Rethinking medieval history: Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014)

Phptp Jacques Le Goff - source: L'agenda du médiévisteWith the death of the French medievalist Jacques Le Goff on April 1, 2014 the academic world loses not only a prolific historian, but also one of its great inspiring teachers who devoted himself to renewing our insights into medieval people and the medieval world at large. At the heart of his work was the belief that for understanding medieval culture in all its aspects you need to gain insights of medieval minds. The histoire des mentalités was not his invention, but together with Georges Duby he succeeded in applying the ideas of the French Annales school of historiography to medieval history in far greater depth than its founders Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch could ever have hoped for. Johan Huizinga wrote somewhere: “We will need to have a history of the hat”, a history of all those countless elements of daily life which make up your surroundings, without realizing how particular they are. Le Goff choose not material objects as his theme, but he did delve into often neglected sources to find out the habits and workings of medieval minds.

Of his many books the brief study La bourse et la vie. Ëconomie et religion au Moyen Âge (Paris 1986) [Your money or your life. Economy and religion in the Middle Ages, Patricia Ranum (transl.) (New York, 1988)] can be singled out as perhaps entering the fields of legal history more than any other of his publications. On the surface this short book is a sequel to his major study La naissance du purgatoire [The birth of purgatory] (Paris 1981), the history of the slow surfacing of the purgatory, a new theological concept. His foray into economic history might look at first surprising, but it is not when you remember the subtitle of the Annales journal during the second half of the twentieth century, Économies – Sociétés – Civilisations. Among Le Goff’s early publications was a volume for the famous French series of short introductions Que sais-je? on medieval merchants and bankers [Marchands et banquiers du Moyen Âge (Paris 1955)].

It was typical of Le Goff to build his essay-like study about usury and usurers around sources which normally would only figure at the margin of a study touching on legal history. His choice to focus on a number of exempla, medieval short stories often used by preachers, and sermons containing an exemplum about an usurer, is richly rewarded. Le Goff succeeded in this study in offering also an introduction in a nutshell to medieval economic thought. He published this study before most of Odd Langholm’s fundamental studies about medieval economic thought appeared. However outdated Le Goff’s views on medieval economy might become, his lesson that medieval thought came very close to ordinary people remains fruitful and inspiring, not in the least because Le Goff was a great story-teller, too. As few historians before or after him he bridged supposed and real gaps between theories of medieval society and medieval thought at one end, and medieval life and behavior in its various dimensions at the other end. At the heart of Le Goff’s studies were medieval men and women. At the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) he fostered the field of historical anthropology. It is difficult to imagine much modern work on medieval history in France and elsewhere in Europe without the influence of his work and the studies by a number of his students who became themselves influential medievalists, in particular at the EHESS center’s Groupe d’anthropologie historique de l’occident médiéval (GAHOM). You will find here for example digitized literature with exempla and the Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi.

Le Goff lived long enough to see the great blossom of medieval studies since the last quarter of the last century. He had the greatness and humility to see the blind spots and omissions of his early work. In the 1984 edition of Les intellectuels au Moyen Âge, originally published in 1957, he readily admitted to have underestimated the close relations between intellectuals and urban life, between intellectual power and political power. He cited with approval Giovanni Santini’s Università e società nel XII secolo: Pillio da Medicina e lo Studio di Modena (Modena 1979) who stressed the importance of the common background for cathedral schools and the new medieval universities.

Many seemingly normal qualities and characteristics of current medieval studies, including the study of medieval legal history, such as its awareness of the social context, attention to the close relation of any subject to people and their lives, and the use of a wide variety of sources, are due to the example of Jacques Le Goff. In his late work he turned to major figures of medieval society such as Saint Louis (king Louis IX of France) and Francis of Assisi. He wrote their lives anew as no other before him. It is alway hazardous to predict which of his books will remain influential. I would vote for La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval (2nd edition, Paris 1984; many translations) but you will be excused most readily for taking from the shelves any of his other books and articles. In every single publication you will find yourself in the company of a great historian, a fresh thinker and a generous teacher who always opened windows which had been long closed. The title Pour un autre Moyen Âge (1977) puts it most simply, “for different Middle Ages”. Le Goff gave lectures in my country, too. In 2004 he received the coveted Heineken prize for history. It is strange he was never awarded the Erasmus Prize.

Let us remember Jacques Le Goff whenever we connect legal history to culture and history at large in daring and hopefully fruitful ways. Let’s not forget to keep telling stories making history and law alive for new generations.

The Belgian blog L’agenda du médiéviste alerts in its notice about Le Goff’s death to broadcasts on Le Goff by the French television network France Culture. On the website of the EHESS, too, you will find links to further hommages.

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