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Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, and the writing of history.


Contemporary professional history does not train its practitioners to write works of genuine innovation. The commitment to archive-driven research and the need to establish a niche for one's research discourages originality. It also denies the validity of history which reveals the emotional engagement of the writer or appeals beyond the narrow confines of the professional historian. Johann Huizinga's work, especially his magnum opus The Waning of the Middle Ages, serves to remind us of how breathtaking and bold history can be. In print for eight decades, Huizinga's great book is loved outside of the halls of academe despite its inadequacies and stands as one of the most influential works of the past century.


In the nineteenth century, the writing of history began its Germanic move away from the hands of educated dilettantes and into the hands of academic historians. History became a professional discipline replete with standards and rituals that were intended to distinguish it from other disciplines within the academy. Critical to this discipline was the rise graduate education whereby apprenticed historians would learn from their masters the proper practice of history. These novices would then produce a thesis as a capstone to their studies. It would be based on primary source materials buried in archives, and the analysis of those materials would demonstrate, that with degree in hand, the new historians would be accepted into the profession. But this is not truly the end, for there remains one more stage: the conversion of that thesis into a book, almost always a monograph, preferably to be published by a press with academic credentials.

The problem with this scenario is that it produces only a certain kind of history, yielding works aimed at and usually read by other specialists in the field. The very nature of their training tends to yield historians who find it difficult or undesirable to move beyond the narrow confines of the subject which defined them, to reach out and engage a larger audience. The result is that in the end, there are few works, approved of by academic historians that endure and speak to the educated public.

Ian Mortimer has commented recently upon the current state of historical practice and its disconnection with the general audience. He contends that the effect of academic history has been to limit history to a set of facts uncovered in archival research, and it encourages an indulgence in methodological innovation. Mortimer believes that the practice of academic history has served to disrupt the idea that history is, as R. G. Collingwood would have had it be, a dialogue between historians and the past. (1) One of the effects of this practice is the ruthless expectation that the historian be personally disengaged from the subject at hand. But, Mortimer points out that certain subjects are "hot" and politically charged and the discovery of "new facts" within those subjects invariably results in charges that the work is rooted in the author's biases. (2) More damning still is the suspicion that it plays to some constituency or another. Despite the long-standing criticism which holds that all historians create inherently subjective narratives, the overseers of the discipline expect something like objectivity. (3) Doing otherwise violates a central tenet of graduate training in history: one is to root out and deny oneself any kind of personal involvement with one's subject. All historians are expected to be non-engage.

Mortimer maintains that there exists a very different kind of historical dialogue, a "philosophical or conceptual one" where the writer engages in a subject because of something in his or her own experience, and the result is work that meets scholarly requirements and at the same time engages a wider audience. (4) It is not the kind of history that is encouraged in graduate study, nor does it lead to tenure. (5) This kind of history goes beyond narrow specialization, beyond the limitations and strictures of academic history and "ultimately results in a set of ideas which is not rooted in past evidence nor in an awareness of the historian's potential readership, but in the historian's own understanding of humanity." That understanding is almost always a result of something linked to the historian's life and expresses itself in a way which resonates in the lives of those who read it.

There is perhaps no finer example of the philosophical or conceptual history advocated by Mortimer than the work of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. Huizinga (1872-1945) was one of the towering historians of the twentieth century, but maybe what is more important, he was one of its most important historical thinkers. (6) While his work was met with acclaim and acknowledged as important almost immediately upon its publication, it was controversial and heavily criticized by some leading academics. (7) In particular, he was taken to a task for succumbing to pessimism in the interwar period. The critics concluded that his personal anxiety over the state of western culture influenced his historical practice, determined the subjects he chose, and ultimately directed his conclusions--melancholia overwhelmed his objectivity. (8) This criticism has somet merit, but it has to be said that much of their analysis betrays envy as well as something about the state of professional history, for his major works met with a near rapturous reception by the educated public, and the ongoing criticism reveals more than a little resentment at this popularity.


