The Forward-Looking Anachronist:

Johan Huizinga and Autumntide of the Middle Ages


Benjamin Ivry

  The eminent American historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi1 once told a colleague about how the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages had sparked his imagination as a boy, citing a passage in which Huizinga describes silence at night in a 15th century northern European city:

[Huizinga] evokes this silence in an almost palpable way. One of the images that stayed with me said more or less, wherever people were, they could hear the clatter of horse-shoes on the pavement as a solitary cavalryman crossed the city. I felt that this way of writing history was sublime, absolutely sublime.

  Like Yerushalmi, countless readers have been moved by the vivid sense imagery of Huizinga’s narrative since his book was first published in 1919 and translated into English in 1924. Essentially setting aside economics and political history, and shunning Freudian analysis, Huizinga made his book about reveries of the past into a dream-like entity in itself.
  He did so by compiling quotes, in places like a commonplace book. His admiration of the chronicler Froissart and the tragic-toned poet Eustache Deschamps shines through the pages of Autumntide, while secondary sources are scarcely mentioned. Perhaps all these pertinent contemporary quotes helped inspire a sometimes overwrought quality in Huizinga’s own prose that distinguished him from other historians, then and now.
  The excerpt prized by Yerushalmi was likely cited from the Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain, who described how in 1462, while Philip the Good was ailing, his son Charles sent a messenger to Abbeville to convey the news.
  As a reader, Huizinga was also thrilled by Le Jouvencel, a romance by Jean de Bueil about chivalry, knighthood, and the art of warfare:

In the account of a nocturnal march over the fields, the breath of stillness and the night air come at you.

Such concentrated sensory impressions are complemented in Huizinga’s text by his own concise observations:

Real life is violent, hard, and cruel; one reduces it to the beautiful dream of the chivalric ideal and builds on this game of life.

High-flown similes and metaphors decorate the pages like painted grotesques on the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts:

Ever since the Provençal troubadours of the twelfth century first struck up the melody of unrequited longing, the violins of the love song had soared higher and higher, until no one but Dante could still play the instrument in tune.

  Although Autumntide may seem ornately literary today, when it was first published, some historians criticized its racy readability. Otto Oppermann, a German-Dutch medievalist who taught at Utrecht, referred to the book as “Huizinga’s crime novel,” implying that it was all too vivid an experience.
  What appeared inappropriate to some academics a century ago has bolstered the book’s enduring charm. The historian William J. Bouwsma pointed out in the winter 1974 issue of Daedalus that Autumntide may be “enjoyed as a work of high art, full of color and life, as in its marvelous opening chapter with its bells and processions, its public executions and public tears…[Huizinga] had a singularly original and stimulating mind, provocative even when it seems most limited and perverse.”
  The book’s title itself is an ornate coinage. Autumntide derives from the Dutch Herfsttij. According to some sources, the term was a suggestion from Huizinga’s friend, the Dutch Marxist activist and poet Henriette Roland Holst. Although most critics consider that Holst’s verse has badly dated today, Huizinga felt that she merited comparison with Joost van den Vondel, the most prominent 17th century Dutch poet and playwright.
  While the word Autumntide is semantically close to the original term Herfsttij, Huizinga, who actively helped reshape and abridge his book for the 1924 English translation, entitled The Waning of the Middle Ages, preferred the latter title.
  As he wrote to the French historian Gabriel Hanotaux, he regretted the original title Autumn of the Middle Ages, finding it “too precious and too heavy.” Waning or Ending captured his meaning more fully.Despite any quibbles over the title, the new Leiden University Press translation has the inestimable value of being based on the last Dutch edition of the text (1941), representing Huizinga’s final published thoughts about it.
  The previous modern-era translation, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996) was inexplicably based on Dutch and German editions from the 1920s.
  Such are the perils of attempting fidelity, especially with an author whose quiddities were ever-evolving. For despite Huizinga’s insights and literary talent, his judgments could be eccentric to the point of waywardness.
  Some potentially controversial decisions had a certain logic, as when he wilfully omitted Joan of Arc from Autumntide. He later wrote (in Men and Ideas, 1984) that avoiding the subject of Joan of Arc was a “considered, deliberate omission”:

I knew that Joan of Arc would have torn the book I visualized in my mind completely out of balance. What kept me from introducing her in it was a sense of harmony - that and a vast and reverent humility.

