Jacques Le Goff on History

This is the translation of an extract from the interview with the French historian, Jacques Le Goff, published in Le Figaro on December 7, 2006. The interview was done to mark the reprint of the book by Regine Pernoud, La Libération d’Orléans, 8 May 1429 (first edition – Paris, Gallimard, 1969), to which Le Goff wrote the preface, called The End of the English France. In it, he argued that the siege of Orleans in 1429 had not only been a turning point in the course of the Hundred Years’ War, but has also occupied a special place in the French national memory. Much of the interview examines this view, but towards the end Le Goff spoke on historical comebacks and the place of history in the context of today. The French text is by Jacques de Saint-Victoire and is printed in full here.

Don’t we also have this obscure interest in the Evil, in the most somber passions?
The comeback of the passions is one big trait of history. One could, for example, research into the history of the Crusades to explain the events in the Middle East. Bush is like one of the Western Crusaders, and the Arabs regarded the Crusaders as the first signs of the Western anti-Islamism. This is how I approached it. I was criticized a lot for being the first medievalist who has had a negative view of the Crusades. But we refer to them these days to measure the negative impact.

This reminds us of the ‘longue durée’, of which Fernand Braudel was so fond. André Burguière has just published his Intellectual History of the Annales. In your opinion, whatever happened to this ‘new history’? Isn’t it in a rut?
I am not the best person to answer your question, since the meetings of the committee of the Annales often happen at my place. But I don’t see the decline of the Annales. Didn’t they exaggerate, or even invent, the crisis of history? Yet its vigour rests within its process. I don’t see it either going backwards or stagnating. Admittedly, it’s a bit banal to say so, but the new doesn’t last forever. For all that, history continues, as Georges Duby would say.

Does it still have the same place it has once occupied?
It’s true that it’s no longer in the newspapers’ editorials, as it once used to be. But do notice that its position in the media interest is different not because history has declined or that it has stopped being interesting for the readers. On the contrary, what for me manifests itself as a real regress in the position of history, is that it occupies a place more and more marginal in the making of male and female politicians and in their cultural level. How could one govern France without taking its past much into account? I take the opportunity to mention an excellent posthumously published book by Yves Renouard, on the character types of France. I also deplore the fact that this historical dimension is hardly present in the making of Europe. History is necessary to give a soul and a foundation to politics.
You can read more about Jacques Le Goff at Wikipedia.
Pernoud, Regine, La Libération d’Orléans (8 May 1429), preface by Jacques Le Goff, Paris, Gallimard, 2006 (Les journées qui ont fait la France).
Renouard, Yves, Leçons sur l’unité française et les caractères généraux de la civilisation française, édition François Renouard, Bordeaux, 2005.