Most of the attention focuses on Huizinga's famous work on the late middle ages--work which has spawned no end of challenges and intense modifications. A major criticism is with Huizinga's approach to the past, one which has been devalued by the methodological fashions, which are part and parcel of academic history. Nevertheless, Huizinga's encyclopedic knowledge and his insistence upon creative synthesis merits remembering and emulating. At a time when many wanted to remove philosophical concerns from historical practice, he embraced the limitations of history: any attempt to understand the past has to accept the evanescent and subjective nature of the endeavor, something which remains a valid rejection of the unexamined positivist bias in most historical analysis. It is also worth remembering that Huizinga was a man who refused to succumb to the nationalist enthusiasms of his age, passions which seized many of his fellow countrymen. He stood firm against the intrusion of ideology into academic life. Lastly, like his contemporary, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, he was a staunch humanist and proponent of liberal democracy and the things that he believed were essential to western civilization. Whatever caveats one might have, he was one of the most undeniably subtle, original, and intuitive minds of his time. As he moved beyond the archives, his personal life, values, and his dreams, all played a part in creating historical literature which is dazzling and endlessly suggestive. Long after most monographs have been buried on library shelves, Huizinga continues to be read and nearly a century later, he still speaks to people. (9)

Huizinga was born into a Mennonite family in Groningen in northern Holland. His father was a professor of physiology as well as pastor at the University of Groningen. His mother died when he was an infant. He went on to study Arabic, Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan philology, earning his Ph.D. in 1897 with a doctoral dissertation on the role of the jester in Indian theater. He subsequently went on to teach in the northern Dutch city of Haarlem, mostly about Indian culture and in subjects seemingly far removed from the subject of medieval European civilization.

There was little to suggest the scholar Huizinga was to become. Sometimes his work took him into unpredictable directions as when he wrote about very critically about American culture without having been there and became the editor of the periodical De Gids (The Guide). In the twenties and thirties his work began to focus on the underlying things that motivated or informed human behavior. The results can be seen most clearly in his eventual interest in meta-historical subjects such as the play element of culture in his 1938 masterpiece Homo ludens: proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der culture (Men at Play: A Study of the Play Element in Culture). (10) Trained in an era when history was still open to influences from literature and philosophy and was not nearly as rigidly subdivided as it is today, Huizinga's later work reflects an astounding breadth of knowledge. However, beyond his encyclopedic intellect and extensive knowledge of source materials was his artistic spirit. His genius lay in the imaginative re-creation of whole ages of the past and of the "mentalities" of what he was to call "the medieval soul." It required Huizinga's mastery of other realms of knowledge beyond history: anthropology, sociology, philology and linguistics, art history, and literature amongst them--his wide-ranging interests expanded his horizons and enriched his study.

He did face a major hurdle. It is important at this point to note that Huizinga was Dutch, and to reach a wider audience, he had perforce to have his works translated. For Huizinga, as for his frequent critic Pieter Geyl, the only Dutch historian of equal stature, the chosen language of translation was English. Huizinga, master of so many languages, took special care to make sure that the English translations were to be definitive translations of his work. It is noteworthy that while he had studied at the University of Leipzig and was a Francophile, he chose English in his attempt to connect with the broadest readership possible. (11)

During the Second World War, Huizinga was taken hostage by the Germans during the occupation of the Netherlands. While he was released eventually from prison, he died under what was in essence house arrest. Huizinga was lucky to have survived the Nazis at all as he had been a prominent democrat in Dutch interwar society and published In de schaduwen van morgen (In the Shadow of Tomorrow) (12) to make plain his opposition to the rise of the right in European politics. In 1938, he was elected vice president of the League of Nations' International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. The committee had many distinguished cultural figures including Albert Einstein, Paul Valery, Thomas Mann, and Henri Bergson. Huizinga used his office to defend the Western intellectual tradition against all forms of totalitarianism. But his opposition to right wing extremism made him a marked man. Before the war, he had taken a highly public stance against the blackshirt-wearing Dutch fascists of the National Socialistische Beweging (NSB) and refused to endorse Flemish nationalism. (13) He spoke out against nationalist overtures to pan-Flemish separatists in Belgium. He also refused to take sides in the religious fanaticism that informed the lives of many of his fellow citizens by ignoring Holland's deep Protestant-Catholic divide, always returning to argue on behalf of a common humanistic heritage. In all of this, he was one of those rare cultural figures in the twentieth century who, like Unamuno, rose above ideology, (14) and it is not irrelevant that Huizinga's "hero" was the notably temperate Erasmus of Rotterdam, a fellow countryman from a previous age who resisted the siren call of abstraction. (15)

