Huizinga published The Autumn of the Middle Ages in 1919. Daring, colourful and controversial, the book has continued to inspire scholars.
Hundred years ago, Johan Huizinga published his truly memorable account of the “Autumn of the Middle Ages.” Laying the groundwork for a cultural history of the Middle Ages, his work unfortunately no longer figure regularly on the synopsis of teachers in medieval history. Both sensual and challenging, its role has been taken over by Netflix-series. However, the book by Huizinga is still one of the best ever written on the daily life of the later Middle Ages.
Johan Huizinga was born in Groningen in 1872 where he grew up in an academic household. In 1895 he entered the university, studying linguistics and the Indo-European languages. In 1897, he defended his doctoral thesis outlining the role of jesters in Indian drama. In 1902, however, his interest turned towards the history of the later Middle Ages, and from 1905, he chaired a position as professor in General and Dutch history. From there, he moved to Leiden, where he taught general history until 1942 when he was taken into custody by the Nazis for his critical stance towards the regime. He died at Arnhem a few weeks before the capitulation of the Germans in 1945.
His criticism of the Nazi-regime was entwined with his life-long emersion in the Later Middle Ages and the lost world of an organic and more tactile and sensual world order. The “mechanical” thinking of leftist intellectuals and right-wing fascists both missed the point of the embedded life of pre-modern people, who were busy playing out and ritualising their manifest lives here and now rather than organising them according to higher principles.
True to this agenda, Huizinga famously opened his book on the Waning Middle Ages with a description of how to live in a medieval town at times devoid of light and sound, and the overt importance of such phenomena as the tolling of the church bells. Named, the sounds of these distinct bells and their attuned messages were easily detected by nearby people. According to Huizinga, their distinct sounds, rhythms and roles helped the bells to set the soundscape for the and festive life marked by markets, processions, entries of princes, executions, public performances of mystery-plays, artistic renditions, and not least the continuous flow of masses, benedictions and religious ceremonies.
And thus, we meet the shimmering light of an era gone-by, wrapped up in a presence devoid of history per se. A vivid snap-shot produced by a gifted observer and a brilliant author, this encapsulation of a tangible and ritualised past came to inspire historians like Kantorowicz, Norbert Elias, Jacques le Goff, and later Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Peter Burke and Barbara Rosenwein. Peter Arnade, our contemporary connoisseur par excellence of Late Burgundy Flanders has called him and anthropologist “avant la lettre”.
The History of Art
One of the enduring conclusions in the book was the articulation of late medieval art as fundamentally applied. “They wanted works of art only to make them subservient to some practical use. Their purpose and their meaning always preponderated over their purely aesthetic value”, Huizinga wrote. Hence the “nature of the subject was far more important than the question of beauty”. In fact. Huizinga was rather dismissive of the artistic qualities of the visual masterpieces of van Eyck, Claus Sluter, and Breughel.
This type reading – as we should know – was the impetus for Panofsky’s masterly rereading of the early Netherlandish masterpieces by van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and the other “primitive” masters as primarily “artistic”, valuable for their beauty.
Thus, Huizinga “read” the famous portrait of Jean Arnolfini and his wife as a portrait of the friends of van Eyck “caught” in a delicate and timeless moment in their life. To Huizinga, the value of the rendition of this event was the details captured as in a time-capsule and in the perfect tense as witnessed by the signature of the artist: “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic, 1434”. As opposed to this, Erwin Panofsky – the founder of modern Art History, symbolically identified the painting not only as a depiction of a wedding ceremony but also as a visual contract testifying to the act of matrimony.
The symbolic readings of Panofsky of this famous masterpiece in the National Gallery in London, have recently come under critique. Perhaps Huizinga’s understanding of the painting as a unique private moment – caught in Kairos – may be resurrected once more. In this case, though, it is a moment of loss. Some art historians have claimed that the painting is of a couple where the husband is mourning, and the wife has died.
Diane Wolfthal’s exploration of Huizinga’s approach to art history has recently been published in a collection of papers aiming to inspire a rereading of Huizinga. Conceived and written by a number of acclaimed Huizinga- scholars and biographers, this book offers an inspiring introduction to the work of Huizinga, and demonstrates its continuous value as a source of inspiration for cultural historians in spe. The book explores the legacy and historiographical impact of Johan Huizinga’s 1919 masterwork a century after its publication. Often considered one of the most successful books in medieval European history, its reception has varied over the last hundred years, popular with non-academic readers, and appraised more critically by fellow historians and those more generally in the field of medieval studies.
Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, tempera and oil on wood, 1434 (National Gallery, London). Detail
The Waning of the Middle Ages.
Abridged translation 1924
The Autumn of the Middle Ages
Transl. By Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzch
University of Chicago Press 1996
The New Huizinga and the Old Middle Ages.
By Edward Peters and Walter P. Simons
Speculum 74 (1999), pp. 587- 620
Early Netherlandish Paintings
By Erwin Panofsky
Harvard University Press 1966