Happy Endings

The Birth of Purgatory

by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 624 pp., $25.00

If the Annales School of French historical writing has become influential throughout the world, no small part of this is owing to the exuberant and erudite medievalist Jacques Le Goff. As a successor to the celebrated Fernand Braudel, he presided over the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales between 1972 and 1977, and he has long been a guiding spirit of the widely read Annales. At the same time, in an important series of essays and monographs, he has been showing how the study of mentalités—of cultural forms and categories in their social setting—can point medieval history in new directions.

He was attracted to the Middle Ages, he said in a recent collection of his essays, because it was a civilization that lasted a long time and yet was thick with change and the unexpected movement of ideas. He began with a social approach to the merchants and bankers of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, studying them as carriers of secular values, usurious disrupters of medieval notions of just work and reward, yet repentant at death before the fear of Hell. He went on to the university teachers of the thirteenth century, whom he provocatively called “Les Intellectuels” because their work set them apart from the sacred copying and reflection of the monasteries, and the payments they received undermined the old belief that “Knowledge is a gift of God, whence it can not be sold.”

From the study of work he moved to the history of conceptions of time, contrasting the cyclical round of the peasants’ seasons and the Church’s ceremonial calendar with the marked day of merchants’ contracts and artisanal production. Time, like any idea, was not a given, but existed in a precise social space. Medieval culture was not a seamless whole; one must look, he argued, for the differences and exchange between the culture populaire of the unlettered rural masses and the culture savante of the clerks. As Le Goff moved from a social to a more broadly anthropological view of things, he found unexpected new material: the stories or exempla in medieval sermons; the homage kiss, which for a moment made equals of lord and vassal; an old fairy tale in whose motifs the historian could detect reference to medieval population growth and expansion.

In his new book, The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff draws together several of these concerns—time, work, cultural levels and genres, sources of novelty—and illustrates how he thinks the history of mentalities can be reconstructed over many centuries. The book also bears on the voluminous historical studies (by the late Philippe Ariès among others) of a timeless human predicament: how did people prepare for death and how did they imagine what would come afterward? Not surprisingly, much of the history of Christian belief has had less to say about Purgatory than about Hell, whose torments appear on church portals as early as the twelfth century and whose demons cluster around the death-bed …

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