Medieval Civilization: 400-1500
The Medieval Imagination
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Jacques Le Goff is one of the most distinguished of the French medieval historians of his generation, a generation in which the French have consistently set the pace for medieval studies. Through his writings, through his long tenure as president of the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes and as a co-director of the journal Annales, which has given its name to an entire school of historical study, he has exercised immense influence. It is ironic, therefore, that the book that securely established his reputation as one of the new masters of the historian’s craft, La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval, first published in 1964, should only now appear in English translation, while so many of his subsequent writings (including the two works also reviewed here), have already been translated.
But it is a very good thing that its turn at last has come, not only because the book contains the germ of so many ideas that Le Goff later developed fruitfully, but also because, more than any of his other works, it illuminates his dedication to the quest of the Annales school for a total approach to history, one that will integrate historical study into the broad, interdisciplinary “science of man.”
Le Goff’s Medieval Civilization is divided into two parts, the first offering a chronological account of the period formally covered (roughly AD 400–1500), the second discussing central themes such as the medieval conceptions of time and space. Part I is in no sense a narrative history in the traditional manner, however. The Annales school has always found the narrative approach, with its almost unavoidable emphasis on political and institutional history, narrow and cramping, and Le Goff, true to its principles, has traced the history according to broad developments rather than discrete events. Thus when he is dealing with the Germanic invasions of the late Roman world it is not so much the specific battles and the detailed movements of tribes that catch his eye, as rather the decisive turn they gave to the decline of antique civilization in the West, a decline marked by the shift of emphasis from the towns to the countryside, the ruin of the classical system of roads, the slackening of trade, and the increasing scarcity of people with advanced skills, especially administrative skills. From there on, his history of civilization is the story of the slow climb out of this pit of regression, which had “barbarized” not only the material conditions of life but culture and Christianity too.
The first great effort to reverse the decline was made during the eighth century in the Carolingian age with its revival of an empire, but one that was Frankish not Roman. After the wave of renewed barbarian invasions of the ninth century there was steadier progress, built on more solid foundations. The expansion of the amount of land under cultivation, the beginnings of a revival of long distance trade and of urban life, and the growing significance of territorial monarchies were all central factors …
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