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Jacques Le Goff: Must We Divide History Into


Article December 2015

DOI: 10.14712/23363525.2017.19


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Jakub Mlynar
Universit de Fribourg


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they do not remember that they are about some- is not very long, but highly inspirational, neat
thing more than economics, more than individ- and sharp, filled with expertise, and not far from
ual profit. He ends up by reminding that we are being even provocative. The essay is composed
about creating communities that are committed of seven chapters and aims to answer asimple
to making life worth living for all their members. but important question: Is history really divid-
To conclude this review, Iconsider this short ed into parts?
book as abrilliant and concentrates description In order to provide his answer, Le Goff starts
of the current situation of the European Union with ancient periodizations of the Old Testa-
explaining the past and present and even giving ment and early Christianity. In his approach to
future scenarios of what can be the EU in afew periodization of history, Saint Augustine uses
years. The author plays all over the text with six ages of human individual development, from
metaphors that make easier and understandable infancy to the old age. According to Le Goff, the
for the reader to follow his arguments. His clear world of the Middle Ages is therefore filled with
view shows us aproblematic situation (humil- pessimism, stemming from the phrase mundus
iation) where in his opinion all countries have senescit world is getting old. In this world-
been affected and therefore they play an essen- view, there was no place for any explicit notion
tial role in order to solve it. We can perceive of progress, until the middle of 18th century.
how Smith invites the lector to make apersonal However, Le Goff dedicates much of his effort to
reflexion in order to understand the gravity of show that there were some signs of the progres-
the situation. We are being humiliated and this sivist interpretation of historical development
is the time to do something in respect, some- already present in the Middle Ages.
thing to revive the initial essence of the Euro- In the second chapter, Le Goff discusses the
pean Union. birth of the concept of Middle Ages in the 14th
century. It was used to delimit certain distance
Esther Martos from the previous age, which was seen as some-
how a middle epoch between the idealized
antiquity and anew era, which had yet to come.
Jacques Le Goff: Must We Divide History Into Any historical periodization, the author reminds
Periods? Columbia University Press, 2015, us, is very often ideological, as it provides an
184 pages interpretation and evaluation of the historical
development. Periodization is inherently arti-
Many basic aspects of human culture are ficial and provisional, for it also changes itself
closely related to the fact that people have to in time.
live their lives in time. In fact, the very act of The need for historical periodization, in
colonizing time is amongst the foundations of Le Goff s perspective, results from the estab-
all modern civilizations and societies. We are lishment of historical education at schools and
struggling to make sense of the endless time- universities, and he provides areview of these
flow, that we have no choice but to inhabit, in processes in the third chapter. Surprisingly,
order to interpret the changes and continuities, teaching history is quite alate achievement, and
and to attach meanings and interpretations to the subject of history was not widely taught until
events in our shared and private pasts. Divid- the end of 18th century. Then, during the 19th
ing time and history into different periods century, Jules Micheletswork gave birth to the
is amongst the most crucial activities in this contemporary conception of the Middle Ages
sense-making effort. as adark age, defined in contrast with the lat-
Eminent French historian Jacques Le Goff er period of Renaissance, being (supposedly)
(19242014) dedicated his 2013 essay precise- the time of growing enlightenment, reason and
ly to the topic of periodization of history. This humanism.
text had to become the very last work that he From the fourth chapter onwards, Le
was able to prepare for publication himself. It Goff proceeds to one specific aim of the essay,


showing that such an approach to the Middle provisionally called ethno-historiography, in

Ages and so-called Renaissance is not correct. relation to analysis of oral history interviews,
This is the provocative aspect of the reviewed which is part of my doctoral thesis. Periodization
essay, which Ihave mentioned earlier. Le Goff seems to be aprofound part of the ethno-histo-
argues that in fact, the Renaissance was not riography in oral histories. For instance, inter-
a specific historical period itself. Rather, we view participants naturally and simply refer to
should speak of along Middle Age, which is general pre-war, war and post-war peri-
delimited by the late antiquity (3rd to 7th centu- ods. They seem to know what they are talking
ry) and mid-18th century (publication of Ency- about, the knowledge is self-evident, and the
clopaedia in France). Le Goff discusses many basic structure does not only function for time
aspects of the so-called Renaissance, sometimes periodization, but inseparably also as the basis
to show that they were neither groundbreaking for plot development and life story dynamics.
nor historically new, including the orientation Ruptures between the periods are moving the
towards reason and the centrality of human narrative forwards. Outbreak of the war and the
individual. The Renaissance is, in his eyes, cer- liberation several years later mark the borders
tainly an important era, which is to be seen as of the three periods, even though these events
specific and important, but it was not in any often took time on more or less different dates
case marked with profound social or econom- than the political historiography is teaching us.
ic transformations. In other words, there are In other words, it is probably very natural and
more continuities between the Middle Ages and routine approach to past time, at least in West-
theRenaissance, than there are differences. The ern society, to divide history into periods, and
Western long Middle Ages should be seen as ordinary people themselves tend to do it when
acontinual period following the fall of Rome, they are asked to speak about the(ir) past. There
which includes several different renaissances, is acertain parallelism of the great history and
some of them longer and some of them shorter, personal history; people narrate their pasts on
sometimes more and sometimes less profound the background of political events, and histori-
or influential (and the period we are used to call ans sometime narrate history personified in the
the Renaissance is just the last one in arow, story of one person. Individual and collective
and perhaps the most prominent). Rather than dimension of human lives merge, as the very
being aseparate period itself, theRenaissance is distinction is transcended through imagination
an era when certain traits of the new modern and metaphors. Le Goff sessay does not really
period started to manifest themselves, including discuss any of these issues, but it provides basis
phenomena like fashion, colonization, national for such discussions. As Ihave mentioned ear-
languages, or dietary customs. lier, the text starts with the ancient approaches
In the brief conclusion, titled Periodization to periodization of history, and amongst the
and Globalization, Le Goff dedicates several very influential periodizations is Saint Augus-
paragraphs to the contemporary discussions tines conception of history according to the
about world history. He does not advocate the human individual development. Le Goff also
elimination of historical periods from historical acknowledges (albeit marginally) that period-
thought, but he proposes to combine them with ization had become arule not only for Western
Braudelsconcept of la longue dure. Historical historians, but also for anyone else who is pro-
periodization can only be conceived in relation viding an account of the past.
to certain civilizational areas, and studies in Jacques Le Goff s last work is indeed
world history should then aim to uncover sim- a thought-provoking and inspirational text,
ilarities between periods in different cultural rooted in deep knowledge of secondary liter-
contexts. ature not only from historiography, but also
I stumbled upon Le Goff s essay just philosophy (Kristeller, Ricoeur) and historical
exactly at the time when Iwas trying to wrap sociology (Elias). It is a respectable finale of
my thoughts about something that I have the long and fruitful career of the great scholar,


perhaps one of the most important historians philosophers and everyone else, who share some
of the 20th century. Even though the essay is kind of interest in different human ways of con-
meant as acontribution to an expert historio- quering and grasping the times that people have
graphical debate, it is apleasure to read even for lived through.
anon-historian, and in my opinion deserves
to be read by sociologists, anthropologists, Jakub Mlyn


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