J. Rosenthal

title.none: Le Goff, My Quest (J. Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.032 07.10.32

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: J. Rosenthal, SUNY Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Le Goff, Jacques and Jean-Maurice de Montremy. My Quest for the Middle Ages. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 133. ISBN: $19.95 0-7486-2084-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.32

Le Goff, Jacques and Jean-Maurice de Montremy. My Quest for the Middle Ages. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 133. ISBN: $19.95 0-7486-2084-2.

Reviewed by:

J. Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook

Jacques Le Goff is one of the senior links in a chain of medievalists that stretches back to Marc Bloch; when Le Goff speaks it behooves us to listen. This short volume results from a series of conversations, or of questions posed by de Montremy and responded to by Le Goff at various times between February and July, 2002 (and then polished by Le Goff). The questions are hardly searching ones, intended rather to draw Le Goff out on a series of favorite topics, some personal, others relating to his work and his summary views of medieval civilization. This format of directed conversation has been used in recent years to give us valuable reflections while sparing our hero or heroine the labor of writing a full-fledged book on "my take on history," not to speak of the publisher's costs. Visions of History (1983) came out of interviews first published in Radical History Review, and the Institute of Historical Research of the University of London has also sponsored a series of tapes-and-talks with members of our craft whose reflections are worth preserving, as is the case here.

To follow the chapters and impose a bit of structure on a conversational format, we can think of Le Goff's comments and reflections as falling into four segments or categories. We begin with those in which he gives us the autobiographical background that explains his career choice and training. Then he moves to some generalization about the Middle Ages--the sort of comments about "when" and "why" that would be useful as introductory lectures for an undergraduate survey course. The last two topics are really his (hindsight) views of his own work and a retrospective look at some of the topics or issues on which he has left a deep imprint on our picture of medieval society. The first focuses on merchants and time and profit and purgatory; the other, as explicated in his books on St. Francis and Louis IX, illuminates what Le Goff refers to as "medieval humanism."

Everyone begins somewhere, for Le Goff it was early days in Toulon, son of a school teacher father (teaching English) and a devout mother. He was deeply taken by Scott's Ivanhoe and the romantic aspects of the Middle Ages, with fond memories of Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca of York in the 1952 film, though Victor Hugo was never as engaging as he was supposed to be. Born in 1924, Le Goff made the transition from school to university in the later days of Vichy, and that regime's official and quasi-fascistic definition of the state and of history made a strong (if wholly negative) impression on him. A career as a teacher was his first goal; academic ability, the opportunity to study abroad, and inspiring professors in various disciplines all contributed to open a career path that reached academic and university level, and distinction and acclaim, within a few years.

In "The Long Middle Ages" de Montremy offered Le Goff a series of questions designed to draw the master out on such familiar topics as the weakening of chronological boundaries at both ends of medieval civilization, of how and when the "middle" of Middle Ages came into use, and of how deeply the concept of "renaissance" runs through medieval society. The views expressed are of interest, given the speaker, but they do not say a great deal beyond what has now become a fairly standard canon regarding the porous boundaries that have replaced traditional periodization and stereotypical views about a static civilization. It might well be that the French academic world, or at least the lay public, still has a waning allegiance to such landmark dates as 476 or 1492, and therefore a reminder of their limited value as explanatory or conceptual markers is worth putting into print.

The richest chapter of the book, as I read it, is "Merchants, Bankers, and Intellectuals." This is the aspect of high medieval civilization where Le Goff has made the deepest and richest contributions to our interpretation of the urban growth, nascent or pre-capitalist economic exchange, and the concepts of time and work. One's job, whether that of a merchant carrying and trading goods or of a Benedictine doing the offices of the day, was the language in which earthly enterprises were expressed so as to proclaim man's need to order his days on earth and to devote himself (or herself) to work in return for being made in God's image. It is through Le Goff's ability to meld the social or sociological, the economic, the psychological, and the theological that he has given us, or helped us formulate, a vocabulary that encapsulates the complexities of urbanization, commercial development, and spiritual exploration.

The last sections of the book express Le Goff's views about the up- beat aspects of medieval society: the strength and persistence, if not quite the ubiquity, of what he refers to as "medieval humanism." His studies of recent years on St Francis and on Louis IX are offered as two case studies, two examples of this humanism. Both Francis and Louis worried about the relationship of this world and the next, and both did it with a sense of humor that seems to set them, and their world, apart from earlier Christian centuries. Le Goff's calls his studies of these men "anti-biographies," thereby emphasizing his selective use of the sources and a recognition of the limits of historical knowledge. Though he makes a compelling case for the role of the rational and the humanistic, there are times when I think he protests too much, when he focuses too narrowly or too exclusively on aspects of twelfth and thirteenth century civilization that lend themselves to this sanguine picture. A world of plague, war, persecution, inquisition, and a renewed interest in slavery might be presented as not being quite so close to humanism, and that violence and persecution seems to have been the price that had to be paid for spiritual and cultural unity might not have sold well in some quarters (or in some ghettos).

This short book of conversations, or responses to set questions, is hardly meant to offer a profound study. But Le Goff has given us a full shelf of major books, and of pregnant suggestions, and of pithy summations, and this volume of his table talk reaffirms some of his basic commitments to investigating the past. Here is one of the great medievalists of our time, a man who continues to worry aloud about the centrality of Europe and the future of its legacy. One gap that seems strange; a discussion of merchants in a volume with no index entry for or mention of Henry Pirenne makes one think of the passing of the years. Some of the questions posed to Le Goff might have been less user-friendly, pushing a bit for answers in response to a challenge, rather than to a compliment. But for a short book with a limited purpose and a rather constructed agenda, it is hard to complain that we do not get our money's worth. The concise insights still abound: "the calendar was already a form of catechism" (74) or the slighting of Islam and Asia is summed up as "an abusive extension of a Western perspective" (40). These lines provoke thought, invite quotation, and, we hope, are of use when we coax our students to delve into some of Jacques Le Goff's 22 "sole works" and his 10 additional co-authored and/or edited volumes as they are listed in a handy bibliography at the back (127-29).