A Master of the Middle Ages

Medieval Civilization: 400-1500

by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Julia Barrow
Basil Blackwell, 393 pp., $34.95

The Medieval Imagination

by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 293 pp., $27.50

Your Money or Your Life

by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Patricia Ranum
Zone Books, 116 pp., $18.95

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. With these developments the authority over social life and its norms that the Church had established in the days of Roman decline and of the conversion of the barbarians, and had consolidated in the Carolingian age, began to come under pressure from commercial and secular forces. By the time that crisis struck anew and in a different form in the early fourteenth century, with the halting of population growth and the downturn in the economy, the material expansion of medieval civilization had reached its limits, and so had the repressive cultural imperium of the Church over the mental world of Christendom.

Part I of Professor Le Goff’s book covers a long period, somewhat unevenly, it must be admitted. The “crisis” of the early fourteenth century and its fifteenth-century aftermath are dismissed in a mere five pages, and there is something of a concentration on the centuries that are chronologically in the middle. But the long reach back into the late Roman and barbarian worlds—brilliantly illuminated with quotations that bring to life the reactions to the dramatic changes of the time—is necessary to establish the nature of the foundations of the civilization, which Part II of the book proceeds to analyze. The relatively brief space Le Goff devotes to the last two “medieval” centuries is equally defensible. Just enough is said to indicate that another terminus was reached and that the scene was beginning to change. If Le Goff had attempted to say more here the clarity of his vision of a distinctively medieval civilization would be lost. Although the second part of the book has a decidedly narrower range than the first, concentrating principally on the period between 800 and 1300, there is in consequence no real imbalance with what has gone before.

The real meat of the book is in the second part. To those with a romantic attachment to the glories of the Christian Middle Ages, religious and secular, the taste will not be savory. The material severity of life, its subjection to the caprices of nature, to famines and epidemics and to diseases (mental as well as physical) consequent to malnutrition, is a recurrent theme. So is the repressive quality of the social order. Medieval Christianity is seen not as a liberating influence but rather as a restrictive one, holding minds in thrall to obsessive fears of demons and hellfire, and inhibiting progress through its excessive respect for ancient authority. The Church was intolerant of minorities, whether they were Jewish, heterodox, or leprous.

What is important about this part of the book, though, is not the gloom, deep as that sometimes is, but the originality of Le Goff’s presentation and of the questions that he is asking. His primary interest is not in the conditions themselves but in the “mentality” of those who lived amid them, and above all in the nonrational side of that mentality, its assumptions, instinctive responses, and obsessions. He wants to know about the sense of time of men who lived in an age without clocks, about the psychological reactions to the reintroduction of money into the life of a society whose economy had been substantially demonetized, about how the city was perceived by people whose mental traditions had been formed in the countryside. Most of all he wants to know about men’s perception of the relation between the supernatural and the natural. It is not articulated views that he wished to examine so much as what lies beneath them and informs them, what he has called “the entire mental experience” of a past culture.

The central ideas of the second part of Le Goff’s book are laid out in three chapters, “The Framework of Time and Space,” “Material Culture,” and “Christian Society.” Time includes the conception of God’s time and eternity as well as man’s; space includes God’s space, Heaven (and the devil’s in Hell, too) as well as mundane terrestrial Christendom with its frontiers and communications. There are some brilliant evocations here of the way in which the imagination of Christian Europe peopled its own forests, and the great expanses of land and sea outside and beyond it, with monsters and marvels; and of the clerical dominance over the regulation of time—daily by the chime of church bells, seasonally through the spacing of the great Christian feasts throughout the year. Perhaps still more vividly Le Goff evokes the way in which men of the Middle Ages who did not question the spatial continuity of earth to heaven felt themselves constantly exposed to what he calls a “double spy system,” watched at all points by angels and by demons bent on ensnaring the wayward. He clearly explains the patterns of hope and fear that this sense of constantly being under surveillance stamped on their mentality.

