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

Alexander Murray

  • The Autumn of the Middle Ages by John Huizinga, translated by Rodney Payton
    Chicago, 560 pp, £15.95, December 1997, ISBN 0 226 35994 8

‘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’.

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