Vol. 20 No. 6 · 19 March 1998

The vanquished party, as likely as not innocent, was dragged half-dead to the gallows

Alexander Murray

2377 words
The Autumn of the Middle Ages 
by John Huizinga, translated by Rodney Payton.
Chicago, 560 pp., £15.95, December 1997, 0 226 35994 8
Show More
Show More

‘Positively medieval,’ we say, implying a scheme of historical periods which underlies most of what we think and do. The Middle Ages, to 1485, were barbarous and, luckily for them, also an ‘age of faith’; then came the Renaissance with its humane values and realism, a recognisable ancestor to the modern world. The job of testing the assumptions behind this distinction is never-ending, and we must be grateful to scholars who have done it well. Two names spring at once to mind: those of Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, written in 1860, is still required reading on its subject; and Johan Huizinga, who wrote in Burckhardt’s shadow about the same centuries (though not the same area), and in 1919 achieved the same with The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

Huizinga (pronounced ‘Housing-ha’) was born in 1872, the son of a professor of medicine in Gröningen. The young man studied Sanskrit, taking his doctorate in 1897, and his idiosyncratic path from there to the European Middle Ages shaped what he did when he arrived. Dutch history had only begun in earnest in the 16th century, so that Holland was late in producing medievalists. The first Dutch chair in the subject was founded in 1900, in Utrecht, its first holder a German, who upheld the conservative tradition of approaching the Middle Ages through charters, not chronicles or literature. Next-door Belgium, by contrast, as if conscious of its arriviste status (it was only seventy years old), was busy discovering the medieval ancestry of its own culture, in a series of exhibitions and books produced just before and after the year 1900, reaching a high point in an exhibition in Bruges in 1902. (Between 1898 and 1912 eight books appeared on the Van Eyck brothers alone.) Huizinga visited the Bruges exhibition and it inspired him to explore Holland’s own medieval antecedents. So the Sanskritist moved sideways, and got to work on medieval Haarlem, via its charters, publishing the results between 1905 and 1911.

The Bruges exhibition had also challenged Huizinga at a deeper level. It introduced him to a culture, the Burgundian, that was impossible to describe without attaching it to one or other of the historical periods it straddled. Much Burgundian art – the Van Eyck portraits, for instance – seemed to match that of Italy and to belong therefore to the Italian Renaissance, if in a distinctly Northern incarnation. Yet there were other aspects less ‘Renaissance’ than ‘medieval’. Which period did it belong to? The charter school of medievalists was clearly incapable of answering the question. Walking along a canal near Gröningen in 1906, Huizinga realised he would have to defy current orthodoxies and answer it himself, by way of a massive reading of chronicles, poetry and religious and pastoral writing. (In the summer of 1911 a friend discovered him at home deep in the 25 volumes of Froissart.) Some thirteen years later he finished the work and did not know what to call it. ‘The World of Burgundy’ was too narrow. Finally, on the advice of the poet Henriette Roland-Holst, he called it Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, literally ‘the autumn of the Middle Ages’.

Huizinga went on to write much else. In 1924 he published a dignified biography of the leading single figure of the Northern Renaissance, Erasmus; and in 1938, in a brilliant essay in comparative anthropology, Homo ludens, he argued for the presence of a ‘play’ element in all culture. (Its theme is that most of our institutions – church, parliament or school – have in common with a game like football that each uses a marked out physical space where peculiar axioms and rules apply, guarded by ad hoc functionaries with ad hoc timetables.) In 1935, even before uttering his game theory, Huizinga had shown the prophetic, Jeremiah-like side of his spirit with The Shadow of Tomorrow, which preached the imminent collapse of European civilisation to a public only too eager to listen. By general agreement, however, Herfsttij remains his greatest book.

