15.02.10, Le Goff, In Search of Sacred Time

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M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

The Medieval Review 15.02.10

Le Goff, Jacques. trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. In Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. 214. ISBN: 9780691156453 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
M. Cecilia Gaposchkin
Dartmouth College

Jacques Le Goff, the great French medievalist of the Annales school, died on 1 April 2014, aged 90. In Search of Sacred Time was his last book, published with a nod to Proust as À la recherché du temps sacré by Perrin in 2011. Its subject was the work of another great historian, one from the thirteenth century, the Dominican Jacob of Voragine, the author of the famed and popular Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend). Le Goff argues that Jacob's accomplishment in the Legenda Aurea was nothing short of a construction and exploration of sacred time. In its eloquent discussion of the structure and content of the Legenda Aurea, Le Goff's last work presents a wonderful introduction to the saints as the later medieval world knew and loved them, to the larger patterns and devotions of the ecclesiastical year, to the tenor, beauty, touching emotion of late medieval devotion and devotional stories, and to the received knowledge of the sacred past. Le Goff's is a lovely appreciation of Jacob and his masterwork.

Jacob of Voragine (ca. 1228 or 1229-1298) was an Italian Dominican, who served in a series of administrative posts in the Order in northern Italy before being named bishop of his home town of Genoa in 1292, a post he held until his death in 1298. He was also a prolific historian and author, most notably of the Legenda Aurea, which was one of the most popular books of the later Middle Ages and is often called a "medieval best seller." He finished his first recension about 1260 but reworked it repeatedly until his death. The Golden Legend was a compilation of stories that followed the ecclesiastical year. The stories were mostly those of the lives of the saints, but also included episodes from the life of Christ and of the Virgin and also treatments of certain special days during the liturgical year such as the Rogation days, or the Invention of the Cross. Jacob, who drew on multiple sources, has often been described as merely a compiler, but Le Goff (following others) insists on Jacob's creativity, his authorial agency, and his comprehensive vision for the whole. The Legenda, because of its immediate and massive popularity, certainly deserves sustained study and appreciation. But Le Goff makes larger claims for it. He argues it is a true literary masterpiece, the product of "the author's profound thought and broad intent" (178).

Although the Golden Legend is structured according to the ecclesiastical year, Le Goff insists that it is not a legendary (the liturgical book including the readings on the saints that would be used during Matins) and could not have been used in the liturgy to fulfill that function. This is a critical point for Le Goff, as he does not want us to reduce Jacob's work to simply a successful iteration of a standard liturgical tool. Rather, it is a compilation of Christian history, made up by the stories of Christ and the saints, ordered according to the liturgical year, in order to bring into conversation (or consort) the linear story of history with the cyclic and commemorative nature of any individual liturgical year. It thus borrows from and is dependent upon the inherent sacrality of Christian history and of liturgical time. But its task, Le Goff insists repeatedly, is to sacralize time itself.

Le Goff's book runs as follows. In chapter 1 he lays out what we know of Jacob's life in Genoa and the larger social developments (cities, heresy) against which we must place his great work. In the second chapter, he discusses Jacob's most important sources, beginning with the Bible, and including the Apocryphal Bible, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Bernard. The third chapter treats the liturgical idea of the Temporale, that is, events and the commemorations--mostly of the life of Christ and Mary--that, dependent on the lunar calendar, are moveable. The fourth chapter, "The Sanctorale," treats the history of the saints. The next five chapters follow Jacob's own division of the liturgical year and are an extended reading of Jacob's book and the larger project of temporal sacralization to which Le Goff argues he was committed. In Jacob's own preface, he explains that "the whole life-span of this present life comprises four distinct periods": the time of deviation, of renovation, of reconciliation, and of pilgrimage; and Jacob maps these "times" onto five periods in the liturgical year: Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Septuagesima; Septuagesima to Easter; Easter to Pentecost; and Pentecost back to Advent. [1] These divisions structure the rest of Le Goff's discussion. His fifth chapter, "The Time of Renewal," treats Jacob's discussion of Advent and a series of saints that fall within the period. Chapter 6, "The Time of Reconciliation and Pilgrimage," discusses the saints whose commemorations fall within the period from Christmas to Septuagesima, and so forth. Chapter 7, "The Time of Deviation," includes discussions of Easter, of Purification, and of the Annunciation. Chapter 8, "The Time of Reconciliation," includes discussions of the Holy Cross, the Litanies, and Saints Ambrose, Mark, and Peter. Chapter 9, "The Time of Pilgrimage," is the longest chapter, including a discussion of "20 of the 98 saints Jacob writes about" (130) in the Dominican's fifth section. This chapter includes discussion on the curious chapter on Pelagius, which constitutes a cramped, short, universal history that has prompted commentary in the scholarship (170-176). A very short conclusion and an even shorter afterword follow.

