Alexander Lee: Twilight of the History Gods: Jacques Le Goff, 1924-2014

History Today, 8th April 2014

lee twilight

It is not without reason that Peter Burke has described the Annales School as the harbingers of a ‘French Historical Revolution’. Established by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929, the journal from which it takes its name effected a genuinely revolutionary transformation in the way history is studied. Although it had until then been common for scholars – especially those working at the Sorbonne – to view the past through the lens either of political institutions, constitutional changes and intermittent conflicts, or of a pseudo-Marxist historical dialectic, those who rallied to Annales were committed to an entirely different approach. Rejecting the primacy of ‘events’, it instead set out to explore the long-term evolution of the socio-cultural structures that underpinned the rapidly-changing phenomena with which historians had previously been obsessed. As Bloch had argued even before founding the journal, this pursuit of ‘mentalités’ in the longue durée entailed an engagement with a number of other disciplines, many of which were only just beginning to assert themselves as distinct fields. Anthropology, ethnology, geography, and even psychology were brought into play and applied to ever more inventive forms of analysis. Ranging in scope from highly-localised studies of individual towns and regions to sweeping histories of immense areas, the works of the Annalistes drew evidence that went far beyond the ‘cult of the document’ indulged by more traditional scholars – including everything from the ritualism of ‘popular culture’ to weather and the environment – and thereby edged with increasing confidence towards an histoire totale of man and civilisation.

From its earliest days the Annales approach spawned studies which remain classics to this day and Bloch’s Les Rois Thaumaturges (1924) and La Société Féodale (1939-40) stand out as particularly pertinent examples. It was, however, only when Bloch and Febvre passed the baton over to later generations of Annalistes that the full potential of their innovations was made apparent. The appearance of Ferdinand Braudel’s magisterial La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II (1949) marked a watershed and it is a rare historian today who has not glanced through its pages to find himself feeling a little like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer. But while it is easy to believe that the superstar Braudel paved the way for the Annalistes’ triumphal entry into the scholarly mainstream, it was the more unassuming Jacques Le Goff who – more than anyone – was responsible for bringing the Annales School into the historical limelight.

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