Monday, 25 January 1999

Jacques le Goff: Medieval Civilisation (1972)

Translation: Julia Barrow, 1988
Edition: Blackwell, 1988
Review number: 194

Medieval Civilization is an examination of the Middle Ages as a culture, an attempt to get into the minds of men and women quite alien to modern thought patters yet from whom modern culture derives.

Available for many years in France before being translated into English (at which point some revision was made), le Goff's work fits very much into the style of French historical writing whose best known exponent was Fernand Braudel. The earlier period of le Goff's interest has a much narrower range of available material, though the nine hundred years he covers is more stable than the rapid changes of early modern Europe which interested Braudel.

I found le Goff easier to take in than Braudel, who has a rather more dense style (at least, this is the case for their English translations). The differences between their chosen fields may have something to do with it; Braudel is more easily able to carry out closely argued analysis (since he has something to analyse), while le Goff has to use a broader brush. It works well, both in the short summary of the political history of Europe from the decline of the Roman Empire to the fifteenth century, and in the longer discussion of the culture that follows.

It is a most interesting book on the medieval period, one which I found particularly valuable to read because of its concentration on France rather than England (as you so often get in histories of Europe written in English); France was, after all, in the centre of medieval culture while England was on the periphery.

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