‘The medieval west was born on the ruins of the Roman world. This was both a help and a hindrance to it’
The crowning achievement of one of Europe’s greatest historians, Medieval Civilisation covers over a thousand years of medieval life and society in a single enthralling account. It combines great erudition with the utmost clarity of expression, and since its publication in 1964 it has proved a seminal work for later scholars, including Umberto Eco, who contributes a new introduction to this Folio Society edition.
In the first part of his classic history, Jacques Le Goff takes us chronologically through the evolution of Europe: the barbarian settlements that emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire, millennial anxieties in AD 1000, and plagues and crises in the 14th century. In the second, he undertakes a brilliant and original exploration of medieval life, explaining, among other insights, how people understood time in an era before mechanical clocks, and how the European perception of a forest was of a ‘desert’ or barbarous waste, full of real and imaginary dangers – unlike the Muslim east, for whom trees represented prosperity. Despite the lack of accurate geography, medieval people were highly mobile – due partly, Le Goff argues, to the lack of property rights and possessions and partly to the spirit of the Christian religion.
This is no straightforward history, but a wonderfully wide-ranging and discursive work that illuminates our entire understanding of the medieval era. In a discussion on the monastic orders, Le Goff explains how monasteries helped spread the new religion to the countryside, contrasts the moderation of the Benedictine orders with the more ascetic and evangelical Irish monasteries, and considers the influence of Celtic art on the Romanesque style. Of paramount importance is religion: ‘If we do not keep the obsession with salvation and the fear of hell which inspired medieval men to the forefront of our minds we shall never understand their outlook on life’.