Johan Huizinga

Johan Huizinga (07 December 1872–01 February 1945)

Today is the 149th anniversary of the birth of Johan Huizinga (07 December 1872–01 February 1945), who was born on this date in 1872.

Huizinga was a Dutch historian of culture and ideas. His book The Autumn of the Middle Ages: A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, 1919) has been translated into English three times (as The Waning of the Middle Ages, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, and most recently as Autumntide of the Middle Ages). In 1976 Radio Netherlands produced a six part series, Autumn of the Middle Ages, focused on the music of the period, which is a nice supplement to Huizinga’s treatment of the same period, allowing us to expand our appreciation of the autumn of the Middle Ages beyond literature, painting, and sculpture.

One of the elements that makes Huizinga’s study of the late Middle Ages in the Low Countries so compelling is its masterful synthesis of the diverse expressions of culture to express a single theme: that of the late Middle Ages as a time of a civilization in decline. Huizinga had obviously put some thought into historical synthesis, and had this to say about it:

“In the historian’s very research, if well done, lies the maturation of historical knowledge itself. The development of historical insight is not a process that follows upon critical treatment of the raw material, but is constantly taking place in the work of digging itself; scholarship is not realized in the individual in synthesis alone, but also in analysis. No true historical analysis is possible without the constant interpretation of meaning. In order to begin an analysis, there must already be a synthesis present in the mind. A conception of ordered coherence is an indispensable precondition even to the preliminary labor of digging and hewing.” (from “The Task of Cultural History” included in Men and Ideas)

Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century (Nederland’s beschaving in de zeventiende eeuw, 1941), is, like his earlier work on the middle ages, a work of synthesis that draws together the elements of what we know today as the Dutch Golden Age. The second part of this work includes three essays on history, “Two Wrestlers with the Angel,” in which Huizinga compares the historical syntheses of Oswald Spengler and H. G. Wells, “The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought,” and “My Path to History.” It is remarkable that Huizinga says of Spengler’s main work that it, “…consisted of 600 pages of clearly reasoned and brilliantly expressed historical exegesis.” This is a rare tribute by a professional historian to Spengler’s virtues as a writer—virtues for which Spengler is not usually recommended. Given Huizinga’s thesis on the late Middle Ages, it is no wonder that he was attracted to Spengler’s central theme of The Decline of the West.

Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture (Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur, 1938) has been influential beyond the scope of most works of history. The Dutch “ludus” has no precise equivalent in English, and could be rendered “play,” “practice,” or “sport.” One might profitably compare this work with Nietzsche’s essay “Homer’s Contest” or Ortega y Gasset’s essay “The Sportive Origins of the State.”

What follows is a paragraph from one of Huizinga’s lesser known essays, “A Definition of the Concept of History” (translated by D. R. Cousin), which appeared in Philosophy and History: The Ernst Cassirer Festschrift, edited by Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (1963). The definition of history upon which Huizinga converges is this: “History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” Leading up to this definition we find the following:

“It remains for us to establish who renders account to himself, and of what. To the question about the subject which concerns itself with history, the answer is implicit in what has just been said. It can only be a civilization, inasmuch as that word is best adapted to indicate the ideal totalities of social life and creative activity realized in a definite time and place which for our thinking constitute the units in the historical life of mankind. We are expected to speak of a civilization, no less than of a people, a society as a thinking subject, without falling by the use of this metaphor into the gross anthropomorphism which constitutes one of the chief dangers to historical thought. Moreover, it is hardly necessary to define the concept of civilization more precisely than has just been done, until we employ the word as a term in a definition. Every civilization creates its own form of history, and must do so. The character of the civilization determines what history shall mean to it, and of what kind it shall be. If a civilization coincides with a people, a state, a tribe, its history will be correspondingly simple. If a general civilization is differentiated into distinct nations, and these again into groups, classes, parties, the corresponding differentiation in the historical form follows of itself.6 The historical interests of every sectional civilization are determined by the question: what are the things which ‘matter’ to it? Civilization has a meaning only as a process of adaptation to an end; it is a teleological concept, as history is an explicitly purposive knowing.”

This passage is fascinating in part due to the coincidence of history and civilization, which we have seen in other historians grappling with the definition of history.

The Klibansky and Paton volume was published after Huizinga’s death, and the book does not give the source of Huizinga’s essay or its date of composition.

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