The Eternal Huizinga

February 7, 2021   •   By Birger Vanwesenbeeck

Autumntide of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga

PICTURE THE SCENE. It’s the summer of 1902, and the Belgian former port city of Bruges is hosting the country’s first state-sponsored retrospective of the so-called Flemish Primitives, a group of painters from the early 15th century. No less than 400 paintings by the likes of Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Rogier van der Weyden are being put on display, a concentrated gathering of early Netherlandish art not seen since the artistic spoils of Napoleon’s invasion of Flanders were exhibited in the Louvre exactly a century earlier. If not for Bruges’s stubborn refusal to lend out any of its prized artworks, the exhibit was to have taken place in Brussels, which, as the nation’s capital and the site of the Belgian Revolution, would have offered a more appropriate background for the show’s implicit political thrust: that of a country eager to showcase its “national” patrimony near the 75th anniversary of its independence. But the Bruges authorities had stubbornly held their ground. And thus it was to this once-thriving medieval metropolis long since turned provincial backwater that the who’s who of Europe flocked in the summer of 1902. Among them: Marcel Proust, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Stefan Zweig, and an at-the-time little-known Dutch historian named Johan Huizinga.

It was in Bruges that the young Huizinga (1872–1945) saw for the first time the paintings about which he was to write with such vivid lyricism and emotion in Autumntide of the Middle Ages (1919), a classic of scholarship about the late-medieval era now newly translated into English by Diane Webb on the occasion of the book’s recent centenary. Although Huizinga would later credit the central hypothesis of Autumntide — namely, that the art of the Primitives ought to be seen “not as the harbinger of the Renaissance, but as the end of the Middle Ages, medieval civilization in its last tide of life, as a tree with overripe fruit, fully developed and mature” — to a walk next to the Damsterdiep canal in Groningen, one suspects that the germs for this insight were laid during the 1902 Bruges visit. After all, within the cultural imaginary of the fin-de-siècle era, Bruges constituted something like the continent’s unofficial capital of melancholia and decay, an image bestowed on it (and only gotten slightly rid of since) by Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novella Bruges-la-Morte.

No matter how desperately the Belgian state sought to present the exhibit as reflecting the living past of a vibrant new nation, visitors were as likely to come away from it with the exact opposite insight. Such, in any case, was the impression of Zweig who, in his account of the visit, explicitly measured exhibit and city alike against the mournful imagination of Rodenbach’s novella:

It’s hard to wander in the evening through the dark and confined streets of this dreaming town without abandoning oneself to a serene melancholy, that gentle nostalgia aroused by the last days of autumn; no longer the shrill feasts of the fruiting season, but the more restful drama of decay and natural forces in decline. Carried by the uninterrupted wave of the pious carillon of vespers, one gradually sinks into this boundless ocean of enigmatic memories that cling to every door and wall gnawed away by time. […] No other town possesses a greater power to symbolize the tragedy of death, and perhaps even more terrifying the actual death throes, than does Bruges.

Although no evidence survives that Huizinga read Bruges-la-Morte, his youthful infatuation with the literature of the Decadentists (a passing reference to Huysmans survives in the penultimate chapter of Autumntide) makes it very likely that the city would have seemed to him closely analogous to how it struck Zweig, thus casting its melancholy spell over the artworks on display and paving the way for Huizinga’s lateness hypothesis to emerge over time.

Formally, too, there are strong resemblances between Huizinga’s notoriously florid style and the works of fin-de-siècle writers such as Rodenbach and Huysmans, so that at times one feels tempted to read Autumntide itself as a late-late addition to the “overripe tree” of Decadent literature more so than as a historiographical study. To do so, however, would be to misrecognize both the deep originality of the book and the impeccable scholarship that it displays on almost every page. But it is worth pointing out that Huizinga’s book owes far more of its continuing relevance and fame to its inimitable style, which has moved readers for the last century, than to its insights about the rather arcane subject of late-medieval life. But then Huizinga’s approach to the late-medieval period in Autumntide exhibits neither the exclusively economic focus of Marxism, which by the early 20th century had gradually become the predominant paradigm among historians, nor the nationalist models of the 19th century, which, like the 1902 exhibit, sought to force the sprawling geopolitical structures of the medieval world into the straitjacket of the modern nation-state. Tellingly, neither the term Flemish Primitives nor the moniker “early Netherlandish art” appears in Autumntide. For as much as the late-medieval era constituted a unified whole, it also straddled the boundaries of the contemporary nation-states of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

So, what then was Huizinga after? As the subtitle of Autumntide signals with disarming economy and clarity, his is a “study of forms of life and thought of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France and the Low Countries.” In an epilogue, Huizinga scholar Graeme Small (who co-edited the book along with Anton van der Lem) points to the work of the 19th-century historian William Dilthey as a possible precursor for what he calls Huizinga’s “acute visual appreciation of the past,” but a more obvious comparison is the work of a philosopher contemporaneous with Huizinga. Two years prior to the Bruges exhibit, Edmund Husserl had published the first volume of his Logical Investigations, which presented itself as a much overdue compromise between the antithetical philosophies of empiricism and idealism. Phenomenology, so Husserl announced, sought to return “to the things themselves,” by which he meant not the material object of the empiricists nor some original Platonic idea, but a phenomenon as registered in consciousness. Once the philosopher has successfully carried out this “phenomenological reduction,” she would then gain access to what Husserl calls the “life world” (Lebenswelt) — i.e., the world as it is experienced or “lived,” a project that has preoccupied (post-)phenomenologists up until today.

