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Jacques Le Goff
The Birth of Europe
Translated by Janet Lloyd
274pp. Blackwell. £20
ISBN: 0 631 22888 8
Jacques Le Goff, one of France’s foremost historians, investigates the long and variable history of the European idea in his new book, The Birth of Europe. As series editor of the ambitious The Making of Europe series, Le Goff urges a fuller understanding of Europe’s future through a fearless investigation of its past: “In its pursuit of unity, the continent of Europe has survived bouts of internal dissention, conflict, division, and contradiction […] It does not yet seem the moment to write a synthetic history of Europe.” In The Birth of Europe, Le Goff locates the origins of these unifying and divisive European traits firmly in the Middle Ages.
Published simultaneously in five languages by five European publishers, The Birth of Europe is Eurocentric history at its most unabashed. This is unsurprising, perhaps, given Le Goff’s association with the Annales school, which has so successfully preached Total History while remaining firmly on European terrain. The Birth of Europe deploys the best aspects of this tradition, investigating the wide range of influences and concerns that directed the course of European political, socio-economic and cultural development. Le Goff explores the emergence of an idea of Europe between the Fourth and Fifteenth centuries, discovering a series of renaissances and retreats from unity rather than a constant progress towards it.
The focus throughout this book is on the currents of thought that sought to theorise Europe, rather than on the more familiar myths of origin that are replicated by European politicians today. For example, his interpretation of the Carolingian Empire – still perceived as the first European Union - is scathing. In his attempt to build a Europe according to his personal, egocentric ideology, Charlemagne is seen as the first in a series of despotic ‘Anti-European’ personalities who almost destroyed the unity of Europe. “The Europes of Charles V, Napoleon, and Hitler were, in truth, anti-Europes, and Charlemagne’s attempt already smacked of a project that was contrary to any true idea of Europe.”
From this rejection of what Europe is not, you would expect Le Goff to have a clear idea of what it is. However, Le Goff refuses (to the benefit of his argument) to limit his definition of Europe to any single set of characteristics – arguing instead for a multiplicity of histories - of ‘Europes’ - that have shaped the modern continent. So, from Twelfth-century England we get “a Europe of monarchies and courts with their attendant prestige, intrigues, and conflicts;” while France gives us “a Europe of capitals […] of history and historiography.” Elsewhere in the book Le Goff identifies “a Europe of prostitution,” “a Europe of hospitals,” and “a Europe of good manners.” The Twelfth-century ‘dolorization’ of piety gives us “a Europe of corpses,” while the Fourteenth century gives us “a Europe of portraits.” Perhaps most arresting among medieval Europe’s multiple legacies, and the most relevant to its modern sensibilities, are “a Europe that expelled its Jews,” and “a Europe of time.”
In fact, a recurrent theme in Le Goff’s book, and one that holds particular significance for today’s EU, is the way European identity has been formed at the expense of religious and racial diversity within its borders. Le Goff describes the way internal conflicts between European states were only resolved by a common fear of invasion, either from the Ottoman or Mongol empires. The era of crusading and of pogroms coincided with the emergence of a new European consciousness, which sought to delimit and defend Europe’s borders. Le Goff makes it clear that the idea of Europe as a cohesive region shrank as its colonial projects expanded – the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, and the coincident discovery of America, formed part of the same move to develop a ‘European’ identity.
From Le Goff’s interpretation it would seem that the Europe of the Middle Ages was born with the weaknesses and insufficiencies which threaten it today. Not just the political fault-line that traverses the Rhine Valley, but also the collective fear of attack from the East. The process seems to work in reverse, too, as Le Goff attributes modern concerns to the disasters of the Middle Ages. For example, he identifies what he deems to be the determining factors in the crises affecting the Fourteenth century: climate change, leading to disease and war. (These are, incidentally, the same factors that the new multi-disciplinarian of the longue durée, Jared Diamond, attributes to the final collapse of societies.) Le Goff also locates the origins of globalisation (the “World-Economy”) in the Middle Ages, with its accompanying enrichment of urban regions and the resulting “pauperization and marginalization of a large section” of the continent.
However, The Birth of Europe is also a book about the influence that individuals have had in sowing the seeds for positive change in the continent. Two intellectuals, in particular, are singled out by Le Goff: Nicholas of Cusa and Pawel Wlodkowic. According to Le Goff, Nicholas of Cusa was not only “a harbinger of the ecumenical movement,” but “he also laid the foundations for a tolerance unknown to the Middle Ages;” while Pawel Wlodkowic “laid the foundations for a modern view of international law.” The conclusion of the book seems to be that any strength in a unified Europe must derive from a conscious tolerance of diversity: whether of faiths, polities or temporalities that exist within it.
And yet the book has the feel of a career retrospective about it, without the ambition of his earlier work, and with a muted urgency. This is Le Goff reiterating his interpretation of medieval history, and repackaging it for a new and keenly self-aware European readership. At 80 it might seem like a good time for a retrospective, though there is no sign that his output is slowing – a new collection of interviews with Le Goff made by Jean-Maurice de Montremy is released later this year.
Ingrid Abreu Scherer, U. of Cambridge
For a bibliography of Jacques Le Goff's work, visit the bibliographies page of Marginalia