Wonder, “Must We Divide History Into Periods” – by Jacques Le Goff
April 20, 2019
The topic of historical periodization is a popular one because it is easy to make arguments about with no requirement to commit fully to them. Consistent with the mood of academia across disciplines, the idea of a natural, universally applicable periodization scheme determined by some underlying form that shapes the trajectory of society, culture, economics, or what have you is distinctly unfashionable. Pedagogic schemes are in vogue in large part due to their recognized artificiality and contingency, tools employed in the service of study rather than objects of study itself. Given the conceit of such schemes is that they are relative and disposable, it may seem odd to write a book that purports to examine the necessity of employing them at all, but which in fact devotes the bulk of the text to arguing for a particular modification to a particular scheme which it takes for granted as the standard way for anyone to understand history. Nevertheless, here we are.
“Must We Divide History Into Periods?” by Jacques Le Goff makes a perfunctory attempt to answer the question of its title in the affirmative before wandering off in a decidedly less ambitious direction. Le Goff’s main purpose is to state a case for a “long Middle Ages,” arguing that the Renaissance, rather than separating two distinct periods of history, is instead the last in a series of medieval renaissances culminating in the beginning of the “modern” period in the mid-18th century. Such a position on its own may be fair enough to argue, if anodyne. But the way in which he makes it betrays a naive view of periodization in general and the perennially popular tripartite ancient-medieval-modern scheme in particular. Le Goff insists on the necessity of periodization solely on the basis of its utility, declaring that to not divide time into distinct periods would “deny the possibility of doing history.” Yet despite paying service to the idea that these schemes are constructed to provide legibility, he seems not to have internalized their arbitrariness. And thus he accepts the ancient-medieval-modern scheme without question as a fundamental fact of reality, treating his task as to refine it, to bring it closer to Truth.
An intellectual inheritor of Marc Bloch and follower of Fernand Braudel, Le Goff was one of the third generation of the French Annales school of history, the name taken from the journal associated with the movement, of which Le Goff served for a time as editor. Annales historians tended to eschew strict demarcation and sudden, revolutionary occurrences in favor of gradual change of varying but often glacial pace, an attitude summed up in a term coined by Braudel, the “longue durée.” The school deemphasized political and military events, with particular disinterest in the biography, instead constructing their histories in terms of socio-cultural change, technological spread rather than invention, and geography. Bloch’s “Les Rois Thaumaturges” serves as an archetype for the style, a study of the belief in and practice of royal touch as a cure for scrofula, spanning over a thousand years and preoccupied with how the myth shaped and was shaped by the attitudes of commoners and their interaction with their kings. But the style championed by Annales historians became increasingly untenable as postmodern sensibilities eroded the shared basis of thought required to build millennia-spanning total histories. By the time Le Goff took his place as head of EHESS and editor of its associated journal, the school of thought was already in decline, in the process of being reconstituted by the Spirit of ’68. Those following in the Annales tradition reformulated Bloch’s approach of “histoire des mentalités,” shying away from ambitious geographical works such as Braudel’s, and overall tending to greatly narrow the scope of their works in the face of increasing fragmentation of the social sciences.
The reluctance of Le Goff then to say anything at all may make some sense given the context in which he worked. The vast majority of the text is devoted to summarizing the ideas of others, both to articulate how the understanding of particular concepts developed over time, and to make his arguments for him by proxy. He has an irritating habit of paraphrasing at length two or three of his intellectual forebears, as if he were laying out their thoughts on a table, then stepping back and declaring, “Well, there you have it.” This is a work with a four-page conclusion and thirty-two pages of citations and bibliography, and you can tell the whole way through.