Huizinga came into his intellectual maturity during what has been referred to as the "revolt against reason" that seized European social thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (16) This "revolt" involved thinkers and artists across the cultural landscape, but it was particularly strong in the social sciences, where there was a turning away from the effects of positivism and its assumption that a rational structure lay within the human condition. Positivism's influence had never been without its critics, but it remained pervasive in late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture. Huizinga, greatly affected by the social sciences, worked at a time when the writing of history fell under the spell of positivist enthusiasm, and he eventually turned his back on the idea that the practice of history could be a wholly rationalistic enterprise. (17)

This turning against rationalism was perhaps an inevitable development: Huizinga was fundamentally a man of letters, not a social scientist, and he believed that historians wrote works of art and not of science. Surely it was here that his fears of ideological rigidity were founded, in the cosmopolitan world of letters, and it seems likely that it was here that he came to believe that the historian's great task was to capture the spirit of an age. This could not be done by succumbing to the positivist's inherent racism neither by chronology nor by accepting the rationalist belief that history is an empirically driven enterprise. By no means an irrationalist, Huizinga tended to disparage traditional categories of causality and scientific reasoning in history as overly restrictive and in the process implicitly criticized the assumptions of academic history.


His approach to history can be seen best in his magnum opus Herfstitij der Middeleeuwen or in English, The Waning of the Middle Ages (or more recently) The Autumn of the Middle Ages. (18) The book was written against a background of death, grief, mourning, and disillusionment unleashed by the Great War as well as the death of Huizinga's beloved wife. He lost a son after a long illness in 1920. While historians today would have us believe that their choices of subjects, as well as the way in which they write, are independent of personal considerations, it seems likely that Huizinga's subject and his dark vision of the late medieval period reflected his own mental state. Its craft and tone are not dissimilar from Maurice Ravel's choreographic "poem" La Valse (1920), Arnold Schoenberg's 12 tone technique (developed between 1921 and 1923), as well as other subtly discordant musical compositions of that time, the collages of Dadaist Hannah Hoch, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917), The Waste Land (1922), and Ezra Pound's The Fourth Canto (1919)--works which betray western civilization's cultural disillusion and anxiety in the aftermath of the Great War.

Strictly speaking, The Waning of the Middle Ages is an example of the historical genre or the "history of civilizations." It aims at recreating the cultural totality of late-medieval Europe in terms of "the forms of life, thought, and art." (19) Huizinga was not interested in events as much as he wanted to elucidate the past by considering the social relationships between people and classes of people. He was not as interested in popular culture as he was in the fine arts and finer sensibilities. He was especially interested in the nobility who he saw to be the carriers of the "high" culture of that time. He asked, what were the cultural values that were revealed in social rituals and what were the things that motivated these people to act in the ways that they did? And he speculated, in ways few historians and graduate students would ever dare to do so today, just how aware were these people of the "middle ages" themselves? In what sense did they see themselves as part of a unique culture and time? Why did they choose to believe and act as they did?

Huizinga's "civilization" was nothing like the consideration of the "whole human environment" as it was for his contemporaries such as Marc Bloch's "histoire totale" (total history) or Lucien Febvre and the early Annalistes. While his focus on "mentalities" presaged Georges Duby's "histoire des mentalite's" (history of mentalities), he rejected the idea that history should be a science of man based on human facts. His civilization was the beaux arts, belles lettres, et bon ton, presented without a schema determined by the supposed laws of cause and effect. Huizinga's history admitted its dependence upon the subjective choices made by historians, choices which play a role in providing it a meaning that connects it to the reader. (20) As an explanatory model, his work more closely approaches the Jungian occupation with synchronicity, focusing on the simultaneous interconnections amongst all the cultural modes of a given place and time as a Gestalt. To do so, Huizinga laid out parallel cultural and social developments and discovered morphological connections that conventional history still dares not make. This gives The Waning of the Middle Ages the cogency and lucidity of the Y Ching and an occultist fascination unobtainable in traditional historical exposition.


