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Autumntide of the Middle Ages
by johan huizinga
translated by diane webb
edited by graeme small and anton van der lem
leiden, 592 pages, $69.50

Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, as it was once known, is a hundred years old and has just been awarded the accolade of a magnificent centenary edition in a superb, fresh English translation. This lavishly illustrated volume marvelously enhances the reader’s encounter with a historical classic by presenting alongside the text a mass of the ­visual evidence the author discusses. Not many history books of the modern era have seen so many editions in so many different languages, and fewer still have enjoyed so long a run. How often, after all, does a book by a professional historian get a centenary edition, let alone such a luxurious one? The appearance of this latest version is a justly deserved tribute to a great work of history that is also a great work of literature.

The observant reader will have noticed, of course, that the English title has changed—again. The Waning of the Middle Ages, though agreed to at the time by the author himself, was never a literal translation of the Dutch Herfsttij der ­Middeleeuwen (which lacks even the definite article). After it had held the field for several decades, “­Waning” was challenged as importing connotations of decline and decay not found in the noun Herfsttij, a word derived from the Dutch for autumn (Herfst; compare the German Herbst). So, it was replaced for a few decades by “Autumn.” Now we have “Autumntide,” which has the merit of being absolutely literal, but which, to this reader at least, seems a rare false move in what is an almost impeccable translation. The quality of the translation I take on trust (knowing no Dutch) from the excellence and grace of the English, and from the care evidently taken by the translator, Diane Webb, and the scholars who assisted her. (The only slip I noticed in the text was a rendering from Latin, where the validi mendicantes so regularly denounced in late medieval and early modern social comment become “healthy beggars”; the phrase is more forcefully and customarily conveyed in English as “sturdy beggars.”) But however the elusive Herfsttij may sound in Dutch, “Autumntide” is a poetaster’s dodge, a nineteenth-century coinage, a little too precious to serve the purpose here. It just doesn’t work.

The reason The Waning of the Middle Ages worked so well—and surely that perfect line, with its lovely falling cadence, had a great deal to do with the initial appeal of the book in English—is that, though not a precise translation of the original title, it captures so precisely the leitmotif of Huizinga’s work, which is an epitaph for a dying culture. Huizinga intends to bury the Middle Ages, not to praise them. So for me, this book will always remain The Waning of the Middle Ages. If we wanted to do more justice to the autumnal connotations of ­Herfsttij, we might consider The Fall of the Middle Ages, exploiting the ­ambiguity of “fall” in American as distinct from British usage.

What gives Huizinga’s account of the later Middle Ages its poignant appeal is that although he is not sorry to see them go, he is nevertheless seized from time to time, despite himself, by a moment of nostalgia, a grudging sympathy (rarely admiration) for what is passing. Autumntide is not, as it might have been in the hands of a medievalist, a protest against the Burckhardtian myth of the ­Renaissance. On the contrary, Huizinga is a man of the Enlightenment (as implied by his job description at the time, Professor of Universal History). His dying Middle Ages are awaiting the breath of new life that will stir with the Renaissance, and his analysis is not so much a refutation of Burckhardt’s grandiose conception as a reflection of it. By Huizinga’s time, some historians had developed the concept of a “­Burgundian” or “Northern” Renaissance, sprinkling a little of Burckhardt’s glitter on the ­glorious artistic productions of the Low Countries in the fifteenth ­century. But Huizinga insists that, no, for all the color, ­delicacy, and realism of the School of van Eyck, the cultural achievement of the ­Burgundian and French world of that century remained “essentially medieval.”

Professor of Universal History Huizinga may have been, but his Autumntide is something very ­different—what would today be called cultural history. It is not at all universal. It is the cultural history of a particular but ill-defined region, the contested area occupied by France and by the “Burgundian” polity of the fifteenth century. This latter assemblage of inherited and conquered territories, bundled together under the aegis of the Dukes of Burgundy, curving down from Flanders and the Netherlands along the eastern bank of the Meuse to the duchy as such and the borders of the Swiss Confederation, might itself have become an early modern nation state. It is only the inevitability of hindsight that sets “France” on the path to modern statehood while seeing “Burgundy” as a gloriously romantic, but short-lived, experiment. But we hear only snatches of the political history of the region in Autumntide.

