Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014)
The world-famous medievalist, Jacques Le Goff, died on April 1, at the age of 90. That day, around noon, e-mails ran around the world, announcing the sad news to friends, colleagues, students and those who revered him - I have received quite a few. I had the great luck to belong to all four of these categories, the loss is all the more greater.
For several decades, since 1969 he has been a central member of the editorial board of the Annales E. S. C., the review of French "New History". Since 1960 he taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he became President in 1972, as the successor of Fernand Braudel. In 1975 he transformed this school into an autonomous institution of graduate higher education and research, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, a model for the interdisciplinary alliance of history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.
Together with his friend and colleague (an in a certain sense rival) Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff counts as the world-wide best known representative of 20th century medieval studies. One could say that in the past decades he had a major part in transforming the research of medieval history from being a source of national pride and romantic nostalgia into the principal starting point and operating engine of new methodologies transforming historiography in general.
He started his career with two pioneering books on The Intellectuals in the Middle Ages (1957) and on Merchants and Bankers (1957), expressing his interest inviewing the problems of the history of ideas and of economics as filtered by the way of life of social class. His broad synthesis on Medieval Civilization (1964) became the model of a new historical approach, an inspiring combined treatment of the history of man and natural environment, material culture, social history, history of mentalities, artistic creation and intellectual achievements. In 1974 he became the editor (with Pierre Nora) of a three volume methodological manifesto of the Annales group, entitled Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology (Faire de l'histoire); and another one co-edited with Jacques Revel, named La nouvelle histoire (1978). He also provided a model for such new approaches in two influential collections of his studies: Time, Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages (1975) and The Medieval Imagination (1985). His monograph on The Birth of Purgatory (1981) is providing an overarching synthesis from late antique mythologies of the underworld to the Divina Commedia of Dante. His principal work, the thousand pages long biography of Saint Louis (IX), King of France (1995), despite its volume and its heavy scholarly apparatus made the best-seller stands in France. And one could continue this enumeration up to the very present with further dozens of books.
Writing about him in Budapest, I cannot miss remembering that Le Goff had a special attraction towards Central Europe. This had both political and biographic reasons. In the time of World War II, as a young man, he was on the side of the Popular Front, he participated in the southern French resistance, he fought in the maquis against the Vichy government. His left wing sympathies and his interest in Marxism was cooled down by the sobering experience that was present in 1948, as a student with a scholarship, in Prague, and became an eye-witness of the Communist takeover. In the subsequent decades he had an attentive eye on the recurrent reform-attempts of the internal oppositional movements within the Socialist countries. In 1960, in the company of Fernand Braudel, he travaled several times to Poland for offering French cooperation for these West-oriented intellectuals. It was during such a trip that he got acquainted with his wife, Hanka Dunin-Wasowicz, whom he married in 1962. It was also during this time that his friendship developed with the medievalist and reform-politician Bronislaw Geremek, who became the principal advisor of Lech Walesa in the 1980s, and later, in the late 1990s the Foreign Minister of Poland, who managed the entry of Poland into the EU. Le Goff organized an international protest when Geremek (and other Polish medievalists like Karol Modzelewski) had been imprisoned. And his friendship and support was not only extended to other excellent Polish medievalists (Witold Kula, Tadeusz Manteuffel, Aleksander Gieysztor, Jerzy Kloczowski, Henryk Samsonowicz, Hanna Zaremska), making them in a way "external members" of the Annales circle, inviting them, and publishing their books in French translation. He also turned to other East-Central European colleagues with a similar care: the Czech Frantisek Graus and Frantisek Smahel, the Russian Aron Gurevich and Juri Bessmertni or the Hungarian Erik Fügedi, Éva H. Balázs, Béla Köpeczi, Domokos Kosáry.
