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There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.
Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:.
Europe was almost continually at war. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim. He died aged 35 in , leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI.
These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between and From to France was ruled by Charles VI who, in , went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother.
He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.
Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching.
It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry.
Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:. The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history.
The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king.
Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were — self-evidently — restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society — the aristocracy and the court. But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.
As the Middle Ages — say from to — proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues as of so much else in medieval thought became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.
Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book for me was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE.
God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven. This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes.
The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today.
Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages.
In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume. The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days.
Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only — since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler — ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well.
We are all depending on you. Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners.
Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented.
Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand. For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster.
The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour.
Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight — and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.
This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them.
Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:. For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe I have an abundance of both in my own garden : the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused.
The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world. Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day.
This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator. His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough — but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns , to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry , which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it.
For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.
Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding spurious patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their otherwise empty heads. Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on.
The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century. But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity — and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences — one of the great themes of the literature of the age.
The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.
Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death.
Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety.
Threatening complete collapse. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars.
The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction. And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable — something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour.
Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake. But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas — such as they were — forbade social change of any kind, because Society — along with its ranks and positions — had been laid down for all time by God.
No wonder the age was so pessimistic! The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning.
The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally.
The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)
Its subtitle is: "A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries". In the book, Huizinga presents the idea that the exaggerated formality and romanticism of late medieval court society was a defense mechanism against the constantly increasing violence and brutality of general society. He saw the period as one of pessimism, cultural exhaustion, and nostalgia, rather than of rebirth and optimism. Huizinga's work later came under criticism, especially for relying too heavily on evidence from the rather exceptional case of the Burgundian court.
The Waning of the Middle Ages
Considering theology and mysticism, politics and statesmanship, poetry and painting, marriage and love, Huizinga presents this period in France and the Netherlands as a death of an age, born of intellectual and cultural exhaustion, rather than the dawn of the Renaissance. In this light, the end of the Middle Ages becomes apparent as the logical conclusion of the old, rather than the genesis of the new. The Middle Ages : N either the best of times nor the worst of times. Johan Huizinga — was a Dutch historian, philosopher, and a founder of modern cultural history. He was professor of history at Gronigen University from to and at Leiden University from to , when the Nazis imprisoned him in a concentration camp. Huizinga lived out his life in exile.
There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century.
Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history. Rodney J. Payton is a professor of liberal studies at Western Washington University. The Autumn of the Middle Ages.