Huizinga purposely avoided the issue of causality as it would have proven to be a dead end in this work, and his inattention to cause and effect has only fueled the ire of many of his critics. His narrative is set in a sort of never-never land without precise geographical boundaries or chronology. The closest approximation of a historical center in his tale is the maddeningly anomalous Duchy of Burgundy from the mid-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth centuries, parts of which were subject to France, other parts belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and parts of it were autonomous. What united Burgundians at that time was their allegiance to four successive Valois dukes, all of whom were fantastic, erratic, and surreal personalities. One would have to love a string of dukes named: Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold (better called Charles the Brash). Because Huizinga's interests lay beyond the causal, his attempt at narrative of the Valois Duchy is inherently static. He treated the period of 1363-1477 as if it were a single, almost timeless, instant. To compound his imprecision, he was equally unconcerned about geography. He treated the hodgepodge of Burgundy's possessions, strung along the Rhine from the Netherlands to the Alps, as if they were a single place, willing to overlook the innumerable cultural, political, and social, internal differences and distinctions.

The Duchy of Burgundy was politically unique. It was the kingdom that ought to have been but never was--he royaume moyen or mittleres Konigreich, the middle kingdom between France and Germany once envisioned by Charlemagne and fought over as recently to Huizinga's time as the Revolutionary, Napoleonic, and Franco-Prussian wars. It was the a major battleground between France and Germany twice in his lifetime. It was a rich land, varied in its agriculture, industry, and a mercantile powerhouse throughout the high and late middle ages. In spite of Huizinga, it was also ethnically diverse, culturally rich, and resilient. The only thing that held it together at all was allegiance to the duke and the negative assertion that it was neither French nor a part of the Holy Roman Empire. However, Burgundy's close links to both kept it embroiled in international affairs and in the internal affairs of its two larger neighbors. Huizinga's critics are right: in his desire to construct a unity, he was willing to overlook many things, almost all, with causal implications.

Burgundy was a politically uncertain place even in a time rich with political uncertainty. The political confusion of the age in this regard is perhaps best exemplified by the obvious uncertainty about the nationality of Joan of Arc (1412-1431). Joan was from the Duchy of Bar and was technically a subject of the king of France when she heard "voices" from God or his angels. Neither she nor her contemporaries, who in the empire famously called her the "Maid of Lorraine," seem to have recognized that fact. She reported that the voices told her to "go to France" as if she was not French and the indeterminacy of her "national" origins was understandable. Her birthplace of Domremy was situated on the west bank of the Meuse. The river acted as a barrier between Lorraine, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and Champagne in France. Domremy's feudal obligations lay with France but were also claimed by two different duchies. Such complex political arrangements were common at the time and the numerous enclaves, complex (and rarely obvious) political boundaries, endless issues of subinfeudation, as well as Burgundy's expansionary hopes in regard to the Duchy of Bar, were enough to make understandable any confusion Joan, or anyone else for that matter, might have felt about her identity or native allegiance. Political niceties aside, it was Burgundy which ultimately looked to its advantage in selling Joan out to the English and destined her for the flames. The complexity of how one determined one's native identity, crucial even while it was confused, was something Huizinga was willing to ignore in his quest to make his subject a comprehensible whole.

In Huizinga's defense, it might be argued that the house of Valois in the Duchy of Burgundy can be seen as a microcosm of both late-medieval Christendom as well as the epicenter for the northern Renaissance. Its flowering was adventitious and incredibly blessed by historical circumstances It was a freak, a demonstrable accident upon which no historian today would build an edifice as monumental as Huizinga's monumental work - no one would ever argue it could serve as typical example of late medieval civilization. However, since he was concerned with the synchronous and morphological and not the causal, Huizinga moved past a causal thesis and resorted to organic metaphors such as "waning," "decay," and "over ripeness" to describe the spirit of the age. While conventional histories would narrate the fortunes of the Valois dynasty in Burgundy emphasizing events like the Crusade of Nicopolis, the calamitous appanage system of the late-medieval period, the French civil wars of the 15th century, and so on, Huizinga suggested that something else was more significant, something that eluded conventional history and its desire to delineate cause and effect, something daring well beyond most historians today.


