Le Goff, Jacques: What Constitutes Europe

From The Birth of Europe, translated by Janet Lloyd, Blackwell Publishing, USA 2005

goff1From the vantage point of the twenty-first century -but not forgetting that the concept of a “century” was not invented until the end of the sixteenth century- the Europe of the late fifteenth century seems to have been, as it were, torn apart by new tensions: on the one hand the friction behind the internal splits in store for Europe (the Italian Wars, the Peasants’ Wars in Germany, and the Reforms of Luther and Calvin), and on the other, the mirage of distant horizons affording promising perspectives in Africa, the Indian Ocean, and what we know to have been a New World that in a few years’ time would be called America. Was this juncture in time sufficiently affected by new discoveries and breaks with the past for it to be reasonable to believe that Europe was about to move on from one long period of human life to another: should we conclude that the Middle Ages were over? With historical hindsight, the fifteenth century may indeed be considered as the beginning of another long period now known as Modern Times. But before winding up our reflections on the question of whether Europe was born in the Middle Ages, as our title implies, we should ask ourselves whether this really was the end of the Middle Ages, for only if that is indeed so are we in a position to evaluate the relations between this Middle Ages and the elaboration of Europe. I have in the past already suggested that the notion of a long medieval period comes the closest to the historical reality. There can be no doubt that, as the great Polish historian Witold Kula felicitously puts it, every period is marked by “the coexistence of asynchronisms.” I myself accordingly use the term “crisis” as little as possible, for it frequently masks the absence of any attempt to analyze the changes taking place within a society. However, I do believe that mutations and turning points can be identified. Are these in evidence at the end of the fifteenth century? This brings us to the (in my opinion unfortunate) term “Renais­sance,” which was coined by the Swiss historian Burckhardt at the end of the nineteenth century and has since enjoyed such success. In the first place, it should be remembered that other periods of the Middle Ages too may and indeed have been described as “renaissances,” notably the Carolingian period and the twelfth century.

Next, let us see what characterizes this Renaissance with a capital R. It has, justifiably, been detected above all in the domain of art and thought. But in Italy, at the very least, had not art been undergoing a rebirth ever since the thirteenth century, and did not the humanism that characterizes the Renaissance begin in the fourteenth century?

Furthermore, in all the fundamental areas of the history of European society and civilization, do not the basic phenomena spill over the dividing line of the end of the fifteenth century? The Black Death appeared in Europe between 1347 and 1348 and continued to ravage it right down to 1720. Marc Bloch made a study of a ritual that was inherent to royal power in the Middle Ages, the rite of the royal touch of “miracle-working kings.” This made its appearance in the eleventh century, was adopted in France and England in the thirteenth century, and continued to be practiced in England right down to 1825, although by then most people admittedly did regard it as anachronistic.

But let us consider some more weighty examples. We have noted the great surge of medieval urban development and its important impact on Europe. Bernard Chevalier has studied the chief towns in France that were linked to the crown. They were known as “good towns” (bonnes villes). He shows that the term itself and the urban network that it defined appeared in the thirteenth century and had virtually lost all meaning by the early seven­teenth. The most famous attempt to divide Europe into separate historical periods was that proposed by Marx. In his view, the Middle Ages, identified with Feudalism, lasted from the end of the Roman Empire, which was characterized by its slave-based mode of production, right down to the Industrial Revolution. This medieval period was also that in which the trifunctional Indo-European schema described by Georges Dumezil appeared. It was detectable in England in the ninth century and triumphed in the eleventh, with the formula “oratores, bellatores, laboratores” (those who pray, those who fight, those who work), that is to say priests, warriors, and peasants. This survived down to the time of the Three Estates of the French Revolution. But after the Industrial Revolution an altogether differ­ent trifunctionality was set in place, that of primary, secondary, and tertiary activities as defined by economists and sociologists. In the domain of teaching, universities appeared in the twelfth century and remained by and large unchanged down to the French Revolution, while at the primary and secondary stages of education literacy was slowly continuing to spread right down to the nineteenth century, when schooling was generalized.

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