“Periods” begins by describing formerly widely accepted periodization schemes such as the Book of Daniel’s four kingdoms and Augustine’s six ages. Le Goff then sets off on arguing — rather, citing Jean Delumeau’s “La Renaissance” — that while Petrarch introduced the term, it “over time acquired a broader significance,” its scope extended by Giorgio Vasari, and finally pushed into popular consciousness as a distinct period by Jules Michelet. Le Goff’s attitude toward Michelet in particular is amusing, peppering his description of the man’s work with that mocking brand of flowery exaltation pervasive in academia. “[…] the historical landscape was utterly transformed. The Middle Ages had been eclipsed. A star was born, the Renaissance. Michelet could not help but bring it into the world […]” One suspects Le Goff may take personal offense to Michelet’s former love, then subsequent denigration, of the Middle Ages, and indeed Le Goff expands upon that very topic in “Le Moyen Âge de Michelet” written nearly forty years prior. Certainly they share much of the same DNA, as Michelet’s then-unusual obsession with archival materials and interest in the idea of the total history presages the view the Annales school takes. Yet even this narration of Michelet’s supposed creation of the Renaissance comes secondhand from one of Le Goff’s predecessors, the crux of the chapter an extended citation of Lucien Febvre’s “Comment Jules Michelet Inventa la Renaissance.”
Much of the rest of the book takes the form of Le Goff arguing social conditions and mentalities on either side of the dividing line were much the same. He cites Braudel’s “Civilisation Matérielle et Capitalisme” extensively here, placing for instance wide-scale meat consumption in the 18th century, bread in the 12th but downward spread of white bread in the 18th. For alcohol, “if the 16th century created [it], it was the 18th that popularized it.” Manners, ironworking, fishing, fashion, artillery. Beauty and art are medieval ideas; witches belong to the Renaissance. It goes on like this for some time. Le Goff has a rather amusing tendency to, wherever convenient for his thesis, emphasize the pre-Renaissance origins or post-Renaissance formalization of a particular idea associated with the period. Humanism emerges with scholasticism in the 12th century, with Bernard of Chartes and Honorius of Autun emphasizing “that it was for man that the world was made.” However other fields of inquiry are not so lucky. Origins mean little in the case of the Encyclopédie, where “advances in learning had been both steady and gradual, so that by the mid-18th century a group of French intellectuals felt the need to assemble the products of this long and patient accumulation of knowledge in a unified work” which conveniently “marked the end of one period and the beginning of another.” And in the case of new modes of economic organization, “no theory of capitalism was developed, nor indeed did capitalism even become aware of its own existence, until the publication of Adam Smith’s great work in 1776.” It is perhaps a unique quirk of the academic mind to be able to assert that a thing did not exist until someone wrote a treatise on it.
In the end, Le Goff has no grand statement to make or theory to put forward. A consummate academic, he strays little from conventionality except to argue for a minor update to a stale framework that has been taken for granted for centuries. This is a somewhat difficult book to critique properly, as there is really not much there, its length making it rather more of an essay, and the voluminous citations crowding out the possibility of original thought. But if you are only giving yourself a hundred twenty some odd pages to work with, you would do well to say more and quote less.
Charles Haskins broke new ground in introducing the idea of the 12th century renaissance, and others after him added their own, first the Ottonian, then the Carolingian. It is no great stretch to argue, as Le Goff does, that “the conventionally uppercased Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — what I consider instead to be the last of a series of medieval renaissances — was the harbinger of a truly modern age, not the age itself, which did not begin to unfold until about 1750.” Much like Alois Riegl popularized the idea of late antiquity and Henri Pirenne put forward the argument that Rome ended with the muslim invasions, Le Goff is in his own way doing his part to keep the evergreen tripartite periodization legible into the present day. Indeed, as Oswald Spengler writes, “the expedient of shifting the initial point of ‘modern history’ from the Crusades to the Renaissance, or from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 19th Century, only goes to show that the scheme per se is regarded as unshakably sound.” Le Goff spent his entire career writing on the Middle Ages as the Middle Ages. Despite defending periodization as mere tool, one can scarcely imagine he does not see his chosen period as a *real* thing. Thus the whole of the book takes the form not of arguing the utility of a long Middle Age, but the reality of it. And we may here have Le Goff’s answer to the question he asks in the book’s title. Must we divide history into periods? No, someone already did it.