It is highly revealing that Huizinga's stated interest was in the forms of life, thought, and art and not in life or art. He was far more interested in modes of thinking about life, thought itself (at the very time when Arthur Lovejoy and others were developing the field of the history of ideas), and art as a part of life. Hence his focus on artificiality and the elite's need to pose as to appear spontaneous, on the playful nature of chivalry, on the conscious and not the subconscious, the stylized and not the formless. His choices here have some justification as historical thought about thought; however, those choices create a great deal of confusion since Huizinga was not concerned with how people actually lived but rather what they thought about living and life. An unwary and less critical reader may confound the modes of thinking he elucidates with modes of living. For instance, the reader may well imagine that because the macabre was the central motif in forms of life, thought and art, people of this time were all morbid, dismal, and ghoulish. Given the absence of an explicit methodology, such confusions are inescapable and perhaps not entirely unintentional on Huizinga's part or his art.

The articulation of "the forms of life, thought, and art" is usually the province of literature. As such, The Waning of the Middle Ages is really a literary history (not a history of literature) and its methodology is philological and formalist and totally appropriate for his task. This choice was bound to be criticized. A Freudian would relegate Huizinga's sources to the realm of "sublimations," an Annaliste would reject it and place it in the realm of "elitism," and a conventional political historian would remove it to the realm of "culture." No one but a literary historian would accept the sources he cites so seriously.

In the end, Huizinga's great book is a work of art far more than it is a work of scholarship, let alone historical research. It is an extremely clever and skillful trompe l'oeil. By his dazzlingly artistic technique, he creates an impression of certain historical arguments that are in fact not really present in his exposition. Through sheer layer upon layer of decoration he magnifies the history of the Duchy of Burgundy to the apparent proportions of its being the entirety of late-medieval European civilization and creates the illusion that his modest thesis about the grossly idealistic tendencies of medieval realism somehow explains how the middle ages "ended" at the same time it accounts for the origins of the Renaissance--neither of which is actually in his exposition. It is a tribute to his skills as an artist that he performs these visual tricks, deceptions, and legerdemain with words, but this is all cleverness rather than sound history. As a historian, Huizinga is clever and cunning rather than historically persuasive, a point, which has driven much of the criticism of his book: too much of Calliope and not enough of Clio.

To complicate things even further, The Waning of the Middle Ages has a number of outstanding omissions, the inclusion of which would strengthen a causal thesis. One of the most obvious, glaring really, is the Satanist and serial murderer the Gilles de Rais (1404-1440). The Baron de Rais was Joan of Arc's standard bearer and marshal of France. All of the tensions and contradictions and pathology of the age, the core of Huizinga's theme, are summed up in the fact that while de Rais sexually violated and murdered probably more than eight hundred children, he was the epitome of devotion to the burgeoning cult of the Holy Innocents and endowed many institutions for children. (21) The collapsing cultural forms could not present a more compelling example.

Huizinga's exposition of this history is difficult to summarize at the same time it is so finely crafted, rich and illusive. It is so symmetrically proportioned that one third of it deals with life, one-third with thought, and another with art. This order in the work is only evident in the pagination and not it the book's capitulation. His central "thesis" is latent and is finally made explicit, more than half way through the book, deep in the chapter "The Effects of Realism," which concludes with an allusion rather than any kind of exposition of the leading idea. The allusion he employs is to the image of a drop of the Savior's blood sufficing to save the world. Here Huizinga cites St. Bernard of the eleventh century and Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century, both of whom used this image. In a footnote he cites the Renaissance writer, atheist and homosexual libertine, Christopher Marlowe, as having used the same imagery. Of course, none of these examples fit within the chronology of the period, but it is a typical Huizingian act of chutzpah that he dares juxtapose two medieval clerics and saints, let alone using Aquinas, the "angelus medicus" of the Catholic church, with Marlow's Doctor Faustus--a conscious act of provocation. This juxtaposition of Aquinas with Marlow exemplifies Huizinga's approach, which is subtle, indirect, allusive, morphological, subversive, and suggestive a tour de force of art and a challenge to history. No matter what we expect, no matter what we want, he refuses to give us cause and effect, no matter how "historically" useful they may be. We crave the causal links to reassure us of the legitimacy of his story, but he will not provide them.

