Books by Jacques Le Goff

Jacques Le Goff Medieval Civilization

The medieval studies community was saddened to hear last week that Jacques Le Goff had passed away. His contribution to the history of the Middle Ages is immense, and he has written dozens of books and articles. Here are just a few of his books, which have been translated into English and offer a glimpse at this historian.

Jacques Le Goff Medieval CivilizationMedieval Civilization, 400-1500

Translated by Julia Barrow

Basil Blackwell, 1988
ISBN: 0-631-17566-0

This is probably Jacques Le Goff’s most widely read book – it seems that every medieval historian has this volume on his or her bookshelf. The book is a general outline of the Middle Ages, divided into two parts. The first chronologically covers the important events and trends that happened in medieval Europe, while the second half has five chapters covering particular topics, including material culture, Christianity, and the concept of time and space in the medieval mind.


In the Preface to Medieval Civilization, Le Goff writes:

It seems to me that the development of ideas about the Middle Ages and the deepening of researches and reflections have reinforced two of the fundamental standpoints of this book. On the one hand, the Middle Ages, a period of violence, of harsh living conditions, dominated by the natural world, was also a period of exceptional creativity and laid the foundation of the development of western civilization. On the other hand, even more than others, perhaps, the society of the medieval west can only be understood if one shows how its material, social and political realities were penetrated by symbolism and the imaginary world. Only the study of the way in which they thought and felt can allow us to understood this world which we lost not so very long ago, and which still permeates our minds and our imaginations.

Jacques le Goff essaysTime, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

University of Chicago Press, 1980
ISBN: 9780226470818

This is a collection of 18 essays written by Jacques Le Goff between 1956 and 1976. They include: Merchant’s Time and Church’s Time in the Middle Ages; Licit and Illicit Trades in the Medieval West; Peasants and the Rural World in the Literature of the Early Middle Ages; How Did the Medieval University Conceive of Itself; Clerical Culture and Folklore Traditions in Merovingian Civilization; The Medieval West and the Indian Ocean: An Oneiric Horizon; and The Historian and the Ordinary Man.


your money or your lifeYour Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages

Translated by Patricia Ranum

Zone Books, 1988
ISBN: 9780942299151

In this book one of the most esteemed contemporary historians of the Middle Ages presents a concise examination of the problem that usury posed for the medieval Church, which had long denounced the lending of money for interest. Jacques Le Goff describes how, as the structure of economic life inevitably began to include financial loans, the Church refashioned its ideology in order to condemn the usurer not to Hell but merely to Purgatory. Le Goff is in the forefront of a history that studies “the deeply rooted and the slowly changing.” As one keenly aware of the inertia of older societies, he is all the more able to delineate for us the disruptive forces of change.

the birth of purgatory jacques le goffThe Birth of Purgatory

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

University of Chicago Press, 1984
ISBN: 9780226470832

In The Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff, the brilliant medievalist and renowned Annales historian, is concerned not with theological discussion but with the growth of an idea, with the relation between belief and society, with mental structures, and with the historical role of the imagination. Le Goff argues that the doctrine of Purgatory did not appear in the Latin theology of the West before the late twelfth century, that the word purgatorium did not exist until then. He shows that the growth of a belief in an intermediate place between Heaven and Hell was closely bound up with profound changes in the social and intellectual reality of the Middle Ages. Throughout, Le Goff makes use of a wealth of archival material, much of which he has translated for the first time, inviting readers to examine evidence from the writings of great, obscure, or anonymous theologians.

saint louis jacques le goffSaint Louis

Translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad

University of Notre Dame Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-268-03381-1

Canonized in 1297 as Saint Louis, King Louis IX of France (1214-1270) was the central figure of Christendom in the thirteenth century. He ruled when France was at the height of power; he commanded the largest army in Europe and controlled the wealthiest kingdom. Renowned for his patronage of the arts, Louis was equally famous for his choice to imitate the suffering Christ as a humbly attired, bearded penitent, a choice that rejected the potent image of God in majesty on which much of the ideology of medieval kingship was founded, as well as the accompanying lavish, ceremonial style of monarchy.

Armed with the considerable resources of the nouvel historien, Jacques Le Goff mines existing materials about Saint Louis to forge a new historical biography of the king. Part of his ambitious project is to reconstruct the mental universe of the thirteenth century: Le Goff describes the scholastic and intellectual background of Louis’s reign and, most importantly, he discusses methodology and the interpretation of written sources—their composition, provenance, and reliability.


Review by Meredith Cohen: As a biography, it represents a new genre for Le Goff, one of the most prominent figures since the 1970s in the French Annales school of history. As the Annales group generally defines their research through the examination of non-traditional sources, with an ethos of opposition towards history as directed by great white men and political events, Le Goff justifies his unconventional effort in the introduction to the volume. He reconciles what he saw as the anecdotal, pseudo-psychological and overdeterministic approach of most biographies by describing man in terms of his society, maintaining that “The individual exists only within a network of diversified social relations, and this diversity also allows him to develop his role”. He thus presents Louis as what he and Pierre Toubert have called a “‘globalizing’ subject around which the entire field of research is organized”. Yet, Le Goff remains conscientious of the misrepresentation of the narrative “reality effect” of history, and also goes on to deconstruct the sources that produce our understanding of Louis IX. This analysis leads to the main question of this book, which is, beyond the ideological sources that describe the king’s life, “Did Saint Louis exist?”.

Money and the Middle AgesMoney and the Middle Ages

Translated by Jean Birrell

Polity Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-07456-5299-3

From the Introduction:

My book has two main themes: First, what was the role of money, or rather coin, in the medieval economy, in medieval life and in medieval mentalities? Second, in a society dominated by religion, how did Christianity regard money and how did it teach Christians what attitude they should adopt to it and to the uses to which it could be put? On the first point, it seems to me that money never ceased to be rare and, most importantly, highly fragmented an diverse in the Middle Ages, and that this fragmentation was one of the causes of the difficulty experienced in achieving economic lift-off. On the second point, I believe that the pursuit and the use of money both by individuals and by states was gradually justified and legitimized by the institution that inspired and governed them, the Church, despite the conditions it attached to this justification.

Review by Rebecca Hardie: In presenting an alternative perception on money, it challenges the reader to consider how capitalism is a cultural construct and inheritance, and not a state of nature. Le Goff’s work impresses upon us the fact that the modern capitalist worldview is a recent development, and accordingly a legitimate subject of analysis and critique.