Even if Huizinga nowhere directly engages the work of Husserl or that of other phenomenologists, the usage of the terms “life forms” and “thought forms” in the subtitle of Autumntide clearly signals the contiguity of their concerns. As a historian, Huizinga is interested not in sketching an economic history of the late Middle Ages nor in reducing the period to its prevailing ideas, but in presenting to readers the medieval life world: how its tournaments and festivals, its itinerant preachers, its omnipresent death were felt and experienced by the era’s contemporaries. “The history of civilization,” so Huizinga argues, “has just as much to do with dreams of beauty and illusions of the noble life as it does with population and taxation figures.” Even if, as Huizinga notes, most of the aesthetic forms that enthralled the medieval mind can only strike us as ossified and formulaic, “it would still be necessary for history to see that life with the lustre of that veneer.”

To accomplish this latter goal, Huizinga summons the visual rhetoric of Decadentism. The following passage, which serves as an introduction to a discussion of the Old French poem Roman de la Rose, offers a case in point:

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. It was one of the momentous turns of the medieval spirit, when Dante first developed an idea of love that was fundamentally negative in tone. […] According to the theory of courtly love, the noble lover becomes virtuous and chaste through loving. The spiritual element increasingly gained the upper hand in that lyricism: in the end love results in a state of sacred knowledge and piety: la vita nuova.

One of the great merits of Webb’s new translation is that, for the first time, English readers get to encounter this lyrical Huizinga in all his splendor. Hers is the third English translation of Autumntide to date, making Huizinga’s book, alongside Multatuli’s Max Havelaar the Diary of Anne Frank, probably the most translated work in all of Dutch writing. It is also the first translation to preserve in English the original neologism (herfsttij) of Huizinga’s title, after it had previously been rendered as, respectively, the “waning” (Frits Hopmans’s 1924 translation) and the “autumn” (Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch’s 1996 translation) of the Middle Ages. Although, as Small helpfully points out, Huizinga may have been less beholden to this neologism than admirers of the book often presume, the decision to maintain the original title in English nonetheless attests to this new translation’s attempt to capture not only the spirit but also the letter of the original.

To do so is no small feat. As Webb writes in the introduction, there is much about Huizinga that a contemporary translator may wish to edit and update in the service of readability and clarity: his excessive use of the historic present, his “adjectival insistence” (to use a phrase F. R. Leavis used to describe Joseph Conrad), as well as the sheer length of some of his sentences. That she has resisted this urge is to her credit, and it has resulted in a version of Herfsttij that, of the three existing translations, is closest to the original. This is not to say that all of Huizinga’s “idiosyncracies” (as Webb calls them) have been successfully maintained in English. As one example, consider a favorite term of Huizinga’s such as woekeren and how it appears (in a nominal derivation) in the following passage:

As it comes to an end, the Middle Ages displays this entire world of thought in its final flowering. The world lay perfectly spread out in that all-encompassing allegorization, and the symbols became, in effect, petrified blooms. For that matter, symbolism not only sprouts from the poetic imagination and rapture, but attaches itself like a thuggish plant [woekerplant] to thinking, and degenerates into mere idiosyncrasy and morbidity of thought.

Elsewhere in Autumntide, Webb renders woekeren as, among other translations, “proliferate” and “grow rampant.” The Dutch verb does indeed mean those things, but it is also a fitting word for Huizinga’s purposes because it conveniently straddles the realms of the organic (as it is used here) and the secular worldly. For woekeren can also denote usury, as it does in the case of the German Wucher. This monetary denotation is significant since the proliferation of deadened forms that Huizinga here describes occurs in a period otherwise known for its excessive court luxuries and overall worldliness. Even if, in the above passage, one were to replace the somewhat oddly chosen moniker “thuggish plant” with “invasive species,” one still would not be able to capture that duality. This is not to say that previous translators fare any better. Hopmans’s 1924 translation renders woekerplant as “parasite,” which has the advantage of maintaining Huizinga’s straddling of the organic-worldly divide but also moves us away from the plant metaphor structuring the passage. Payton and Mammitzsch’s 1996 translation opts for “parasitic plant,” which evokes a different kind of flora from the invasive species (or weeds) Huizinga has in mind.

Last but not least, Webb’s new translation is the first English rendition of Autumntide that comes equipped with a scholarly apparatus, as well as a plethora of high-quality image reproductions of the various artworks, sites, and objects relevant to Huizinga’s text. Compiled by longtime Huizinga scholar van der Lem, and no doubt modeled on the Dutch luxury edition of Autumntide published in 1997, these images alone make this latest translation of Huizinga’s masterpiece a must-have. Indeed, one might be tempted to call it a coffee-table book were it not for the sparkling prose of its author (and translator), which vies with the gorgeous images adorning its every page.

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Birger Vanwesenbeeck is professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.