Thus, as Le Goff explains unapologetically, although he has at times consulted secondary scholarship on the Golden Legend, mostly his book is a direct engagement with the text itself (183). It thus stands less as a piece of research and scholarship as it is a master's expert meditation on different ways of reading a single text. Le Goff's principal argument is that the Golden Legend is a "summa on time" (a phrase he uses at pp. 89, 92, 106, 112, 147, 171, 176). "The time in question in the Golden Legend, is indeed the time of humanity but, as the author specifies, it is not chronological time. It is the time of the relations of humanity with the supreme God: time is subjected to God, and not the reverse. Still, not only does Jacobus de Voragine not reject chronological time, but he often refers to it, and the relations between the divine time of humanity that is real time and chronological time provide one of the themes of the work and of the reflection in which he engages" (18). In addition to his constant concern with time, Le Goff makes several arguments that constitute other running themes. Jacob was not merely a compiler, but was constructing, using old sources, something definitive and new. He was a critical user of his sources, often drawing and comparing contradictory accounts, and, "ever skeptical about his sources" (137), was engaged in what nowadays we might call "source criticism" (e.g., 16, 133, 137). He worried about conflicting historical dates, often trying to resolve issues of chronology and dating (65, 68, 92, 109, 127,138, 160, 170). (Le Goff also chronicles how often Jacob gets dates wrong, though, defending his efforts on p. 117.) He was particularly interested in numbers, and the numbers often had symbolic meaning (18, 86). Thus, Le Goff explains, Jacob treats 153 saints, because of the parable of Christ as the fisher of men (cf: John 21:11: Simon Peter caught 153 fish; see p. 24). He was not, as some have argued, nostalgic for the early church, but readily embraced his modernity (144-145). And Jacob was, insists Le Goff, essentially an optimist, embracing the joyful, musical and celebratory, not worried, as were others of his age, with the Apocalypse and the signs of disorder and confusion that appeared to signal it (7-8, 34, 51).

Le Goff explanations are often illuminating, bringing to his reading of this one very important and influential text the wealth of knowledge built up over his erudite lifetime. And thus he elucidates themes and makes connections between Jacob's text and Jacob's wider world that are often delightful: an exemplar story of a child connected to a new discovery of childhood, and the "official cult" of the infant Jesus (114); the relationship between the port city of Genoa and the recurring theme of naval travel (and miracles) (37, 41); Jacob's rendering of the Annunciation connected to the "Dominican order's hostility in the thirteenth century towards the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary" (95, 128). In my view, this is where the value and insight from reading this book comes. Most of all, although I suspect Le Goff oversubscribes intentionality with regard to time to every level of Jacob's work, Le Goff is incredibly eloquent in exploring the different ways in which historical time (represented by the lives of the Saints), human time (represented by the life of Christ) and eschatological time are always intersecting. Whether this was Jacob's aim, or Jacob was, through his use of inherited stories, legends, and liturgical schemes, reflecting a broader ideological reality of the Middle Ages, one will not find a more articulate explanation of the various ways in which the various temporal registers of the experience of Christian salvation intersect than, for example, Le Goff's masterful explication de text of Jacob's account of the Ascension (103-106): "heaven, from which Christ came and to which he returns on Ascension Day, was accordingly connected with human time during the time of the [sic] Jesus's earthly incarnation, which is known to have lasted thirty-three years in human terms, from the nativity to the final resurrection, but which, in the scheme of divine time, was only a leap in time, just as the time of the ascension was but a leap in space" (106).