  Other lacunae are symptoms of Huizinga’s individual points of view. Crafting an argument that the arts decayed as medieval style became overripe, he was silent about French and Dutch music of the era. Relatively little studied in Huizinga’s time, this music never waned and did not support his argument.
  In our time of pandemic, we might look in Autumntide for insights about plague, a scourge of the era. Yet Huizinga did not focus on epidemiology either, apart from suggesting that the Black Death may have led to an increased morbid sensibility in late medieval art.
  The product of a strict Mennonite upbringing, Huizinga could behave with a certain stiff-necked assurance, as when he opposed modern technology on principle. In 1920, when asked by the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences for his opinion on funding the Dutch Central Film Archive, Huizinga was vehemently opposed. His coauthored report to the Academy asked:

 Wherein lies the value of cinematographic recordings of actions for the future knowledge of the past? What kind of information can film supply that is not already provided by a photograph or description? Visible forms are adequately recorded by still photography. Film only adds to this the purely outward manifestation of motions.

  Yet he did not shun all modern art. In 1927, Huizinga published a biography of the Dutch portrait painter Jan Veth (1864–1925), a contemporary, albeit a realist and traditionalist. Above all, Huizinga was capable of grappling with creations and events of his own era.
  Essentially a humanist, Huizinga believed in the possibility of mankind’s improvement, which was perhaps his closest point of accord with Henriette Roland Holst’s idealism.
  Huizinga felt strongly that society could be bettered by heightened moral and aesthetic priorities, which may be one reason why he cited many scenes of medieval tortures and executions in Autumntide, to the point of making parts of the book read like a proto-Foucaultian analysis.
  He was aware of the dangers of rising European Fascism. In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1935), a book dedicated to his children, included the warning: “We are living in a demented world. And we know it. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if tomorrow the madness gave way to a frenzy which would leave our poor Europe in a state of distracted stupor, with engines still turning and flags streaming in the breeze, but with the spirit gone.”
  Two years earlier, he had demonstrated his activism as Rector Magnificus of Leiden University. He banned Johann von Leers, a Nazi official from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and leader of the German student delegation, from a conference organized on campus by the International Student Service.
  Huizinga did so, he explained, because Von Leers had published an pamphlet, Call of the Hour: Out with the Jews (Forderung der Stunde, ‘Juden Raus’), that repeated venerable anti-Semitic blood libels. Von Leers’ admonitions included: “Mothers, see that the Jewish threat to your unfortunate children is removed from our country (Mütter, sorgt dafür dass die jüdische Gefahr für Euere arme Kinder aus dem Lande kommt).”
  In opposing the presence on campus of this Nazi official, Huizinga was not supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor indeed by the Leiden University board of governors, who criticized his decision.
  Huizinga’s books were promptly banned in Germany. In 1940, three months before the German invasion in May, Huizinga lectured on patriotism and nationalism, decrying the “savage” foe.
  When the Nazis arrived, they shut the University of Leiden and in August 1942, imprisoned Huizinga and other prominent opponents in the Sint-Michielsgestel concentration camp, south of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
In the camp, Huizinga and others were held as hostages, under threat of execution if their fellow Dutchmen attacked the German occupant. He continued to lecture on historical topics until his health collapsed under harsh prison camp conditions.
  Then, still banned from returning home to Leiden due to his record of anti-Nazi resistance, he was forced to find alternate housing in the eastern Netherlands. In the village of De Steeg, a sympathetic colleague, Rudolph Pabus Cleveringa (1894-1980), offered him shelter.
  Cleveringa, a professor of law at Leiden University, had delivered a speech in November 1940, protesting the dismissal of Jewish colleagues as ordered by the Nazi occupant. In 1944 Cleveringa would be imprisoned in Herzogenbusch concentration camp in Vught, near the town of ’s-Hertogenbosch. There he joined a coordinating committee for the Dutch resistance movement.
  The house which he had offered to Huizinga in De Steeg was a weekend and holiday residence. Huizinga moved into it with his second wife and their daughter, Laura Maria, born in 1941. He died there in February 1945, not long before his homeland was freed from Nazi occupation.
  So to dismiss Huizinga as an anachronistic dreamer with no care for his own historical moment would be a serious injustice. He did not like the time he lived in, but he had not abandoned hope that things might improve.
  His attitude to scholarship was likewise forward-looking and optimistic, and offered glimpses at future scholarly perspectives in fields that were not taken seriously in his day. For example, describing courtly splendor, Huizinga mentions presciently:

