A Conspiratorial Theory of the Renaissance

Bridgeman Images
Benozzo Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem; detail of the fresco on the east wall of the chapel of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, circa 1460


Shortly before his death last year, the eminent French medievalist Jacques Le Goff published a small book that may be considered his scholarly testament and that has now been translated into English by Malcolm DeBevoise with the title Must We Divide History into Periods? The answer Le Goff ultimately gives to his question is yes, claiming that periodization makes “the study of history both feasible and rewarding”; but the main point of his argument is to redefine the commonly accepted historical period known as the Renaissance. His central thesis, which is a summary restatement of ideas he had expounded in earlier studies, is that the “Middle Ages,” frequently defined as the period from the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, in fact lasted until at least the middle of the eighteenth century.

Le Goff was a leading member of the influential Annales school of history, named after the scholarly journal founded by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in 1929, which emphasized social, economic, geographic, and long-term trends rather than political, military, or diplomatic history. Although he never knew him personally, Le Goff’s intellectual inspiration was Bloch, murdered by the Nazis in 1944 because of his part in the French resistance and famous for his innovative work on “magic-working kings” in France and on agrarian history in the eighteenth century.

The Annales school put great emphasis on what it called the longue durée, an extended period of time measured in geographical and socioeconomic terms. One of the school’s finest achievements is the monumental study by Fernand Braudel (who coined the phrase longue durée) of the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II of Spain, a panoramic view of life on the sea but also in the desert and mountains over two or three centuries, which emphasizes not specific events or people but vast social, economic, climatic, and geographical trends, and such timeless activities as transhumance, the movements of sheep from lowland to highland and back as the seasons change. It is one of the great works of twentieth-century historiography, conceived and outlined, amazingly, while Braudel was a prisoner of war in Lübeck, Germany; in the early 1940s.

In discussing different aspects of organizing—and understanding—historical time, Le Goff begins with a discussion of early attempts at periodization found in the Book of Daniel and the work of Saint Augustine. Both ways of looking at time, one based on the four seasons, the other on the six days of creation, pessimistically implied that the world was growing old, although Augustine held out the possibility of some sort of renewal based on “the prospect of redemption with regard to the past…

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