Jacques Le Goff (1924), France

Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014) was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History 2004 for 'fundamentally changing our view of the Middle Ages'.

Jacques le GoffWhen Pour un autre Moyen Âge was first published in 1977, medievalist Jacques Le Goff had already done much to change the way we view the Middle Ages. Le Goff, dubbed 'the Pope of the Middle Ages' by the press and affectionately known as the 'gourmand historian' by his colleagues, is one of the most important representatives and pioneers of the 'New History', in which the emphasis in historical research has shifted from political figures and events to the history of mentality and historical anthropology. To put it in simple terms: what was life like for 'the common man'?
This shift in perspective has led not only to studies on countless new subjects (such as the significance of the visual imagination), but also to new ways of looking at old ones. One of Le Goff's great insights is that the 11th- to 13th-century Church was a totalitarian institution that successfully gave society meaning and direction by introducing the concept of Purgatory. Knightly discipline and the use of sermons and powerful visual images to disseminate the Church's message among the masses made it possible for mere mortals to achieve the Christian ideal, provided they followed the Church's teachings.
Le Goff is a prolific writer who has published works on politics, intellectualism, economics and the human body as well as a number of biographies. In addition to a life of St. Francis of Assisi, he has written a tome about Saint Louis that is more than a biography; it is a minute reconstruction of the mythologising of the French king and the exploitation of that myth. Le Goff has been an astonishingly creative writer for more than four decades, precisely because he connects new insights to established historical tradition.

Key publications

Le Goff, J., La Civilisation de l'Occident médiéval, Arthaud, 1964
Le Goff, J., Pour un autre Moyen Âge, Gallimard, 1977
Le Goff, J., La naissance du Purgatoire, Gallimard, 1982
Le Goff, J., Saint Louis, Gallimard, 1996
Le Goff, J., L'Europe racontée aux jeunes, Seuil, 1996
Le Goff, J., Truong, N., Une histoire du corps au Moyen Âge, Liana Levi, 2003


Jacques Le Goff was born in Toulon, France, on 1 January 1924. The son of a teacher - his father was a resolute anti-papist and his mother a strict, socially aware Catholic - Le Goff knew at the age of twelve that he wanted to be a medievalist. He joined the French Resistance during the Second World War and travelled to Prague, Oxford and Rome after it ended. In 1950 he was certified as a history teacher and became a teaching assistant in Lille, where he quickly succumbed to an insatiable desire to conduct research. He joined the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris in the early sixties, serving as the director of studies from 1962 and teaching classes until he turned seventy. During this period, he succeeded his mentor Fernand Braudel both at the EHESS and as the editor-in-chief of the highly influential journal Annales.
Le Goff's renown extends beyond his particular field of study. His many books are accessible to a broad group of readers and have won several awards, including the Prix Maurice Pérouse from the La Fondation de France (for popularising scholarship), and the Prix Gobert of l'Académie Française for Saint Louis. He is also a member of the Académie Universelle des Cultures, founded by Elie Wiesel, and member of the Comité Scientifique de la Recherche Universitaire. Le Goff, an agnostic and confirmed European, often takes part in topical debates (for example on the conflict between West and East), acts as a consultant (he advised the producers of the film In the Name of the Rose on monastic tonsures and the methods used to heat refectories) and displays his enthusiasm for his discipline on television. He is described as an excellent raconteur and epicurean, and is without doubt the most influential French historian alive today.

Presentation speech

icon_downl_generiek.giflaudatio in English (pdf) - laudatio in French (pdf)

icon_video_bruin.gifVideo interview with Jacques Le Goff