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.