There is a paradox in Huizinga’s approach to the later Middle Ages. The dominant motif, from start to finish, is decline and fall, the “end of the Middle Ages.” The rhetoric is of the “weary,” the “empty,” the “dead.” The book presents itself as the story of a worn-out culture, its creative resources spent, living on borrowed time, waiting for something new. Yet Huizinga’s eyes are open to the boundless vitality and vibrancy of what he strangely insists is little more than a corpse—caput mortuum, the useless residue in the alembic. Thus the saints, he says, “lived in the minds of the people like gods,” yet two pages later the cult of the saints is declared dead on its feet because it was to be overthrown so swiftly by the Reformation. This tension alerts the reader to something else. The editors rightly attribute a recent quickening of interest in Huizinga’s work to the fact that his venture in cultural history appeals to the “new cultural history” fashionable in the now vastly expanded historical profession. Like the new cultural historians, Huizinga makes much use of “theory”—in his case, late-nineteenth-century anthropology, comparative religion, and ideas of ethnic or national character. This shows up in all sorts of odd comments and judgements, many of them featuring the notion that this or that aspect of fifteenth-century culture was “primitive,” a term bandied about by early anthropologists. Thus, the elaborate rituals of chivalric orders such as the Order of the Golden Fleece are “no different from groups of men bonding in savage societies,” and the extravagant vows that knights sometimes swore are “barbaric.” Fascinating and richly rewarding though Autumntide is, its theoretical apparatus, a bizarre amalgam of Burckhardt and early anthropology, is now very dated, at best an annoying distraction and at worst deeply misleading. One is driven to conclude that Huizinga, though a peerless observer, was a poor analyst. This could offer a salutary lesson to contemporary scholars who solemnly invoke “the latest developments in critical theory” (that maelstrom of bombastic jargon).

Huizinga is at his best, then, when he shows, rather than when he tells. He shows us how fifteenth-century culture reveled in rules and formalities and etiquette; and how supreme was the place of allegory in its imagination; and how its verse could achieve marvelous effects in recondite forms. He shows us, moreover, a culture dominated by its aristocracy, who were at once its masters and its trendsetters. He is less convincing when he tells us that the paramount position of the nobility was just an illusion, no doubt because the “real” center of gravity was now with the bourgeoisie (to whom, incidentally, he gives surprisingly little attention). The claim does not sit well with what he is showing us. And however much the bourgeoisie may have been on an upward trajectory, it would be many centuries before the European nobility surrendered their ascendancy. The relative positions of aristocracy and bourgeoisie are better expressed when Huizinga shows that the “artist” of the later Middle Ages was not the creative individualist of modernity but an artisan providing goods and services to affluent patrons. Art itself, likewise, was no matter of abstract aesthetics, but a severely practical business. Jan van Eyck, no less, was sent by the Duke of Burgundy to “take a picture” of the daughter of the King of Portugal, so that the duke could get an idea of what he might be taking on in a marriage contract.

Huizinga has more in common than he realizes with what he likes to call “the medieval mind,” and himself displays symptoms of some of the ailments he diagnoses in it. In the illuminating essay that Graeme Small provides as an afterword, this remark is cited from Huizinga’s working notes: “Bourgeois realism . . . was strong in new observations . . . but not in thought content.” Much the same, as we have seen, might be said of Autumntide. Again, Huizinga comments in passing that “the medieval mind is prone to generalize from a single case.” Yet he opines elsewhere that “there seems to have been a popular belief that, since the Great Schism [of 1378], no one had been admitted to paradise.” This ludicrous claim turns out to be based on a single source, in which an eccentric popular preacher called Jean de Varennes, who had made many enemies with his relentless critique of clerical abuses, is recorded defending himself against a host of charges, many of them transparently malicious. On this specific charge, he flatly denied ever having said such a thing. A moment’s thought suggests that if anyone ever did say this, it was not so much a “popular belief” as a wry comment on a situation in which two rival popes, having split Christendom between them, excommunicated each other.

Huizinga seems to reveal his own method in his penetrating exposition of the method of Jan van Eyck. For the historian, like the painter he describes, homes in on detail after detail, endlessly catching the mind’s eye, filling the pages or the panel almost beyond capacity. As he marshals his materials, he reminds us of those fifteenth-century authors who rejoiced in the particularity of their endless lists and inventories. Huizinga is as visual as van Eyck and as verbal as Villon, but for all his theoretical devotion to theory, his practice is not quite aligned with it. The architecture is not coherent: Jeeves might even have judged the book “lacking in significant form.” For Huizinga himself, as for the later Middle Ages, form turns out to be ornament. One of the lasting lessons of Autumntide is that perhaps the defining characteristic of the culture he describes is what we might call, to borrow a concept coined by ­David Cannadine for the very different ­context of British imperial rule in India, “ornamentalism.” Cannadine’s idea of ornamentalism, “hierarchy made visible,” a world of “chivalry and ceremony, monarchy and majesty,” is peculiarly well-suited to the world of display and spectacle ­Huizinga recreates.

