11 February, 2009
Jacques Le Goff
Jacques Le Goff is a prolific French historian specializing in the Middle Ages, particularly the 12th and 13th centuries.
Le Goff champions the Annales School movement, which emphasizes long-term trends over politics, diplomacy, and war, which characterized 19th century historical research. From 1972 to 1977, he was the head of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). He was a leading figure of New History, related to cultural history. Le Goff argues that the Middle Ages formed a civilization of its own, distinct from both the Greco-Roman antiquity and the modern world.
A prolific medievalist of international renown, Le Goff is the principal heir and continuator of the movement known as Annales School (Ecole des Annales), founded by his master Marc Bloch. He succeeded Fernand Braudel in 1972 at the head of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and was succeeded by François Furet in 1977. Along with Pierre Nora, he was one of the leading figure of New History (Nouvelle histoire) in the 1970s.
Since then he has dedicated himself to studies on the historical anthropology of Western Europe during medieval times. He is well known for contesting the very name of "Middle Ages" and its chronology, highlighting achievements of this period and variations inside it, in particular by attracting attention to the Renaissance of the 12th century.
In his 1984 book The Birth of Purgatory he argued that the conception of purgatory as a physical place, rather than merely as a state, dates to the 12th century, the heyday of medieval otherworld-journey narratives such as the Irish Visio Tnugdali, and of pilgrims' tales about St. Patrick's Purgatory, a cavelike entrance to purgatory on a remote island in Ireland.
An agnostic, Le Goff presents an equidistant position between the detractors and the apologists of the Middle Ages. His opinion is that the Middle Ages formed a civilization of its own, distinct of both the Greco-Roman antiquity and the modern world.
Among his recent works are two widely accepted biographies, a genre his school did not give much relevance to: the life of Louis IX, the only King of France to be canonized, and the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian mendicant friar.
In 2004 Le Goff received the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.