When Le Goff turns to material culture these hopes and fears remain very much in the picture. One reason for the slightness of technical progress in the Middle Ages was the absence of incentive—only a small elite was interested in luxury goods whose manufacture presented challenging problems. But technical progress was also inhibited by suspicion of any breach of time-hallowed ways, which might imply a sinful disregard for established wisdom. Similarly a hostility to the accumulation of wealth and to the extension of credit that might otherwise have financed production had its base in a religious attitude that saw the prime purpose of work as being the provision of the simple necessities of life—and the discouragement of idleness and concupiscence among the lower orders. Mental attitudes such as these restricted and obstructed economic development, and the main factors promoting economic growth were in consequence more extensive (rather than more intensive) exploitation of resources—for example by bringing more acres under the plow—and faster population growth.

There are moments when one wonders whether Le Goff’s chapter on “Christian Society” might not be better entitled “Unchristian Society.” Given his preference for probing the dogmatically authoritative, magical, and folkloric aspects of religious thought and practice over the discussion of articulate ethical teaching, it is perhaps not surprising that dark colors should predominate in his picture here. The conception of Christian society as composed of “orders” or “conditions” of man, each with its own God-given function was used to justify social repression. The idea of orders, and the related emphasis on group membership as the key factor in defining the rights and freedoms of the individual, promoted multiple struggles between different classes and groups. The loner, the stranger, and the heterodox were not just distrusted but persecuted. Women, who, because of Eve, were seen as responsible for the Fall, were for the most part restricted to an unenviable and underprivileged place; perhaps, Le Goff muses, that was why women were so prominent in heretical movements. In this society riven with tensions the efforts of the Church to uphold the unity of Christianity through forceful temporal and spiritual authority only succeeded in precipitating further quarrels, first between popes and emperors and then between popes and kings.

Shafts of light nevertheless penetrate this gloomy picture. Already in the twelfth century and more clearly in the thirteenth Le Goff sees signs of processes at work that would one day alter the mold of a civilization that had effectively reached its limits. Debate in the schools and universities began to “desacralize” the written word. Books that had been regarded as treasured repositories of authority started to be seen rather as quarries for arguments. Scholastic disputation, by habituating those involved to diversity of opinion, blunted the old hostility to new ideas and postulations. A new emphasis on contrition in penitential teaching fostered greater sensibility to inner feelings as opposed to outward expressions of repentance. The literary ideal of courtly love reflected a reaction against the traditional, repressive sexual morality. Whereas once only churches had been built of stone, burgesses and knights now made themselves houses of it and looked for a new measure of comfort and elegance in them; the body and the bodily obtained at last a long-denied right to a degree of respect. The Manichaean cloud that had overshadowed medieval civilization and its imagination, leaving humanity too little room for maneuver between an evil material world and a pure spiritual one, between God and the devil, had begun to lift a little.

The collection of Le Goff’s essays entitled The Medieval Imagination shows him pursuing further a number of original lines of inquiry suggested in his magisterial survey of 1964. Here we find him, for instance, exploring literary evocations of the city in order to illustrate the tensions between the bourgeois and the knightly ethos, and searching in the poetry of Chrétien de Troyes for “coded” statements about such status groups as burghers and knights in descriptions of their clothing and diet. Medieval ideas about the nature and significance of dreams, merely touched on in the earlier book, form the subject of a fascinating paper and offer an illuminating example of the mingling of Christian and pagan classical traditions in the medieval cultural heritage. Le Goff carefully examines medieval attitudes toward the forest, the northern analogue of the desert; and he presents a study of the conception of the “marvelous” (which he distinguishes neatly from the miraculous on the one hand and the magical on the other); he shows ideas shifting very much according to the chronological pattern suggested in Medieval Civilization.

One essay in this collection, “The Repudiation of Pleasure,” seems to me to deserve special note. Here Le Goff amplifies what he said in his earlier book about repressive sexual morality and in doing so gives a case study of the impact of Church authority on the social behavior of the Middle Ages. As his account shows, Christianity transformed what in late antiquity had been a minority puritan attitude toward sexuality into what became for the Middle Ages a dominant standard, one that exalted virginity and imposed ferocious disciplines even within marriage. Le Goff quotes a grueling series of penitential queries from the eleventh-century Decretum of Burchard of Worms to drive home this point. “Have you had intercourse with your wife during her period?…. Did you copulate with your wife after the child was moving in her womb?…. Did you sully yourself with your wife during Lent?” These sorts of inhibitions had real effects, on the growth of population, on relations between the sexes, and on attitudes toward, for instance, the distinction between the lay and the celibate clerical ways of life. As Le Goff makes clear, no medievalist can afford to gloss over the aspect of mentality that they reflect.