In fact, fashion is generally much closer to art than academic aesthetics would like to admit. As an artificial accentuation of physical beauty and physical movement, it is closely connected with one of the arts, namely the art of dance.

  Beauty is a constant subject of importance, especially how writers evoke it:

Eustache Deschamps admires the beauty of turning windmills and of the sun in a dewdrop. La Marche observes how beautifully the sunlight shines on the blond hair of a troop of German and Bohemian knights.

  Huizinga was deeply moved by what are now called Northern Renaissance paintings, especially those by Jan Van Eyck. Yet he alienated specialists in the field by arguing that these artworks did not represent a renaissance at all, but rather the overripe final flowering of a dying medieval culture.
  Whether in expressing unorthodox opinions or proclaiming firmly held beliefs, Huizinga retained a certain affability that is the basis of his attraction for readers, during his lifetime and up to the present.
  Perhaps not coincidentally, his doctoral dissertation focused on the vidushaka (clown), the comic character in Sanskrit drama. In ancient Indian plays, the vidushaka is a noble, good-hearted, blundering fool, the trusted friend of the hero. A bald-headed gluttonous jester, he is an audience favorite who is expected to ridicule social norms.
  Although it would be rash to identify Huizinga with the vidushaka in any literal way, a good nature permeates Autumntide, making even its most unexpected assertions palatable.
  An obituary in the autumn 1946 issue of College Art Journal by the Dutch author Adriaan Jacob Barnouw of Columbia University described Huizinga’s “Newtonian modesty.” Barnouw referred to the quote attributed to the English physicist by his biographer David Brewster, that he felt like a “boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
  Huizinga’s most widely influential book, even more than Autumntide, was Homo Ludens (1938), about the importance of play in generating culture in society.
  Barnouw added that although the “gloom of Nazi occupation still darkened the land of his birth,” at the time of Huizinga’s death, he unwaveringly believed in the “need for right and order, for honesty, freedom, reason, and good morals” rooted in his Christian faith.
  These basic elements of belief, leading to positivism in dire times, is an ultimate lesson to be drawn from Huizinga.
  In addition, his work ethic stands as an ideal. His charmingly neat approach to writing involved making notes on strips of paper and rearranging them until their sequence satisfied him. Even when annotating books from his own personal library, he never wrote in the volumes themselves, apart from correcting typographical errors, but jotted down comments on loose sheaves of paper.
  For all his originality in some senses, he followed a traditional academic career path. Shunning distractions like travel, which he believed did not broaden the mind, he read and wrote according to fixed hours. Apart from his native language, he spoke French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, and read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Old Norse, Sanskrit, and Arabic.
  As an example of outward-looking, ever-curious sanguineness, international intellectual range, and methodical diligence, Huizinga remains a writer for our time.

Review of Johan Huizinga (translated by Diane Webb, edited by Graeme Small and Anton van der Lem), Autumntide of the Middle Ages: A study of forms of life and thought of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France and the Low Countries (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2021).