Perhaps understandably, it was not appreciated in Holland when it came out in 1919. Even before translations had appeared, however, the German Historische Zeitschrift had recognised that the book was to be taken seriously, and compared it to Burckhardt’s Renaissance. Translations followed. The Germans translated it entire, complete with long vernacular quotations and notes, their only change being to split the original 14 chapters into 23, more nearly equal in length. The French publisher Edouard Champion, while accepting the 23 chapters, was more cautious about the quotations and notes, and so commissioned a lightened version to attract a wider public. Publication was delayed by disagreements until 1932, but this lighter version had meanwhile surfaced in English disguise, because the publisher Edward Arnold had read and liked the French typescript and commissioned a Leyden Anglicist, Fritz Hopman, to go back to the Dutch original and translate it into English à la Champion. Hopman got Huizinga’s approval for this and the result was The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book with that title appeared in 1924 and has been in print most of the time since.

The present translators, aware of this slightly unorthodox history, have done the whole job again, restoring the trimmings of the Dutch original. Most of the restored parts are in the apparatus criticus and the lengthier source-quotations, and make this translation about 10 per cent longer than Hopman’s. As to the quality of the new translation two samples may illustrate how it stands to the old:

Old: With each attempt to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this borderline has receded further and further backwards.

New: Each attempt made to date to clearly separate the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has resulted in an apparent pushing of the boundaries ever further back.

Old: In the vows we find once more that mixture of asceticism and eroticism which we found underlying the idea of chivalry itself, and so clearly expressed in the tournaments.

New: The link between the ascetic and the erotic that is at the base of the fantasy of the hero who frees the virgin or sheds his blood for her, the central motif of tournament romanticism, reveals itself in another and perhaps a more striking aspect in the knightly vow.

In the second example Hopman had omitted a phrase. So the new translation is more correct here, as elsewhere. But the correctness does not always extend to insular English usage, nor to Latin quotations, nor even to geography: Anjou turns up in Provence and the Archbishop of Vienne is translated sans cérémonie to Vienna. The same correctness from time to time makes understanding difficult, as when Hainault is given as Hennegouwen, Henry (of Trastamara) as Heinrich (why not Enriquez for that matter?), Margaret (of Anjou) as Margareth, and so on.

To be translated more than once is the mark of a classic, and automatically makes one wonder how this one is faring after 78 years. How enduring the appeal of its subject-matter remains can be gauged from the chapter-titles: ‘The Passionate Intensity of Life’ (an echo of Yeats, replacing Hop-man’s ‘The Violent Tenor of Life’); ‘The Craving for a More Beautiful Life’; ‘The Heroic Dream’; ‘The Forms of Love’; ‘The Vision of Death’; ‘Religious Excitation and Religious Fantasy’; ‘Image and Word’. Each chapter has its flowing pages of explanation and example, and it is here that one would expect to find weaknesses, given that evidence is used which has been exposed to reassessment since 1919. While a pioneer’s success is rightly judged by the degree to which he is surpassed (since he inspires research), that success is commonly bought at the cost of putting his original book out of date, and it is fair to ask whether that has happened here.

It would be easy for a medievalist to name a dozen fields where scholars have modified Huizinga’s judgments. One of these is chivalry, which Huizinga reads as a living-in-the-past, an escape from the brutalities of 15th-century war. In 1984 Maurice Keen, incidentally a strong admirer of Huizinga, showed with conviction in his Chivalry that the mythology of knighthood had a more positive function: that of softening the brutalities. Again, take the witch craze. Obedient to contemporary consensus, Huizinga saw the Malleus maleficarum as the outcome of ‘medieval thought’ rather than – as Norman Cohn and others have shown – of conditions peculiar to the later 15th century and the two centuries that followed. Another example is medieval saints. For Huizinga they were ‘timeless’, whereas shifting models of sainthood are now a busy subject for hagiography experts. As for poetic allegory – a topic in which I have to declare a special interest – Huizinga accuses it of stagnation in the 15th century without seeing – even from documents under his eyes: Alain Chartier, for instance – that the genre was learning, in post-Agincourt France, to depict the ‘despair’ which Huizinga (in accord with his poets) makes its dominant mood.

