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Ah! Sweet History of Life

The Autumn of the Middle Ages

by Johan Huizinga, translated by Rodney J. Payton, by Ulrich Mammitzsch
University of Chicago Press, 471 pp., $39.95

The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

by John Hale
HarperCollins, 648 pp., £25.00

In his preface to his extremely fine study The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale hopes it will not be thought presumptuous that his title adapts that of a book of truly seminal importance, Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy of 1860—a book that “I have carried…for so long in my mental baggage as a talisman at once protective and provocative that this was not a journey I could undertake without it.” However, as the adaptation of the title itself suggests, and as his nearly six hundred pages of lucid, imaginative, and constantly engrossing text elaborate, it is the provocation rather than the protection that has provided the greater stimulus for Hale. For Burckhardt’s Renaissance was emphatically Italian, and not European.

Yet Hale’s caution is not in any way unusual. As is pointed out by the editor of a series of “revisionist” art historical essays covering very much the same time span as he does—from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century—“nearly every reevaluation of the Renaissance—this one is no exception—begins by acknowledging The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860”; and she in turn refers to another recent revaluation, whose “revisionist approach to cultural history retains the spirit of Burckhardt’s Civilization.”1

It is very difficult indeed to think of any historian from any period (other than one who was actually a contemporary of the events described) whose conclusions have so greatly, and for so long, dominated consideration of a major and much disputed subject. The attention that is paid to Burckhardt is of a quite different order from that accorded to great historians such as Gibbon or Ranke or Michelet, whose achievements, however vast and however acclaimed, are no longer a necessary point of departure for all serious discussion of the themes treated by them—enlightening though their insights into particular issues still remain.

Perhaps the only other historian to maintain an overriding influence on all subsequent generations is one who was of great importance to Burckhardt himself: Giorgio Vasari, the historian of Italian art. After more than four hundred years of controversy, and the detection in his work of inaccuracies and bias, deceit, ignorance, and intellectual carelessness, it still remains almost impossible for most of us not to think of Italian painting, sculpture, and architecture as having been born in Florence and as having then “progressed” in a direct line, so to speak, along the road which we will all have to follow: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and (by implication) decay and death.

The rare gift that Vasari and Burckhardt shared was an ability to embrace a fresh and immediate response to the real, the vivid, the unusual, and the picturesque within a tough but flexible conceptual frame that relates to some of our deepest human sensitivities. Because of this it has always been possible, and rewarding, to read their masterpieces not only for what they can tell us about the past but also because they can satisfy us on a number of different levels—the anecdotal (to use a dismissive word whose rehabilitation is long overdue), the intellectually stimulating, and one based on our personal experiences of life—without our feeling any sense of strain at such a variety of responses. While the combination of these three ingredients in a work of cultural history does not of itself amount to a guarantee of quality, it can have an extremely worthwhile—indeed valuable—role in assuring a far more solidly founded durability than can be achieved by commitment to any philosophical system, and for that reason the issue will be worth raising again in connection with the books under review in this article.

Burckhardt, inspired partly by Michelet, but mostly by his profound sensitivity to the visual arts and to Vasari’s interpretation of their progress, was the principal deviser of the notion of a Renaissance that went far beyond previous definitions of “the rebirth of arts and letters” and that could be thought of as embodying some sort of ideological consistency. What characterized it above all was the cult of the individual, though it is by no means true, as is often implied, that Burckhardt himself viewed this development with unqualified approval. His own way of life as a professor in Basel, his own tastes, and his own political sympathies were essentially conformist, and when, in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Italy, he came across the cult of the individual carried to excess—as it was, for instance, in the conduct of certain condottieri and tyrants or in the sculpture of Donatello or Michelangelo—he was horrified by these presages of everything that he most detested about modern life: the impact of Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, or full-blooded Romanticism in the arts. But whatever Burckhardt’s own reservations about some aspects of the “Renaissance” that he had invented (reservations to be found far more in his private notebooks or in his previously published guide to Italian art than in Civilization), for most readers his masterly depiction of the spectacle of the individual struggling to emerge from the mists of the Middle Ages proved to be as exhilarating as it was intellectually convincing.