The hypertrophy of medieval realism provided the transition to the humanism of the Renaissance because medieval civilization was crushed by the weight of its own symbolic excesses. And then, paradoxically, over-muscled Idealism tended to approach materialism in the concreteness of the natural image, the obsession with religious relics, and the exaltation of the tangible over the mysterious. It was really more amenable to the Renaissance spirit--not medieval spirituality.

An impressionistic literary history cannot solve the problem of explaining the long collapse of the middle ages. It is a monumental subject which demands analysis that takes into account our knowledge of human psychology and quantitative curiosity. The latter would force us to consider things that would give numerical evidence and weight to the inquiry such as some quantifying of the number of churches dedicated to the Holy Innocents, the incidence of serial killings and child molestation, the prevalence of black magic, and the numerous of desecrations of shrines, altars, and churches. How hard would it have been to chart the demoralization occasioned by the Hundred Years' War or the anxiety and guilt occasioned by the Black Death?

The iconography of the transi-tomb, which on one level featured a sculpture of the idealized resurrected self while below it rested a sculpture of a rotting corpse begs quantification according to time and place, and could be done easily. Similarly, there is evidence to be found in wills, which, without the slightest quantification, would illuminate many things beyond the intuitive and the latently meaningful. Huizinga compounds the problem because his interpretations are idiosyncratic and open to question. Thus, for example, he interprets the transi-tomb as merely morbid and macabre, but it is clearly more likely that the placement of the resurrected body in effigy above the image of the putrid corpse was not due to an obsession with death and its effects; rather, it served as a sign of contemporary optimism, and affirmed a healthy confrontation with death. The tools for doing this kind of analysis were available in 1919 in the works of such thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. No doubt Huizinga ignored these options because they would bring him close to the determinism he wanted to avoid, but, from a historical point of view, it is fair criticism of Huizinga that he did not try to explain nor did he avail himself of these disciplines for an explanation.

The Waning of the Middle Ages is impressionistic and not systematic, intuitive and not logical, subjective and not objective, and artistic and not scholarly. But Huizinga's own dark vision precluded using such methods when it came to understanding the medieval soul as he regarded these as superfluous and extraneous (and no doubt infected by positivism) to literary analysis. Huizinga's grand thesis about the excessive growth of medieval realism is inherently problematic and is neither logically nor empirically verifiable. How could a historian "test" this thesis? In the end, medieval realism per se did nothing, but people turned to it because it fulfilled certain needs, or rather, people acted for motives that happened to coincide with the tenets of realism.

Huizinga brilliantly recreates the somber mood and plethoric quality of late medieval realism in an exposition that is like its subject: overloaded with the allusive, overwhelmed by images, and encrusted with layers of symbols. It is the beauty of this creation that has proven so lasting. But, while his work may have been a rhetorical and forensic success, it was not historically probative. Its problems may be most evident in that its readers invariably conclude from it that the Renaissance was really more medieval than it was modem, which is not what Huizinga was saying at all. Moreover, its "thesis," that is, "the Huizinga thesis" about realism's burgeoning collapse, offers to medievalists only a neat point of departure to discuss the Middle Ages and its move toward modernity.

