteristics are somewhat hidden until the French Revolution by the power and influence of the Roman church. And in a general way this goes for reformed religion as much as for Catholicism. In this, one sees that there is no huge cut-off at the time of the Renaissance ...
What we have seen up to this point [in the book] is the construction and the flowering of a European Middle Ages. It is legitimate to stop here at the end of the fifteenth century and take stock and see if one can answer the question which is the title of this book.
It seems to me that in the relations between History and Europe there are two fundamental points to be made. The first is that of territory. History is always made in a particular space and civilisation is developed, and diffused, within a certain territory. The fifteenth century essentially sees the completion of the medieval creation of a European space which began with the “great invasions” of the early Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century there are no more pagans, and there would have been no more Muslims had not the Ottoman conquest begun. That conquest had a double and contradictory effect. On the one hand, it represents a menace threatening Europe; on the other hand, even if European resistance is not as fierce as someone like Pius II would have wished, with a collective identity being formed as much on oppositions to the other as on internal convergence, the Turkish menace will become one of the cements of Europe. The universities are now teaching the same curriculums from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. Humanism, even when it has abandoned Latin for the vernacular languages, penetrates European culture from Sweden to Sicily. Antwerp is the centre of a world economy, which, as Fernand Braudel has shown, remained for a long time European before it took the world into its net.

Le Goff’s friend Xavier Kawa-Topor spoke of visiting him in later years and being received in his office, where he would smoke his pipe and talk with enthusiasm of a book recently received “but already lost in some tower of Pisa”. He had hoped to write another book himself, this time on the subject of laughter in the Middle Ages, but found that such a task was now beyond his physical powers. Kawa-Torpor remembers a late conference he had given at the abbey of Fontevraud in 2007, with Umberto Eco, and his words then: “The space and time with which history is concerned come from nowhere but thought and the heart.”