The list of charges is easily extended, through the subjects Huizinga touches but whose subtleties he ignores because he wrote too soon: was old age more admired in Dante’s time than in that of Des-champs? Where did preachers learn their ‘hierarchies’ of vice? What was the influence of the Biblia pauperum, with its device of matching Old and New Testament episodes? Art historians will wish to add their own footnotes. According to Michael Baxandall, for instance, what Huizinga calls a 15th-century painter’s horror vacui may simply have reflected the horror of a patron at getting less than his money’s worth, and therefore insisting on crowding a tableau with figures, paid for per capita. Again, where Huizinga thought capriciousness was the reason the Annunciation was painted in so many different ways, today’s art historian would observe that the Gospel episode had four or five distinct moments, from the Angel’s arrival to Mary’s consent, and that painters followed a code which distinguished them.

These are specialist cavils. There are also questions about the book’s central concepts. Huizinga himself had doubts about them. He knew perfectly well, for example, that even in the confines of his 15th century there was not one ‘medieval mind’ but many – those for and against the eroticism of The Romance of the Rose, for instance, or the learned and unlearned (different degrees of learning gave people quite different degrees of scientific knowledge). It was the dialectic between these different medieval minds that brought about change. That is another problem: change. Huizinga was equivocal about whether Herfsttij describes a process of change, as implied by the title, or a steady-state medieval culture. That equivocation feeds a suspicion – and fed one for Huizinga’s contemporary critics, his countryman Peter Geyl foremost among them – that Huizinga saw ‘autumn’ in his sources because he had a pessimistic cast of mind. It was surely that same, slightly aloof sense that civilisation was crumbling which led him to focus his researches mainly on the aristocratic and literary aspects of 15th-century life, as distinct from the doers and traders of the towns (people known, when at all, only from those charters). After all, if one class in any age is pessimistic, there must be another, even if only that of the pillaging mercenaries, which is correspondingly sanguine.

Herfsttij endures, for all that. The lesser of the two reasons for its doing so is its quality as a photograph album, fruit of the author’s vast reading and his artist’s eye. An example: ever since reading the book as a boy I have been haunted by Huizinga’s story of a trial by combat in Valenciennes in 1455, fought with staves. The vanquished party, as likely as not innocent and pleading to the duke whom he had served in two wars, was dragged half-dead to the gallows amid the roars of the crowd, and denied the sacrament before he was hanged (a custom denounced by churchmen). The memorable scenes of horror in Herfsttij, such as that one, are occasionally mitigated by equally memorable traces of sympathy or bad conscience. When a hangman presumed to touch the duke’s hand while greeting him, nothing but the man’s summary execution would purge the pollution; and we learn that Gilles de Rais, ‘Bluebeard’, paused in his child-murders to sponsor a service for the Holy Innocents ‘for the bliss of his soul’. A contemporary who really was innocent could be found recording his sins daily on paper, as St Peter of Luxemburg did or, like St Francis of Paula, fleeing the mere sight of a woman. The contrasts are extreme. We find ribalds selling dirty pictures in churches, or acting a lewd playlet in the nude on the very street where a procession with relics might be passing. Huizinga’s is a world of duels and executions, yet also of pageants that lasted several days, of reckless extravagance (a 24-man orchestra was once brought on in a pie), and of sudden acts of penance and piety. All this lay behind the ordered serenity of Roger van der Weyden and the Van Eycks.

Yet Huizinga does more than regale us with images. His perception, in them and through them, is that of a poet. The best demonstration is the chapter which here is called ‘Image and Word’ (two chapters in Hopman’s version) and contrasts the respective relationships of art and of literature with the experience of their creators, and explains the differences. ‘The 15th century,’ Huizinga writes with characteristic elegance, ‘painted its virtues but described its sins.’ Among the many wise lessons of this chapter lurks a clue to the reservation the author himself expressed, and readers have since felt, about the assumptions that gave rise to the book. Huizinga had been drawn to Burgundian culture by its art, the poised Van Eycks of the Northern Renaissance, painting the virtues. By broaching the human hinterland of that art Huizinga had discovered the literature, describing the sins. Like other great investigators of human affairs, in other words, Huizinga found himself breaking out of the conceptual framework he had started with. He had discovered two ‘periods’ present in one age – may that be the reason we still read the book after eighty years? Aspiring to be ‘Renaissance men’, we still have grounds for fearing we may be ‘positively medieval’. Huizinga tells us discreetly that we may be both.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences