A Modern Dutch Master: Johan Huizinga’s Portrait of the Middle Ages

Daniel Woolf on Johan Huizinga

Autumntide of the Middle Ages
Johan Huizinga, 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. Translated by Diane Webb; edited by Graeme Small and Anton van der Lem (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2019). 592pp, $69.50 cloth.

The publication of a new translation of a book does not always receive the attention it merits, especially if it’s a work of non-fiction. One can understand if not agree with this: a new version of Anna Karenina or A la recherche du temps perdu should warrant fanfare, and it does so because it’s likely to attract a significant number of literary readers. Translated non-fiction has a narrower, niche appeal within the already-smallish subset of readers interested in a particular subject. That includes history. And what is the potential market for a third translation (barely 25 years after the previous one) of a history first published a century ago, in Dutch, on late medieval cultural history?

The answer in this case would be “rather a good one.” Johan Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages (Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen), written in the decade leading up to and during the Great War, is that rare thing, a work of historical writing that has long outlived its author and that merits adoption into the tiny pantheon of modern historiographic classics. Among these, one can mention obvious candidates such as Edward Gibbon’s Enlightenment-era Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, though few non-specialist readers will have ventured beyond the earliest chapters of that vast work to follow its narrative all the way to the end of the Byzantine Empire. And there is of course Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), a book that in some way provided a model for Huizinga half a century later, even though the latter rejected much of Burckhardt’s characterization of the Renaissance. Depending on one’s national origin, one can add others: Hume, Macaulay and Carlyle in Britain; Michelet in France, Prescott and Parkman in nineteenth-century America. Beyond that one gets into the broader list of those books that are “must reads” by historians because of enormous impact on the discipline of history, but which in truth are less likely to be read outside it.

For those who have not read Autumntide in any form, some facts and details. The author, a Dutchman who lived till near the end of the Second World War, wrote many other books and essays. These include: an anthropologically-inflected study of human play, Homo Ludens; two books on contemporary American life and mass culture; a biography of the Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam; a book on the Dutch golden age (a term he disliked) during the seventeenth century, of which Autumntide was initially intended to be the prequel; and a doctoral thesis/first book on ancient Indian literature—Huizinga, originally more a philologist than a historian, was a polyglot whose multiple languages included Sanskrit. Young “Han” Huizinga, as he was called as a child, had a quite unremarkable upbringing and early adulthood, though he is known to have had an active fantasy life involving knights, fairies and the like, interests that stayed with him throughout his life. Though a self-described hermit, and very shy, this Han was never Solo. He had many friends or correspondents, and a normal if somewhat sad family life: his beloved first wife Mary died just before war broke out in 1914, and his son Dirk died young. Johan passed a quietly professorial, non-political career, which did not spare him from a brief period of confinement by Nazi occupiers, and though he was temperamentally inclined to solitude he was nonetheless fascinated by the dynamics of community and society, and by the role of both play and ritual in creating and maintaining them.

In maturity, Huizinga was well connected to contemporary intellectuals. These included the painter and critic Jan Veth, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, and several notable historians of his approximate vintage such as the Belgian Henri Pirenne.  He was, as Wilhelm Otterspeer’s excellent recent book on Huizinga stresses, a man full of contrasts, with wide interests, a conventional academic who served his turn as Rector of Leiden University (then an annually rotating post) and left an impressive legacy of writings, some unfinished, quite apart from his private papers; a product of nineteenth-century rigorous philological training, he was in other ways a throwback to Romantic era historiography. The sensuous quality of his prose, and his capacity to feel the past in an individual anecdote, a small detail of painting, a musical phrase, has been well noted by his readers. In tone, it connects Huizinga more to a historian such as Jules Michelet, a century earlier, than it does to an icon of mid-nineteenth-century historicism such as Leopold von Ranke (whom Huizinga admired as a scholar but found passionless and overly concerned with order); yet there is also a touch of the modernist, despite an antipathy to modern life, and more than a passing resemblance in Autumntide to Proust.

Autumntide itself, as already noted, is idiosyncratic. It has no chronological structure whatever, and indeed Huizinga plays somewhat fast and loose with time as he slips back behind the work’s nominal focus on the fifteenth century and ahead well into the sixteenth. He had a fondness for bold statements and aphorisms that is fully on display in Autumntide.  Some of the book’s earliest readers—including Huizinga’s own former pupil, the Marxist historian Jan Romein—were deeply critical of it. Huizinga deals principally with France and the independent Duchy of Burgundy, ruled from 1363 To 1477 by a quartet of dukes who were successive cadet-branch descendants of France’s King John II. The duchy itself, roughly equivalent to modern Belgium and the Netherlands, was an awkward amalgam of low-countries territories overlapping with France (and is thus not to be confused with the modern French region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté or the smaller historical county of Burgundy). It matters historically because during the rule of the Four Dukes (not a Motown band), Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold, Burgundy was an effective counterweight to French power and an unreliable ally of France’s arch-rival England, in a classic example of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The dukes themselves were canny figures for the most part, though only the two Philips enjoyed a long tenure: John was assassinated by his French cousin in 1419 in the middle of a supposed peace discussion, and Charles died in battle against the Swiss in 1477, ending the great age of Burgundian power. The wealth and patronage of the dukes was at least as important as their political impact. A great deal of the northern European art of the period was done at the behest of the dukes or their court grandees, such as Philip the Good’s Chancellor Nicolas Rolin. Many of the most important chroniclers of the period were clients of the dukes, such as Olivier de la Marche and Georges Chastellain.

Potential readers of Huizinga who would like a narrative history of France and Burgundy during this period should look elsewhere. Autumntide (let’s use the new edition’s title from hereon) is, as mentioned, short on chronology, and follows no narrative pattern. Rather, Huizinga divides his material by subject, in chapter divisions the logic of which is not always clear, and leaps about both temporally and geographically.

It’s tempting to call it postmodern though I don’t think that’s a particularly useful or accurate label—perhaps post-impressionist works. It’s sometimes hard, too, to gauge the author’s attitude to his subjects. At times, it’s anthropologically detached; at other times empathetic, celebratory or nostalgic in a world-we-have-lost kind of way; and at still other points, almost contemptuous or judgmental of practices its author deemed silly, monstrous, or “childishly impulsive,” as if the entire period were a kind of temporal Ship of Fools. The range of subjects runs from art to literature to music, to the representation of religious thought in all three. The opening chapters grab attention with their focus on the violence of everyday life and the seeming indifference to torture, painful death, arbitrary justice, and ruthless reprisal; late medieval people, it seems, operated in strict contrasts and oppositions, there being for instance no middle ground between an act of mercy and a brutal execution. Though Huizinga’s focus is squarely on the aristocracy and upper clergy, the common man puts in an appearance, though only as refracted through Huizinga’s chroniclers and religious writers. Indeed, the source base for the book is relatively small, and text and image rather than archivally based. It would be a wonderful candidate for a hypertext version, with built-in links to the paintings, to the chroniclers, and to audio files of featured composers such as Ockeghem and Josquin.

That’s the organization, population, and scope of the book. What really makes it special, however, is Huizinga’s ability to generalize from particulars, to make imaginative leaps and provocative, sometimes mischievous, statements building from his fragmentary evidence. Consider a brief passage of this edition, where Huizinga proceeds from analyzing a contemporary “novel”, Le Jouvencel, about one of Joan of Arc’s captains, to pronounce on the differences between old-fashioned Burgundian and forward-facing French literature. He delights in pointing to paradoxes and contradictions in medieval behaviour, or in dismissing much of late medieval literature as tired and dated in contrast to the visual art of the period, which points ahead to the Renaissance—though Huizinga reacts almost angrily to the notion that a painter such as Jan van Eyck should be regarded as “Renaissance” rather than “medieval.” He asks frequent questions of his reader: “How can we interpret that peculiar empty-headedness that constantly manifests itself in the superficiality, inexactitude and credulity of the people living in the later Middle Ages?”

The cumulative result is a kind of rich but weird tapestry that leaves a compelling image of the late Middle Ages, its social structure, attitudes, religiosity, and aesthetics in one’s mind long after one puts the book down. It’s as much a lesson in art appreciation and literary criticism as it is a history. It doesn’t, in fact, matter very much that a good deal of the edifice is built on foundations that look a little shaky by modern scholarly standards, or that a century of criticism and much more fine-grained scholarship has snipped away at—though failed to unravel—the weaving.