The third of Le Goff’s works under review, the short book on usury translated as Your Money or Your Life, develops strikingly some points originally raised in the chapter “The Framework of Time and Space” in Medieval Civilization. “Your life” here means your eternal life, and the aim of the book is to elucidate the process by which the usurer, whose charging of interest on his loans was long banned by the Church, ultimately found a way to “equivocate himself to Heaven” via Purgatory (conceived as a spatial zone occupied during a specific time sequence, an idea whose emergence in the late twelfth century Le Goff has traced in another book). Le Goff wants to connect the development of usury to the early history of capitalism. First he carefully analyzes the scriptural inhibitions on lending at interest and the comments on them of the Church fathers. His skill as a historian of mental perceptions is aptly demonstrated in his examination of the way in which ideas of reciprocal obligation and of the “just price,” and not economic considerations in the modern sense, long dominated thinking about the nature of exchange, and so about lending and borrowing. The intensity of the hostility to usury he attributes to the equation of the offense with theft. Why theft? Because the usurer sought to sell a property that was not his—time, which belongs to God—which intervened between the making of a loan and its repayment.

The vital shift in the attitude toward usury came, Le Goff thinks, during the thirteenth century, and concomitantly with the quickening commercial tempo of the time and the more rapid circulation of money. It was reflected in a greater indulgence toward charging moderate rates of interest and in the efforts of scholastic thinkers to justify charges to compensate for delay in the repayment of loans and for loss of profit on money that could have been invested more advantageously. Le Goff vividly illustrates the changing attitude through the evidence of exempla, the little stories drawn from common life that preachers of that time used to bring home the practical applications of their moral evangelism. Usually such tales presented the usurer as virtually incapable of repentance, of loosening his grip on his money bags even in articulo mortis; so he is carried off by demons. But in the early thirteenth century a new story appears, of the usurer whose wife, after his death, spent fourteen years in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting so as to ease his burden in Purgatory; at their end, he appeared to her in a vision, dressed in white, to tell her that “Thanks to God and thee, today I am delivered!” The birth of the idea of Purgatory, of an intermediate state between Heaven and Hell, which helped to lift that Manichaean cloud that had long overshadowed the medieval imagination, was thus also vital, Le Goff argues, to the developing tolerance toward lending money at interest, which in turn was vital in the early history of capitalism.

I must confess that I am not convinced that the argument about the significance of purgatorial doctrine in the early history of capitalism will bear quite the weight that is put on it here. No doubt the new doctrine of Purgatory (which was perhaps not quite as novel as Le Goff suggests, though certainly newly refined), together with new confessional and penetential practices of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, are all related in the history of a growing interest in, and sensibility to, the interior life among Christians. And no doubt that does have some relevance to the moderating of the Church’s relentless hostility toward those who lived by lending at interest. But that is not the same as saying, with Le Goff, that it was the change in perceptions, and in particular the new teaching about Purgatory, that broke the fetters holding back the development of a new economic system. I still find it easier to believe the reverse, that it was the faster tempo of economic life that forced a shift of attitude. In the excitement of the exploration of mentalities, it seems to me that we have traveled here a bridge too far beyond what my old Oxford tutor, Sir Richard Southern (surely a historian whom no one could charge with slavish discipleship to the great Karl), once described to me as “honest Marxist common sense.”

That however is and must remain just a personal view. The matters into which Le Goff leads the student of history are those on which there will always be room for debate and very seldom room for proof. He is not interested in problems whose solution can be pinpointed by critical accuracy in the sifting of the records. That, I think, is the reason why he can sometimes give the impression of being one who starts more hares than he can hunt to the finish. It is also, I suspect, part of the reason why his interests have tended to concentrate on what makes the past, and especially the mentality of the past, different and foreign from that of the present, rather than on similarities of outlook on and reaction to the perennial problems with which the human condition confronts men. He likes the seas that are hardest to chart, and that is why a historian trained in a more positivist school, like myself, will as a reader find himself hankering from time to time after the markers that narrative history, and the debates over it, used to put down in order to make the past more understandable. The reader will be amply compensated nonetheless by the excitement and mental stimulus of voyaging, with Le Goff as his pilot, into some of the stranger waters of time gone by.