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A continent on a learning curve

29 January 2005

12:00 AM

29 January 2005

12:00 AM

The Birth of Europe Jacques Le Goff, translated by Janet Lloyd

Blackwell, pp.274, 20

Welshmen will know what Le Goff’s name means. To mediaevalists it conveys not only Smith, but all that is gracious, gilt-edged, and grandfatherly among French historians. Or, as one of the blurbs puts it, rather unkindly, ‘He is among France’s “great” historians.’ That means great in the special sense of an institutionally sanctified professor doomed in old age to confer imprimaturs on the work of others, to employ a ‘team’ of research assistants for his own, and to compose ponderous pensées such as ‘Today comes from yesterday and tomorrow emerges out of the past.’ Don’t laugh. He’s 80, and has written three thought-provoking books which shed light on three dark areas of the Middle Ages: Purgatory, profit and intellectuals. It was inevitable that he would write about the concept of Europe, what it means, how it began, and so on. Everybody’s doing it; some in the pay of the EU, some out of a disinterested desire to find new answers to some old questions, such as ‘Is or was there a European civilisation different from others? If so, why? Is it shared by all within Europe?’ And above all, why did or could Europe rape the rest of the world between 1500 and 1914? To which Le Goff answers, ‘Yes; because ideas, institutions and technology spread across frontiers in the Middle Ages; not equally; and because mediaeval commerce and imagination projected goals outside Europe (India, Prester John, cheap gold, free land) which inspired Europeans to go forth, if not always to find them.’ In that order.

There is nothing ground-breaking about these conclusions. It is all fairly standard stuff, although the supporting argument and data have been found ‘intriguing and convincing’ by Neil Kinnock among many others. Of course, in reaching such conclusions French academics have the advantage of a jargon which flies over doubts and difficulties like Sunny Jim. For the sake of argument, Europa becomes a single hyperactive graduate student. She thinks, feels, becomes aware, and ‘rediscovers her sense of history’. She is ‘stupefied’, she ‘embarks on research’, ‘pursues a line of development’ which started in the 12th century when she was ‘really bubbling over’, and she still ‘dances and sings and plays music’. She adopts various poses and identities, as ‘the Europe of books’, ‘the Europe of Christian Man- darins’, the Europe of persecution, of work, of censorship, of ambiguity, of bombardment, of violence, of portraits, of peasants, of tax-evasion, and of good manners. The confident pathetic fallacies alternate with powerfully puzzling images — ‘the handicap that the religious throttle inflicted on progress’ is a lovely one. The jargon has a long and respectable history across the Channel; but it is only fair to point out that it is not absolutely necessary in the writing of historical surveys of large subjects. The best that ever came out of the Sorbonne, Guizot’s History of Civilisation in Europe (his lectures for 1828-30, edited by Siedentop in Penguin Classics), uses a more varied rhetoric with greater restraint. Le Goff must be compared with the best.

That ‘line of development’ which Europe pursued from the Middle Ages onwards is identified at one point as the separation of church and state, or the religious and the secular. We are often told that Muslims cannot make this distinction, as if Iran and Saudi Arabia were the only Muslim countries, and it may be that the Prophet himself did not choose to. Nor did Pope Gregory VII, from whose assertion of papal power Le Goff traces European secularism; he and many others wanted a clergy free from state control in order to be able to save mankind from itself more intrusively, not less. His opponents never renounced their own religious responsibilities, so that alongside the development of church-state separation it is impossible to ignore an equally vigorous tradition of church-state merger, from Charlemagne to Stalin, mutatis mutandis. It would be reassuring to find that the former was in some sense more characteristic of Europe than the latter; but you can never be sure.


Other mediaeval roots are more persuasively traced: the commercial drive, the universities, the literacy, the nationalities, the contractual basis of political authority, the numerous vernacular literatures. In these ways many Europeans differed either in scale or substance from inhabitants of other continents; but not all, not always, not everywhere. Le Goff tends to detect things common to Europeans rather than peculiar: social inequality, documentation, prostitution, persecution, and so on; interesting, but as much Chinese as anything else. He finds signs of Euro-consciousness as early as the 13th century, when the Mongols were threatening the whole continent, and even then there were those who would not accept the chronic state of war between European powers as inevitable.

Voluntary associations such as the Peace of God movement, defensive pacts between towns, and limited Landfriede were more effective pacifiers than rulers, in some areas, and these may pass as remote ancestors of the EU; that is, if the EU were ever to be a cause rather than a consequence of peace between continental states. It is good to know that in 1464 the admirable king George of Bohemia produced a plan for a periodically itinerant European government and army controlled by French, German and Italian delegates authorised to settle disputes; it was the sort of scheme, visionary but impractical, which modern Europhiles like to include with the family silver. But not bad, ‘adverse’ things, like crusades, religious persecutions, anti-Judaic violence and witch-hunts, although these did actually unite all ranks of Europeans much more effectively than proposals for peaceful co-operation.

This book, like most, is a mixture of pleasure and pain. The pain is mainly in the passages dealing with northern Europe and Britain; they seem to have been summarised from almost illegible lecture notes dropped behind a radiator in the Sorbonne about the time of the Stavisky affair and recently discovered. Thus we are told twice that healing through the royal touch was practised in England until 1825, that Iceland was settled by ‘a small group of Danish families’, that ‘the Anglo-Saxons laid a number of institutional bases’, thanks to King Alfred and ‘the exceptional personality of Edward the Confessor’: whatever that means. Never trust a translator who cannot tell the difference between Arian and Aryan.

Among the pleasures are two notes of caution. Le Goff insists that the empires of Charlemagne, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler were not foretastes of European unity, but anti-Europes, explosions of one ruler’s power at the expense of others. Whether he thinks the present EU is the genuine article is not clear, but at least he doesn’t puff it. He shows his readers that there was a time, hundreds of years ago, when inhabitants of Europe could deal with and educate each other without an all-seeing state to tell them what to do; and what they created then is still dimly discernible. And secondly, in recounting this story he ‘uses the term “crisis” as little as possible, for it frequently masks the absence of any attempt to analyse the changes taking place within a society’. One cliché less is always welcome.


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