Jacques Le Goff (1 January 1924 – 1 April 2014) was a French historian and prolific author specializing in the Middle Ages, particularly the 12th and 13th centuries.
Le Goff championed the Annales School movement, which emphasizes long-term trends over the topics of politics, diplomacy, and war that dominated 19th century historical research. From 1972 to 1977, he was the head of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). He was a leading figure of New History, related to cultural history. Le Goff argued that the Middle Ages formed a civilization of its own, distinct from both the Greco-Roman antiquity and the modern world.
A prolific medievalist of international renown, Le Goff was sometimes considered the principal heir and continuator of the movement known as Annales School (École des Annales), founded by his intellectual mentor Marc Bloch. Le Goff succeeded Fernand Braudel in 1972 at the head of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and was succeeded by François Furet in 1977. Along with Pierre Nora, he was one of the leading figures of New History (Nouvelle histoire) in the 1970s.
Since then, he dedicated himself to studies on the historical anthropology of Western Europe during medieval times. He was well known for contesting the very name of “Middle Ages” and its chronology, highlighting achievements of this period and variations inside it, in particular by attracting attention to the Renaissance of the 12th century.
In his 1984 book The Birth of Purgatory, he argued that the conception of purgatory as a physical place, rather than merely as a state, dates to the 12th century, the heyday of medieval otherworld-journey narratives such as the Irish Visio Tnugdali, and of pilgrims’ tales about St Patrick’s Purgatory, a cavelike entrance to purgatory on a remote island in Ireland.
An agnostic, Le Goff presented an equidistant position between the detractors and the apologists of the Middle Ages. His opinion was that the Middle Ages formed a civilization of its own, distinct of both the Greco-Roman antiquity and the modern world.
Among his numerous works were two widely accepted biographies, a genre his school did not usually favor: the life of Louis IX, the only King of France to be canonized, and the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian mendicant friar.
In October 2000 he received an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of Pavia.
In 2004 Le Goff received the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for History from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.