So much for the book itself. But this is a review of a specific edition and translation, published to mark the centenary of the first Dutch edition. So first one must ask why a further edition/translation was needed. The answer to that question lies in the deficiencies of its predecessors. Frits Hopman’s 1924 edition was at best an abridgement, and its title used the controverted gerund “Waning” instead of “autumn” or “Autumntide” (a change, however, to which Huizinga, who collaborated with Hopman on the translation, agreed). Hopman truncated or redivided chapters, and he left a good deal of the full work out. But his version is beautifully written, persuasive, and colourful, even without illustrations. For most readers of my generation or older, it has been the go-to edition. Somewhat sadly, since its goals were noble, I will confess to a cooler reaction to the 1996 translation published by the University of Chicago Press. The combined work of the late East German refugee Ulrich Mammitzsch and American liberal studies professor Rodney Payton, the Chicago version has undeniable merits, such as bringing the entirety of Huizinga’s work into English and reversing some of Hopman’s arbitrary chapter divisions. Its editors changed Hopman’s contentious “Waning” to the more literally accurate “Autumn.” Less felicitously, they dropped the lengthy but important subtitle, which more accurately conveys what the book was about. Neither Payton nor Mammitzsch was a medieval specialist, and the book is marred by several errors of fact or terminology. Moreover, Mammitzsch seems mainly to have relied on a German translation of the complete Huizinga, rather than the original Dutch.  So the answer is, yes, a new edition and translation was amply warranted.

And, it seems, third time’s the charm. This edition is breathtakingly beautiful both to look at and to read. Translator Diane Webb has used the full Huizinga, in the 1941 Dutch edition, the last of five released in Huizinga’s lifetime; Huizinga was a perpetual reviser and the differences in the editions are material (be it noted that this is not a full-scale critical edition comparing those versions). Webb has rendered it, however, into early twenty-first century rather than twentieth-century English. Sometimes this can be a little jarring: did Huizinga really intend the informality “I’ll be darned” or “this writer grabs you”, reference the modern “thriller,” or say that a matter, once proverbialized, would be “done and dusted”—much less describe the human body as a “dirt-bag”? But translation is an art, not a science, and the overall result is to make Huizinga’s prose accessible and contemporary without slipping into the agonies of business buzz-speak or millennial shorthand (“it’s a thing, lol”). The only factual slips (apart from any Huizinga himself made) that I caught are not in the text but a) in the added timeline, a rendering of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, as “count” of Warwick—England of course never had counts, a continental, Roman-derived title, preferring to retain the Anglo-Saxon derived “earl” and b) in the appended essay by co-editor Graeme Small which slightly mis-cites the title of David Gary Shaw’s 1998 review of the Chicago edition, “Huizinga’s Timeliness” as instead his “timelessness”—a somewhat less inconsequential difference.

As a physical object, the book is heavy but gorgeous. Leiden University Press has spared no expense on production. Color illustrations appear on virtually every page, well-captioned. The typeface is easy on the eyes, as is the layout.  The volume includes a useful prefatory note by translator Webb (who wisely avoided being influenced by the previous translations), a timeline, and a genealogical chart of the dukes of Burgundy. Small’s commentary on the virtues of Huizinga’s book, its idiosyncrasies, and its continued grip on the imagination, is splendid. He has enlisted the profound expertise of the editorial team’s third member, Leiden archivist and historian Anton van der Lem, who has charge of Huizinga’s papers and has himself published a great deal on the latter’s life and work. Small’s own style is very reader-friendly, and he uses modern cinema to illustrate the ways in which “Autumn/Waning of the Middle Ages” has even entered popular culture (apart from a reference to it in Love Story, the gangster Marcellus Wallace’s remark to a soon-to-be-victim, “Ima get medieval on your a—” is rendered in the Polish subtitles to Pulp Fiction as “Ima get Autumn of the Middle Ages on your a–”).

This looks like a coffee-table book, and in some ways it is. But it’s also an impressive feat of scholarship and historical reconstruction, a sumptuous repast worthy of a banquet at the court of Philip the Good. Translations always age, and as long as Huizinga’s voice is in demand, this probably won’t be the last. But it should do us for a very long time, and I’ve no doubt that the work’s original author would be thrilled with the result, which has bestowed on this autumnal classic a springtime rebirth.

Daniel Woolf’s research has focused on two areas, early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and the global history and theory of historical writing. He is the author of five books and co-editor of several others, including the two-volume A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (2 vols 1998). His 2003 monograph, The Social Circulation of the Past, won the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies in 2004 for the best book on British history pre-1800. His most recent book, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, is A Concise History of History. His articles have appeared in journals such as Past and Present, The American Historical Review, History and Theory, Renaissance Quarterly, and The Journal of the History of Ideas