The fifteenth century was the great era for the ornamentation of parish churches. The magnificent artistic achievements that we see in elite culture, on which Huizinga based his analysis, are the tip of a lost iceberg, preserved in galleries and libraries and museums. The submerged mass has long since melted away, except to the extent that it survives in the structures of those churches themselves, buildings that have now become, for most of the people who live around them, strange, dark, and mostly quiet monuments, far from the gaudy, busy, noisy places they once were. ­Huizinga engages with the religious dimension characteristically: The observer cannot but be struck by the scale of late-medieval Catholic devotion, but the analyst, heir to Dutch Calvinism, can scarcely credit it as Christianity. In recent times, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992) has offered a fuller, more sympathetic, and more compelling account of fifteenth-century Catholicism, which was more culturally dominant than ever on the very eve of the Reformation that would shake it and split it. Even the supreme technological achievement of that century, the invention of printing with movable type, was driven forward by Catholic religious culture, by the surge of investment in endowed prayer for the dead and in education. The texts that provided printers with their business model in those early decades were missals, psalters, breviaries, books of hours, grammars, primers, and—of course—indulgences. Though within a couple of generations it had outgrown the cradle, it is hard to imagine how this industry could have established itself without the intercessory machinery of late-medieval Catholicism. Where else was the demand for it to supply?

A widespread misapprehension about Europe after the Black Death is that the catastrophic mortality of the fourteenth century left deep, traumatic scarring that somehow marked or overshadowed the remainder of the “Middle Ages” until the dawning of “the Renaissance.” This is not a theme of ­Huizinga’s Autumntide, but his lengthy discussion of death has certainly contributed to it, as has his insistence that late-medieval culture was characterized by “dreadful depression and profound pessimism.” Death was much more familiar to people in medieval Europe than to their successors today, even in Europe under ­COVID. But they were neither obsessed with it nor oppressed by it. The idea that they were is a misreading of the abundant evidence of their concern for the soul after death, which is not at all the same thing. Europe after the Black Death did what human society ­usually did after such terrible ­mortality: It went on, it rebuilt, it recovered. The fifteenth century was a century of growth. In most pre-industrial societies, economic growth is a function of demographic growth, and the fifteenth century was an era of long demographic recovery that in many places saw a rise in real incomes for ordinary people. In France, this era has been called le beau quinzième siècle, “the fair fifteenth century.” In England, at least, the period 1450–75 saw the real income of working people reach levels from which it would fall away in the sixteenth century, and to which it may not have returned until the nineteenth. This is why there was so much to spend on the decoration of churches and chapels and on intercession for the faithful departed. Our dearly held cultural myths of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” predispose us to see the sixteenth century as a century of “progress,” and in some ways there is truth in that. Yet for ordinary people across much of Western Europe, the sixteenth century saw things worsen amid resurgent epidemics, religious division, endemic warfare, and an increasingly extractive State apparatus.

Huizinga seems to forget that, though we view their age as “the end of the Middle Ages,” the people living then did not—even if some of them thought it was, in a general way, the end of the world. Intellectuals of that time saw themselves as “moderns”—a word, we should note, that they popularized. Likewise, though Huizinga persists in regarding them through the lens of late-nineteenth-century anthropology as “primitive,” that is not how they imagined themselves. In their modernity, they compared themselves, to their own disadvantage, with the glory that was Rome or the grace that was the “primitive church”—another concept, we should likewise note, of late-medieval origin. Those comparisons were, precisely, the inspirations of Renaissance and Reformation. For the Renaissance was nothing more nor less than the fulfilment of the medieval ambition to recover ancient Rome, even if the classical humanism required to fulfil that ambition also revealed the ambition in its fullest sense to be unattainable. But the hankering after the ancient world is what the Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages. The “Middle Ages” were of course the invention of “the Renaissance,” and all the pejorative connotations of “medieval” can be traced back to this little piece of “Renaissance self-fashioning.” Yet as Huizinga himself shows in practice at many points, the boundary ­between the two eras is not so clear-cut as his theory seems to demand. The fifteenth century was not some shadowy underworld from which Renaissance and Reformation emerged, blinking, into the light. It was the springboard from which they vaulted. When all is said and done, we should probably be talking about the rise of the Middle Ages, not their fall. 

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge.