Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff

One of my life long interests has been the Middle Ages.  I love the myth, legend, art, music and history of that time period.  I'm especially interested in how our civilization developed over the approximate thousand year time span that we now label the Medieval Age.

Jacques le Goff is a prominent French researcher in not only the history but the sociology of this time period.  He has written many books about Western Medieval culture.  This particular book deals with what the title says:  How was the concept of time, work and culture developed.

The book is divided into four sections:  Time and Labor; Labor and Value Systems; High Culture and Popular Culture; and Toward a Historical Anthropology.

In Time and Culture le Goff discusses the invention of our modern concept of time.  It never occurred to me that people counted time any differently.  He notes that at first, laborers worked according to the sun but only worked half days.  It was the laborers of the land that insisted on working longer hours so they could receive greater pay.  

Time was at first measured according to the Church.  Clerics regarded time according to Biblical texts and church tradition.  Therefore all time is God's time.  The day was divided up according to the different hours of the church as well as days, weeks and months in that every day had its own particular time in the Church Year where a particular mass was celebrated.  Different masses sung different psalms according to what time of the day or week or month of the year.  

The rise of merchants redefined time in many respects but I don't have time to go into it here.  But this leads us to the next point of this section:  work.  The church held some jobs in honor but some in contempt.  The laborer was at first held in contempt in the early middle ages although this changed by the time of the high middle ages.   The merchant class likewise changed attitudes towards honorable and dishonorable work.  At first it was considered sinful to be usurers which is why Jews held that occupation for hundreds of years.  This made Jews vulnerable to backlash and persecution when times became unstable and people's minds were easily directed to make scapegoats of the people to whom they owed money.  The Bible also speaks of being no man's debter hmmm...

At any rate this whole division goes into much greater detail than I'm able about the rise of labor and merchant classes, the development of time, its origins in the church and later within the merchant community.

The third section describes the development of universities and trades and professions.  Certain people were expected to go to universities, primarily clergy which is only natural considering that universities were developed within the church with the primary objective of training clergy.  This later expanded to include people who attended trade schools and artisans.  Those particular schools were eventually absorbed into the university system.

Still, these schools were primarily schools of theology and exegetical training.  Indeed, back then church, learning, and trade were not separated.  Secular university systems did not exist and every subject, math, science, language arts etc.. was viewed through the lens of Scripture which was considered the crowning science.

The final chapter tells us how  the Public Authorities outside the church gained influence in the Universities during the Renaissance.

The third section is very interesting to me as a musician because it traces the development of high and popular culture in folklore traditions and music. High culture has its roots in religious music and literature while popular culture are those tales and songs people told each other at home and around the fire.

The final chapter was thought provoking because it described the development of symbolic rituals.  Even how the hand shake and greeting with a kiss came about, what it meant and how each person performed them according to their station.  Medieval Christianity was rife with rites and symbols so naturally these became a part of the culture as a whole.  

A lord would take both hands of a vassal in his hands while the vassal always pressed his hands together as in prayer to the Lord.  Le Goff maintains that this, coming from inside church tradition was not a symbol of obeisance as a servant but of a son.  He asserts that the relationship between feudal lords and the people under their authority was not impersonal but seen by both parties as familial.  Just as Christians upon baptism became members of the Christian family, when serfs or villagers ritually show their deference to the knight who promises to protect them, they are publicly proclaiming fidelity to not just their master, but the head of their family. 

The knight, in turn, kneels before the Pope, acknowledging the head of his family is Christ.  When the King "knights" someone by ritually touching his shoulders with a sword he is making the same statement.

This book is far more involved than what I've written.  The most I can hope is to whet someone's appetite to read Le Goff's books for him or herself.


  1. This sounds fascinating. The Middle Ages in Europe is a period that fascinates me too, though my knowledge of it is a bit superficial.

    It is really significant how many of the building blocks of our present day society, such as the concept of time, has it's origins in that period.

    1. Hi Brian! My review is very superficial. There was way more to the book than what I was able to convey. I agree with you about the building blocks having their foundations in the middle ages. They really weren't that "dark". Especially when you compare it to the barbarism that existed before.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.