The Kulturgeschicte that Huizinga presented had no precedent and has had almost no followers and it is commonly acknowledged that Huizinga left no historical school behind him. (22) Obsessed with approximating the standards of science in their work, standards that are ultimately unachievable, modem historians of the middle ages tend to resent Huizinga's work and its hold on western culture's imagination. They have also continued to criticize it as they have few other works of historical scholarship. But the subjects pioneered by Huizinga are now commonplace in the academic journals of many disciplines, including history, even while their authors rarely acknowledge their debt to him. (23)

It The Waning of the Middle Ages's long-lasting celebrity, a celebrity that exists for only a tiny handful of history books, and its ongoing commercial success stand in sharp contrast to the meticulously crafted, obsessively documented, and narrow works that dominate professional history today. Graduate education stresses the authority of the documents, archival research, and the dangers of synthesis. Furthermore, its summum bonum, the monograph, knowingly specialized, willingly limited, and generally produced with little art, reveals historians who are rarely scholarly and are unlikely to ever produce a work anything as great as The Waning of the Middle Ages. Huizinga did not write this book to meet the requirements to academic history. He wanted to produce a work of art, something which could command notice beyond the academy that would engage people and their imaginations.

Huizinga was an ambitious man, someone who was vain and craved attention. He was also a literary artist and a man who wrote in a time of cultural despair and political uncertainty at the same time he himself had been challenged deeply. His work has been criticized for its artfulness from the beginning. For the professionals, his prose is too poetic, too stylish, and that stylishness is a cover for his failures as a historian. At the same time, the book is a highly personal document, betraying the "incisive judgment of an individual and knowing author." (24) Huizinga crossed a line, and his book betrays a historian who refused to be non-engage.

It is uncommon to see a history book in press as long as ten years, let alone to be continuously in print for more than ninety years. Most academic works of history, especially historical monographs, sell less than a thousand copies and are out of print within a few years. It is also the rare historian whose name is attached to an idea: Huizinga's is because his book, including the ideas which guided its creation, is a classic and critical work of historiography and letters, a work so important and influential it must be reckoned with by any student of the middle ages. (25) Indeed, awareness of this book is a good touchstone for determining an educated person.

Like other great books, and Huizinga's is a great book, many more people know of its title and reputation than know or understand its contents and it's intricate, abstruse, and subtle logic. As much as any work of history ever written it reveals just how limited our ability to understand the richness of any age is and yet how fascinating the past can be. It transports readers to a time and place, something to which historians aspire, but achieve rarely. The dismissal of this work by academics who have "moved on" to other historians of the period is probably misplaced, but more like the quibbling of elves standing on the shoulders of a giant. Their books come and go: nearly a century later, Huizinga stands astride the subject and he cannot be ignored. In any case, The Waning of the Middle Ages is a great work of human imagination. It is sui generis and hence matchless. Criticizing it for failing to prove its thesis is rather like finding fault with Beethoven's last string quartets, Opus 128-135, to which there is absolutely no work with which to compare it. It is that rare thing, a book for which many a reader has felt love, and lovers are rarely the best critics of those they love--if only historians wrote more books like it.


Oakland University

(1) Ian Mortimer, '"Beyond the Facts: how true originality in history has fallen foul of postmodernism, research targets and commercial pressure," The Times Literary Supplement, (September 26, 2008), 16-17; "What isn't History?: The Nature and Enjoyment of History in the Twenty-First Century," History, 93/312, (Oct. 2008), 454-474.

(2) Mortimer, "Beyond the Facts," 16.

(3) Most notably this can be seen in Hayden White, "The burden of history", History and Theory, 5/2 (1966), 111-134; Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973); Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

(4) Mortimer, "Beyond the Facts," 17.

(5) Professional historians are fixated on the value of historical monographs, works necessarily driven by archival documentation and limited in scope. It also greatly depreciates the works directed at larger audiences. See Perspectives on History, 50/9, Dec. 2012, 14-15.

(6) The list of historical thinkers in this category (what one usually calls historiology) is pretty small. It also seems however, that while they are widely recognized, they are read less often by historians: Hempel, Collingwood, Lovejoy, Oakeschott, Croce, Gardiner, and Aron with a few others.

