Medievalist who focused on texture of everyday life

Jacques Le Goff: January 1st, 1924 – April 1st, 2014

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 00:43

Jacques Le Goff, who has died aged 90, was the leading French medievalist of his generation and one of the major European historians of the 20th century. “The last of the greats”, according to his friend and colleague Pierre Nora, Le Goff was a leading exponent of the method of the Annales school (Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie were other luminaries), which focused less on centres of power or on military or political events than on the texture of everyday life, slow change over long periods ( la longue durée ) and the evolution of popular perceptions and beliefs about the world, or indeed the otherworld (what the French call mentalité s ).

Le Goff’s work, which ranged from scholarly monographs to lively syntheses for a more popular readership, contributed significantly to the “rehabilitation” of the Middle Ages in French historical culture. He favoured the concept of a “long middle ages” – ranging from the establishment of Christianity in the fifth century right up to the onset of the industrial and political revolutions of the 18th.

He also saw the period as one in which both modernity and the existence of Europe as a distinct cultural sphere were incubated, through the growth of towns, the first stirrings of bourgeois culture and the establishment of universities.

Mixed inheritance
Jacques Le Goff was born in Toulon, the son of a firmly anti-clerical schoolteacher father and a strongly religious, though left-wing, mother. This mixed inheritance perhaps provided him with a useful combination of interest in, and sceptical distance from, the teachings of the church and popular religious beliefs.

He was to write a major study of the French saint-king Louis IX and a groundbreaking exploration of the evolution of beliefs in the afterlife, The Birth of Purgatory . Belief in a third location, an alternative to heaven and hell, was a late development in Catholic thought, Le Goff demonstrated; on it was to be built a whole spiritual economy of prayer, penance, charitable giving, indulgences and fruitful and emotionally satisfying transactions between the living and the dead.

As a younger man, Le Goff spent periods studying and teaching in Rome, Prague, Oxford and Warsaw, in the last of which he met his future wife, Anna (Hanka), a child psychiatrist. In his later career he became part of the team that produced the journal Annales and helped establish as an independent institution the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was a regular broadcaster on historical matters on radio and television and expert adviser to the producers of the film The Name of the Rose .

Throughout his life Le Goff remained a committed man of the left. He was also a convinced European and participated in many international historical publishing projects. Sociable and epicurean, he was above all a great connoisseur of the human dimension in history and liked to quote his mentor Marc Bloch: “The good historian is like the ogres of legend: wherever he sniffs out human flesh, there he knows he has found his prey.”