The Waning of the Middle Ages Critical Essays

Johan Huizinga

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Johan Huizinga taught at the University of Leiden from 1915 until it was closed during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES, subtitled A STUDY OF THE FORMS OF LIFE, THOUGHT AND ART IN FRANCE AND THE NETHERLANDS IN THE XIVTH AND XVTH CENTURIES, which was first published in 1919 and translated into English in 1924, became a classic of scholarship during the author’s lifetime. Three other works of Huizinga have been translated into English: ERASMUS OF ROTTERDAM, IN THE SHADOW OF TOMORROW, and HOMO LUDENS: A STUDY OF THE PLAY ELEMENT IN CULTURE.

In his Preface to THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES, Johan Huizinga suggests that the decay of a culture may be as suggestive as the birth of a new era. The twilight of a civilization, he observes, may present more distinctly than earlier periods, in all its forms of life, the heart and mind and soul—the spirit—of an age. Huizinga focuses his study on France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time and place where the tone of life had not yet been altered by the humanism flourishing in Italy. The quality of life which he delineates, though it is limited to two countries and two centuries, captures the essence of medievalism.

Life in the Middle Ages was violent, passionate, and paradoxical. Everyday existence oscillated between grief and joy, cruelty and tenderness. Religious processions in the fifteenth century attracted crowds of people who reacted to the ceremonies with tears of devotion. On the other hand, the common people responded with appalling enthusiasm and excitement to the brutal punishments which the law devised for terrible crimes. The quality of mercy was often conspicuously lacking. For example, in Paris in the early fifteenth century, a noble brigand, about to be executed, was not allowed the privilege of confession. The treasurer of the Regent, disregarding the pleas of the doomed man, climbed the ladder behind him, beat him with a stick, and thrashed the hangman for exhorting the victim to think of his salvation. The same paradoxical emotional responses are reflected in the medieval attitude toward the sick, the poor, and the insane, who are regarded with either deep compassion or cruel derision.

The emotional violence that makes up an integral part of the spirit of the Middle Ages was, to a certain extent, responsible for another significant medieval element: formalism. All emotions, Huizinga points out, needed a rigid framework of conventions; otherwise the feverish passions of the day would have made havoc of existence. Birth, marriage, and death became, in effect, ceremonious spectacles. Outside these spheres a deeply felt desire for beauty and order shaped a solemn and decorous form for every important event. The sinner who humbled himself, the condemned prisoner who repented, and the religious person who sacrificed himself made up part of what might be called the public spectacle. Thus public life almost presented the appearance of a perpetual moral drama. These and other conventions, such as those which dignified the intimate relationships of love and friendship, helped to mask or at least partially to obscure the barbaric cruelty and crudeness that were so close to the...

(The entire section is 1341 words.)