(7) Academic criticism of Huizinga, especially of The Waning of the Middle Ages, has been extensive and ongoing. Amongst a large number of examples see G. C. Sellery's smarmy review in The American Historical Review, 31/1 (Oct., 1925), 113-114; P. L. Ward, "Huizinga's Approach to the Middle Ages," in Teachers of History: Essays in Honor of Laurence Bradford Packard, ed. H. Stuart Hughes (Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1954), 168-199, F. W. N. Hugenholtz, "The Framework of a Masterwork," in Johan Huizinga, 1872-1972, eds. W. R. H. Koops, E. H. Kossmann and Gees van der Plaat (The Hague:Martinus Nijhoof, 1973), 91-104, Pieter Geyl, "Huizinga as Accuser of His Age," History and Theory, 2 (1963), 231-262; R. Colie, "Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History," American Historical Review, 69 (1964), 607-630; Henry Pachter, "Masters of Cultural History III: Johan Huizinga--The Magician as Magister Ludi," Salmagundi, 16 (Fall 1979), 103-119 ; Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: W. Morrow, 1991), 377-382. A response to the critics focused on the element of play in Huizinga's work is Robert Anchor, "History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics," History and Theory, 17/1 (Feb. 1978), 69-93.

(8) This line of objection emerged almost immediately in Holland. Early examples are Sellery (above) and H.A.L. "In the Shadow of Tomorrow by Jan Huizinga," The Journal of Philosophy, 33/26 (Dec. 17, 1936), 720-721. It was still held by others during the Second World War, see Joseph Katz, "A Reply to J. Huizinga on the Form and Function of History," The Journal of the History of Ideas," 5/3 (Jun., 1944), 369-373.

(9) It seems significant in this context that Huizinga preferred to refer to himself not as a historian but as a "scholar."

(10) Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: proeve eener bepaling va het spel-element der culture (Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1938).

(11) On the translation issue see Edward Peters and Walter P. Simons, "The New Huizinga and the Old Middle Ages," Speculum, 74/3 (Jul., 1999), 587-596.

(12) Johan Huizinga, In de schaduwen van morgen; een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onzen tijd, door (Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon , 1951).

(13) Geyl's extensive criticism of Huizinga, which carried on two decades after Huizinga's death, has to be seen in light of the two men's politics. In the 1930s Geyl emerged as a leading Flemish nationalist in favor of a "Greater Holland" that would unify all Flemish speakers.

(14) Sean Farrell Moran, "The Disease of Human Consciousness," Oakland Journal, 25 (Winter 2007), 103-110.

(15) Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of the Reformation, trans. F. Hopman (New York: Harper, 1924).

(16) First amongst a number of equals on this subject is H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of Social Thought (New York: Octagon Books, 1958).

(17) Peters and Simons, "The New Huizinga," 601ff.

(18) Johan Huizinga, Herfstitij der Middeleeuwen (Rotterdam, 1919); The Waning of the Middle Ages : A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and An in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth centuries, trans. by F. Hopman (London Folio Society, 1990); and The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(19) Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 12.

(20) Johan Huizinga, Men and Ideas, Essays by Johann Huizinga, trans., by J. S. Holmes and H. V. Marie (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959), 25ff.

(21) For the life of and crimes of Gilles de Rais see J. K. Huysmans, Gilles de Rais: la magie en poitou (Vienna: Liguge, 1899), Jean Benedetti, Giles de Rais (New York: Stein and Day, 1972); Michel Bataille, Gilles de Rais. Notes de Jean Pesez agrege d'histoire. (Paris: Mercure de France, 1971); Roger Planchon, Gilles de Rais : L'Infame (Pari: Gallimard,, 1975.and on how de Rais has been handled by scholars see Val Morgan, The Legend of Gilles de Rais, (Lewiston, University of Maine Press, 2003.

(22) R. L. Colie, "Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History," The American Historical Review, 69/3, 607-630.

(23) David Gary Shaw, "Huizinga's Timeliness," History and Theory, 37/2 (May 1988), 253-254.

(24) Ibid., 255.

(25) In 1995, The Waning of the Middle Ages was identified by a poll of writers as one of the "most influential books" since World War I in the Times Literary Service. The only historians with works on that list were Huizinga, Marc Bloch, Lewis Namier, and Elie Halevy. See 'The hundred most influential books since the war,' in the Times Literary Service, 6 October 1995.
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