by Emily Ward
On 1 April 2014, the French historian Jacques Le Goff died aged ninety. His life spanned the majority of the twentieth century and his contribution to the field of medieval history can only be revered and respected. Le Goff was born in Toulon on 1 January 1924. During his life he experienced the Nazi occupation of France and witnessed the “coup de Prague” in person in 1947-8. Le Goff held early career positions in several universities, including Lincoln College, Oxford, where he gained a research studentship for the years 1951-2. His principle publications came during the 1970s and 1980s and it was at the start of this period, in 1972, that Le Goff was made head of l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) located in Paris.
Le Goff was heavily influenced by Marc Bloch, one of the founding members of the Annales School of history. The Annales School, in its simplest terms, was dedicated to studying the longue durée of history and took its name from a social and economic history journal co-founded by Bloch. The approach of the Annales School is one which promotes long-term historical structures over those focusing overwhelmingly on specific events, wars and politics.
For those studying medieval European history, particularly the 12th and 13th centuries, Le Goff’s is a name which frequently appears in footnotes and bibliographies. His biography of King Louis IX of France (1214-1270), Saint Louis, is still the seminal work on the life of the king who began his reign as a twelve-year-old boy but succeeded in becoming the only canonised monarch of France after his death. Among Le Goff’s other works are studies on La Naissance du Purgatoire (1981), Saint François d’Assise (1999) and an exploration of the iconography of the Middle Ages in Un Moyen Âge en Images (2000).
Le Goff’s multi-disciplinary approach, long before this was the ‘buzzword’ of every university, should not only be noted with admiration but should also be emulated. What Jacques Le Goff has primarily left as his legacy is his desire to see the Middle Ages as a period ripe for the exploration of social and cultural history. Hopefully this is something which will continue despite his death.
Select further reading:
- Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology, Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora (eds.) (Cambridge, 1985)
- Medieval Civilization, 400-1500, trans. Julia Barrow (Oxford, 1988)
- Saint Louis (Paris, 1996)
- The Birth of Europe, trans. Janet Lloyd (Oxford, 2005)
- The Work of Jacques Le Goff and the Challenges of Medieval History, Miri Rubin (ed.) (Cambridge, 1997)