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Saturday, June 5, 2010

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Review, 'Medieval Civilization 400-1500' by Jacques Le Goff.

More Marxist cant and more than just a few anti-Western rants.

by Ferdinand III






Le Goff wrote his large essay on the medieval European world in 1964. For many years he was the President of the respected and very left-wing, French Historical journal 'Annales'. He was called during the 60s, one of France's pre-eminent historians on all matters medieval. So naturally one should expect to read an accurate account of the European-Christian medieval world; one based on facts, on historical probity and independence, and one free from the usual Marxist-Academic trash that informs such topics. After all this man is a giant, un homme de gestion of one of Europe's 'most respected' historical journals; and a person who because he is French must obviously be sophisticated, cultured and 'fair'. Mais oui ?


En fait, main non. Alas, Le Goff's book was far worse than one could even have feared.


There is plenty of detail in the book, in fact almost too much. It is rather a little too dense. There is no great 'theme' which unites the writing over various chapters, and there is no path through all the myriad points of commentary. The book is in effect a rehash – albeit a well researched one – of all 1960s cultural Marxist animus against both Christianity [which was in vogue during the Enlightenment and led Voltaire and others to coin the term the 'Dark Ages' to describe 500-1500 AD]; and European development over 1000 years. In fact one has to stop reading the book at a certain point. Le Goff's analysis and writing diverge so strongly from reality that it makes no sense to wade and cut your way through the waist deep foliage of innuendo, outrageous lies, and distortions.


Written during the seething irrationality of the 1960s narcissism; much of what Le Goff portrays as truth has been widely discredited in analysis since that period. Le Goff wrote the work as if he was a disaffected professor with a Marxist axe to grind against the supposed iniquities of Christianity. Le Goff obviously has a problem both with faith and with the mere fact that without reformationist Christianity, Europe might have ended up looking a lot like either Islam, or China. Le Goff is in other words a material Marxist and a man who can't understand, nor countenance the fact that Christian Europe created the modern world. He represents the lost path, the lost century of Europe, when it decided to become a self-absorbed, secular Continent and cut itself off from its cultural and ethical roots.


The reason why you have to stop reading the book just over half-way through, is the execrable array of lies parading as facts. Le Goff writes as though the person reading the book would naturally agree witih him. But even hobbyist historians who know the topic would see much that is wrong. Too many other investigations, writers, historians and archeological evidence are diametrically opposed to Le Goff's statements. Worse, little in the way of proof is offered -- no statements are sourced and referenced -- and in fact, much of what he proffers is fantastically wrong, including:

After the [thankful] 'decline and Fall' of Rome:

“Gold coins barely circulated any longer, and when they were struck by Merovingian rulers, it was chiefly so that they could display their status....”

“Medieval Christianity was to turn the desire to escape from one's lot into a major sin.”

“...that the total number of barbarians after their settlement in the Roman west formed 5 per cent of the whole population....” [it was 20% or more in the affected areas along the Rhine-Danube axis]

Christian European stupidity:

“There was a decline in the skills which was to leave the medieval west deprived for a long time. No one any longer knew how to quarry, transports, or work stone...The art of glassmaking in the Rhineland disappeared...Artistic taste...underwent a regression as did morals...”

“The crisis [of the feudal world during the 14th century or more accurately crises] gave birth to the society of the Renaissance and modern times which were more open and, for many, happier than the stifling feudal society.”

“War which was an evil between Christians, was a duty against non-Christians. Usury which was forbidden among Christians, was permissible to unbelievers, in other words the Jews.”

Innovations all came from the 'East'

“At the technical level it was transformed by borrowings such as the mill, windmill or watermill which came from the east...”

“Innovation in technology was, more even than elsewhere, a monstrous act, a sin.”

“There was practically no qualitative development in the use of machinery during the middle ages.”

“....at the economic level it was for a long time passive with regard to Byzantium and Islam...”

“Contempt for the world...was one of the great themes of medieval thought.”


And on and on he goes. None of the above statements are true, not a one. The list of medieval inventions are massive – probably without parallel in history. Medieval Christian Europe was certainly not a society in which life was easy, wonderful, or entirely rational, but it was an evolutionary period of much activity, debate, violence and innovation in all areas of life from the spiritual to the economic and political. Ascribing to 'eastern domains' for example, as being the suppliers of all Western European inventions and technologies is viciously untrue. All of the above statements made by Le Goff are standard calumnies which are wrong, dishonest and evilly mendacious.


Adding to this disagreeable narrative, Le Goff spends very little time on the impact that the 1200 years of Islamic Jihad must have had upon medieval Europe. The idea of Holy War was a Muslim invention and taken up by Christianity in self-defence. If you want to kill a fanatic, you have be a fanatic yourself. The Mediterranean trade and cultural systems were completely changed due to the Arab and Muslim advance. Items like paper from papryus, imported from Egypt, simply disappeared inside Medieval Europe. Europe would never have developed the way it did – certainly not in the Southern regions at least – if Islamic imperialism had not existed. Yet Le Goff spends almost no time on this major thread of medieval European development.


Curiously Le Goff goes through page after page of the agricultural, urban and general commercial revolution[s] which transformed Europe from 600 to 1100 AD. But he never makes the connections or linkages as to why this occurred. He does say that agricultural productivity and land clearage and land use intensity rose dramatically. But he does not spend anytime outlining inventions, new tools, or techniques. It is as if the transmogrification of European life from the Oriental despotism of Rome to the Renaissance in 16th century Florence was bridged by a world of little progress, change or radical reformation. Common sense tells us this can't be so. Instead he spends a lot of ink describing worker unrest, coinage devaluations [by the Kings of France mostly to finance their wars]; class and urban dislocations. All are worthy subjects but they can't detract from the movement towards modernity experienced and witnessed by medieval Christian development.


I can well imagine Le Goff tossing back a few chablis with his tweed-jacket friends at Les Annales, smoking French cigarettes, wearing small glasses, and declaiming against all theologies which did not enshrine the Napoleonic ideals of state power, despotism, centralized and oppressive legal codification, or why the state needs to micro-manage all aspects of the political-economy. In this regard the medieval Christian period would be dismissed as not enlightened in the Voltairean sense; or perhaps during certain eras not centralized and brutal enough; or perhaps the thousands of inventions which Le Goff ignores indicates a too-free market place, broad trading patterns and open minds eager for change.


Whatever it is that he hates about Western society found its outlet in a book about Medieval Europe. But then again one should expect this distortion of reality from an academic inspired investigator who did manage a very left-wing French historical journal.


Summary: Don't read this book if you want to know the real story about medieval Christian Europe.

 

 


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