Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jacques le Goff, RIP

According to The Guardian, historian Jacques le Goff has died:

The historian Jacques Le Goff died in Paris on Tuesday aged 90, his family told newspaper Le Monde.

Over a long and influential career in academia and public broadcasting, Le Goff transformed views of the middle ages from a dark and backward time to a period that laid the foundations for modern western civilisation.

He was a leading proponent of "new history" – the shift in historical research from emphasis on political figures and events to mentality and anthropology. . . .

His many books included works on middle age intellectuals, bankers and merchants, a biography of King Louis IX and a seminal work on the introduction of the concept of purgatory.

"By transforming our view of the middle ages, you have changed the way we deal with history," Le Goff was told when awarded the prestigious Dr AH Heineken prize for history in 2004, whose jury described him as "without doubt the most influential French historian alive today".

I think that Le Goff's views of the middle ages were certainly shared by and articulated very effectively by Christopher Dawson in England and the USA, through his research on the spiritual tradition (Christianity) that infused Western Civilization. And Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages! also helped strip away the darkness imposed on the Middle Ages by the Enlightenment. But in popular thought (if that's not a contradiction in terms) the Middle Ages is still the dark, benighted, superstitious (that is, Catholic) era between the brightness of Greece and Rome and the rebirth of that brightness in the Renaissance (witness the EU's proposed constitution, which skips the era entirely!). Perhaps the fact that Le Goff was an agnostic helped his argument for the Middle Ages prevail in academia! 

One of Le Goff's most influential books was The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer for The University of Chicago Press:

In The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff, the brilliant medievalist and renowned Annales historian, is concerned not with theological discussion but with the growth of an idea, with the relation between belief and society, with mental structures, and with the historical role of the imagination. Le Goff argues that the doctrine of Purgatory did not appear in the Latin theology of the West before the late twelfth century, that the word purgatorium did not exist until then. He shows that the growth of a belief in an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell was closely bound up with profound changes in the social and intellectual reality of the Middle Ages. Throughout, Le Goff makes use of a wealth of archival material, much of which he has translated for the first time, inviting readers to examine evidence from the writings of great, obscure, or anonymous theologians. 

His most recently published book is about The Golden Legend, published by Princeton University PressIn Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend:

It is impossible to understand the late Middle Ages without grasping the importance of The Golden Legend, the most popular medieval collection of saints' lives. Assembled for clerical use in the thirteenth century by Genoese archbishop Jacobus de Voragine, the book became the medieval equivalent of a best seller. By 1500, there were more copies of it in circulation than there were of the Bible itself. Priests drew on The Golden Legend for their sermons, the faithful used it for devotion and piety, and artists and writers mined it endlessly in their works. In Search of Sacred Time is the first comprehensive history and interpretation of this crucial book. Jacques Le Goff, one of the world's most renowned medievalists, provides a lucid, compelling, and unparalleled account of why and how The Golden Legend exerted such a profound influence on medieval life.

In Search of Sacred Time explains how The Golden Legend--an encyclopedic work that followed the course of the liturgical calendar and recounted the life of the saint for each feast day--worked its way into the fabric of medieval life. Le Goff describes how this ambitious book was carefully crafted to give sense and shape to the Christian year, underscoring its meaning and drama through the stories of saints, miracles, and martyrdoms. Ultimately, Le Goff argues, The Golden Legend influenced how medieval Christians perceived the passage of time, Christianizing time itself and reconciling human and divine temporality.

Authoritative, eloquent, and original, In Search of Sacred Time is a major reinterpretation of a book that is central to comprehending the medieval imagination.


  1. re: Prof. Goff and Purgatory: ...{he} is concerned not with theological discussion but with the growth of an idea.

    Ah, is that why historians claim that Purgatory was "invented" in the Middle Ages? That nuance between "growth of an idea" or "development" of something embryonic already there (aka Newman) and "Invented" must get missed by secular scholars (as in the Prof. on The Teaching Company's course on the Middle Ages I was listening to was unfortunatley infected by).

    Any Catholic source that DOES take a theological approach that would dovetail with Mr. Goff's work suggested?


    1. I don't really know of any; sorry. Perhaps a site like Catholics Answers ( has some suggestions.