I will admit to moments of feeling as if Le Goff was pushing his thesis too strongly, of seeing ties to "time" that were tenuous, incidental, or that were simply demanded by the fact of narrative; moments of crediting Jacob of Voragine with a grand design of argumentative strategy that might be at times better understood as a result of the fact that Jacob's vision of saints, of the liturgical year, and of the memorialization of Christ's life had simply absorbed an understanding of the complex interrelationship between human time, liturgical time, and eschatological time that had been worked out over centuries and reified each year in ecclesiastical ritual, sermons, and teachings. For instance, in his discussion of Rogations (111-113), Le Goff argues that Jacob wanted to Christianized the past and banish any resonance of "pagan time." Indeed, the pre-Christian, Roman roots of the litanic processions of early spring is well known. [2] But the liturgists preceding Jacob--men like Amalar of Metz, and John Beleth, and Guillaume of Auxerre--had already done the job of presenting a Christian origin story for these rites. Or that some of his ruminations on "time" are so rhetorical as to be meaningless. What does he mean, really, when, in talking about the miracles of the (new) saint, Peter Martyr, he says "Time also renews the domain of the miraculous" (120)? Or when he says (as he does at several occasions) that Jacob "combined space and time" (e.g., 118, 177)? At some points, the narrative relationship to time seems a mere truism. For instance: "The chapter on Saint Francis is not without its reflections on time, however," writes Le Goff. "Saints are known by miracles, for it is miracles that distinguish their lives from the posthumous acts" (157).

A few errors have crept into the English edition. On page x Jacob dies in 1297; on page 3 he dies in 1298 (1298 is the correct date). The Passion is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not (e.g., 128). On p. 27 the great liturgist and Summa de officiis is called William of Auxerre. On the following page he remains Guillaume of Auxerre. He is listed as bishop of Paris, surely confusing him with either Guillaume d'Auvergne (d. 1249), who was bishop of Paris but not the author of the Summa de officiis, or with the bishop Guillaume d'Auxerre (or de Seigneley, d. 1223), who was both bishop of Auxerre and of Paris, but was not the same person as the liturgist who wrote the Summa. [3] In any event, William/Guillaume of Auxerre (d. 1231), the liturgist, was never bishop of Paris, although he was chancellor of the University. And there are what I would consider some overstatements. For example, the Roman liturgy had not, as I understand it, "completely effaced" the Gallican, Hispanic, and Celtic liturgies over the course of the eleventh century (15).

Despite these objections, this book repays reading. Even if I doubt Le Goff's claim that Jacob intended the Legenda Aurea as a summa on time, in its examination of the Legenda, In Search of Sacred Time is a moving meditation on time, the passage of human time, and its relationship to history and to eschatology. It is certainly presumptuous of me to wonder whether these were more the preoccupations of the modern historian than the explicit goal of the medieval one. But in a sense, this does not matter. One way or another, In Search of Sacred Time is above all an affecting introduction to the Legenda Aurea, its texts and its content, its delights, its "thrillers" (as Le Goff calls them, see pp. 80, 91, 110, 179), its narrative sophistication, and its use of received tradition. Its great value--and it has great value--is in my mind, not on its insistence of the "time" argument, but on its appreciation, discussion, historicization, and contextualization, of the different elements of the book itself.



1. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, 2 vols., trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton, Princeton University Press: 1993, reprint 2012): vol. 1, 3-4.

2. Gregory Nathan, "Rogation ceremonies in Late Antique Gaul," Classica et Medievalia 21 (1998): 276-303.

3. http://computerphilologie.tu-darmstadt.de/jg08/fischer.html

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Author Biography

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

Dartmouth College