I hope it would not seem too pretentious if I told some personal memories of him at this point. I chose the topic of my MA and Ph.D. Theses - medieval heresies - under the influence of the inspiration I got from his books and studies. Still as a student, in 1973 I translated to Hungarian his book on the medieval intellectuals. I got into personal contact with him in relation with this translation, when I had the chance to spend four months in Paris with a scholarship in 1976. I frequented his seminars on the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. I was amazed by the freshness of new approaches, how historians, anthropologists, theologians, art historians, archaeologists debated in these seminars, how to analyze medieval rites, exempla, gestures, the history of the body, dreams and visions. And I was even more impressed by the kind, immediate, friendly tone how he communicated with every student, the sincere curiosity with which he questioned them, encouraged them to find how they could go beyond the established interpretations. He always found time for these discussions, even though he was President of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. After the seminars, if he had the possibility, he did not miss coming with us for a drink or an abundant feast, to continue the debates around the table.
From this time on I remained in a close contact with him, I always went to see him if I managed to travel to Paris, and he was also a frequent guest in Hungary, on the French-Hungarian bilateral workshops, of which, on the French side, he was one of the chief organizers, he was co-presiding the French Hungarian Mixed Comission of Historians (together with Prof. Éva H. Balázs). In 1979 he was the first person to popularize the new method of historical anthropology at a French-Hungarian conference in Tihany; in 1986, when he was inaugurated as doctor honoris causa at the Eötvös Loránd University, he presented his - then - most recent book on the medieval imagination.
When in 1992, after the collapse of Communism, Central European University was founded, and within it the Department of Medieval Studies, Le Goff came again to Budapest, to help this new initiative as the chairman of our Academic Advisory Board. A few years later, in another newly founded international academic institution, the Collegium Budapest - Institute for Advanced Study he presented his new initiative, entitled Making Europe (Faire l'Europe), a book series on European history, written by the best historians from different European countries, and published simultaneously in half a dozen European languages. It was with his support that the group of "great" European publishers (Seuil, Blackwell, Beck, Laterza, Critica) admitted also a Hungarian publisher, Atlantisz from the very beginning. Le Goff's Budapest visit in 1995 gave an opportunity for arranging with him a discussion of great public visibility: Collegium Budapest and the City Council of Budapest arranged publicly a series entitled City Hall Conversations, where he spoke about medieval European regions, centers and peripheries - it was a great honor that I could be his interlocutor in this conversation.
Fifteen years ago, when the headlines of French papers were filled with titles including "Jacques Le Goff - 75", a journalist of a Hungarian weekly misread the information and published the news that the great French historian had passed away. I phoned immediately to Paris, shattered, to know, what happened, and I was very glad to learn that this was a false news. I informed the weekly, which published duly an rectification and an apology. I also wrote to Le Goff, who was laughing at it and reminded those whose death is falsely announced will have a true longevity.
He did indeed have fifteen more years, which allowed him to realize many important scholarly plans. But this period was no more easy for him. He was a great traveler, and when at home he was at the center of the rush of Paris life. But in 2000 his feet betrayed him: an incurable disease of his knees prevented him to move around and condemned him to live secluded in his own apartment. This was followed in 2004 by an even more terrible blow, the sudden loss of his wife, Hanka. While he could cope with his physical impairment jokingly or with serenity, this tragedy made him collapse. Le Goff, who had been celebrated a few years before by his colleagues as a "man-eating giant" (Jacques Revel - Jean-Claude Schmitt, L'Ogre historien. Autour de Jacques Le Goff, 1998), hinting to his endless vitality, energy and dynamism, lost nearly all his will of life. It took him several years until he could somehow recover, by writing a moving biography of his wife, which developed into an intellectual auto-biography about how she opened for him the whole world of East-Central Europe (Avec Hanka - 2008). But having don this, he set to work again. He published at least a book every year. The radio France Culture has a special program on historiography (Les lundis de l'histoire), of which every month an emission was recorded at his flat, where he had fascinating and amusing conversations with the authors of the best novelties in medieval studies. The editorial board of the Annales also regularly attended his flat for having his input. And he had a busy schedule, historians from around the world, when going to Paris, frequently made this pilgrimage to his flat in the outskirts of Paris. This was my routine too, the last time this February.
In 1996 a book of conversations with Le Goff was published with the title: Une vie pour l'histoire. How could that be translated? A life for the historiography? Or for the history? To live, shape and understand history at the same time? In any case, Jacques Le Goff did not only inscribe his name in the history of historiography but also to the hearts of those who knew him. He was an extraordinary personality, may he be remembered a long time.
written by Gabor Klaniczay