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Johan Huizinga
The Waning of the Middle Ages

A brief biography of
Cultural historian Johan Huizinga

Johan Huizinga, who was later to become famous for his studies concerning the Waning of the Middle Ages, was born in Groningen in 1872. He was educated there and in Leipzig, Germany. His initial academic training was as a linguist - he studied Dutch language and literature in Groningen from 1891 until 1897 when he wrote his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of the classical scholar J.S. Speyer (1849-1913) on the Vidûsaka in Indian theatre.

Huizinga shifted his interest towards historical studies however, with a particular emphasis on studies as a Cultural historian in line with the school established by Jacob Burckhardt. After teaching in Haarlem and Amsterdam, he became professor of history at the University of Groningen in 1905 and at the Leiden University in 1915.

His most famous work is The Waning of the Middle Ages , (published in 1919 trans. 1924), in which he argues that the late Middle Ages were a period of weariness, pessimism and decadence.

This work, which is celebrated for its excellent literary quality and historical penetration, focuses on the 14th and 15th centuries in France and the Low Countries as exemplifying the last phase of the Middle Ages and discusses many aspects of medieval life: philosophy, literature, painting, chivalry, love, etc. Huizinga describes how medieval piety often found expression in rituals and external forms.

The Middle Ages are also discusses in his collection of essays Men and Ideas. One of these called, "The Task of Cultural History," argues that history should resurrect the past, and should give the reader a sense of what it was like to be alive during a particular period. Huizinga deplores the modern tendency to write romanticized history and romanticized biography, to try to make history entertaining and amusing holding that "No literary effect in the world can compare to the pure, sober taste of history."

Other essays are collected in a volume called Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays. Much of this book is written not for the general reader, but for fellow Dutchmen and contemporaries. His preoccupation with the Netherlands reminds one of Ortega's preoccupation with Spain. In an essay called, "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought," Huizinga declares that he has "faith in the importance of the aesthetic element in historical thinking," and that he opposes the idea that history should attempt to be scientific. "The historian tries to re-experience what was once experienced by men like ourselves....The true study of history involves our imagination and conjures up conceptions, pictures, visions."

In the Shadow of Tomorrow isn't a historical work, but rather an analysis of Western civilization. It discusses the problems besetting the West, from moral anarchy to artistic decadence. Though it sometimes reminds one of Ortega's Revolt of the Masses, its less pertinent to our time than Ortega's work since much of it is a criticism of Fascism. It is, however, an interesting, brief and readable book, it argues that that modern education and the mass media both have harmful effects on culture: "Our time [is] faced by the discouraging fact that two highly vaunted achievements of civilization, universal education and modern publicity, instead of raising the level of culture, appear ultimately to produce certain symptoms of cultural devitalisation and degeneration."

In looking at modern art, Huizinga finds a trend toward the irrational in both modern literature and modern painting. Literature and painting are held to have become increasingly unintelligible - poetry is represented as having maintained throughout history "a certain connection with rational expression....It is not until the closing years of the [nineteenth] century that one sees poetry purposely steering its course away from reason."

Man and the Masses in America and also Life and Thought in America; are two books that are sometimes published together in one volume. They consider American history before 1925, and they also look at modern society in general, including newspapers, movies and literature. Special attention is paid to the economic forces that have shaped American history.

In many of Huizinga's works, he discusses the play element in culture. Finally, when his life was drawing to a close, and he was a prisoner of the Nazis, he collected his thoughts on this subject into a book called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Homo Ludens contains some very interesting ideas, but it presents these ideas in a rather dry and scholarly manner. He argues that play is one of fundamental facts of human life, and is at the root of poetry, music, philosophy - even jurisprudence and war. Anyone interested in plumbing the depths of human nature, anyone interested in the question of why people fight wars, create culture, etc., should take his ideas into account. Huizinga is discussing more than play, he is discussing human nature, the fundamental drives within human nature - "The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play....We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from arises in and as play, and never leaves it."

Other works include early studies of the literature and culture of India and a biography of Erasmus (1924).

From 1942 until his death in 1945 Johan Huizinga was held in detention by the Nazis.

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The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.