It has, however, long been recognized (and held against him) that Burckhardt’s achievement was only made possible by his adoption of a distinctly cavalier approach to chronology and to events occurring north of the Alps. A place in the Renaissance could be readily found for any Italian asserting his individuality—even one whose attitude toward the world seems, in other respects, to have been far more characteristic of the Middle Ages, whatever limits are put on that, admittedly artificial, construct; but for a Burgundian or a Frenchman or a Fleming no such privilege was granted, however much his behavior or aspirations would appear to entitle him to entry. Writing of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, Burckhardt’s greatest successor in the field of cultural history, as well as his greatest admirer and greatest critic, commented that what was described by a contemporary as the Duke’s “haute magnificence de coeur pour estre vu et regardé en singulières choses” was “the characteristic quality of Burckhardt’s Renaissance man.” It is, however, only now that this comment will become available to the reader of the English text of Huizinga’s most famous work.

The Hersttij der Middeleeuwen was first published in Dutch in 1919, and an English translation of the second edition (of 1921) appeared in 1924. It is still in print, and (as can be confirmed by a visit to any serious paperback bookstore) it rightly remains very popular. It has, however, always been recognized that the English edition “is not a simple translation of the original Dutch, but the result of a work of adaptation, reduction and consolidation under the author’s direction”; indeed, the adaptation begins with the very title—The Waning [rather than The Autumn] of the Middle Ages. In fact, this 1924 version by Fritz Hopman, a Dutch student of English literature and a journalist, reads very well, and, seduced by its charm (Huizinga’s style is said to be of the utmost distinction) and by the author’s commendation of it, we have not bothered too much about “the adaptation, reduction and consolidation,” although from time to time a complaint is made about the alteration to the title. This complacency is about to be shattered. The translators of a new English edition, published by the University of Chicago Press, not only emphasize more strongly than has ever been done before how deficient is the English text compared to that of the Dutch original but also point out that about one third of it has been cut.

A series of spot-checks of the two versions against the original (or, to be more honest, jointly against the original and the very faithful German translation) makes it clear beyond doubt that their claims about the radical changes made to it are fully justified. But should we worry about them in view of Huizinga’s own approval of the English version by Hopman, “whose clear insight into the exigencies of translation rendered the recasting possible, and whose endless patience with the wishes of an exacting author made the difficult task a work of friendly co-operation”? To this query the new translators have various answers, of which the most cogent is that had Huizinga really thought that the changes in any way improved the original, he would surely have wished to retain them for subsequent Dutch and foreign editions.

I have been convinced by their arguments and also by the examples that they give of some very obvious errors. Moreover, the extensive omissions are often of real significance, even though it is true that they more usually affect the author’s tone than matters of substance: occasionally indeed the alterations are a little comic. Thus in 1921 Huizinga wrote that “the competition in courtliness and politeness (so striking a feature of life at the Burgundian court) is now characteristically petit bourgeois“; by 1924 the Huizinga-Hopman version refers to the same phenomenon as being “characteristic of lower-middle-class etiquette some forty years ago.” Does this imply that there was a startling difference between the social mores of England and Holland, or can it be that the manners of the lower middle classes changed radically between 1921 and 1924?

This may seem a trivial point, but it is worth mentioning that in a few cases Hopman’s version does perhaps incorporate some rethinking that Huizinga might have wished to retain. Is it not possible, for instance, that he deliberately chose to remove the slightly disparaging allusion to Burckhardt in his reference to Charles the Bold’s “high magnificence of heart”?2 And from time to time the Hopman version is more satisfying than the (more accurate) new one.3 However, the advantages of the new translation are so many and so immediately self-evident that it is greatly to be hoped that it will quickly be issued in an easily accessible edition. For Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages (as we must now train ourselves to call it) is one of the greatest, as well as one of the most enthralling, historical classics of the twentieth century, and everyone will surely want to read it in the form that was obviously intended by the author, even if their views of the book will not, I think, be fundamentally altered.

This is partly because, although it was always apparent that Huizinga’s interest in the late Middle Ages was closely related to his feelings about the human condition in general, the new translation makes this even clearer—and more poignant—than it was before. Thus the second chapter, entitled “The Craving for a More Beautiful Life,” now opens with a series of eloquent phrases which had been severely cut, though not eliminated, by Hopman:

Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense that yearning. Towards the end of the Middle Ages the ground tone underlying life is one of bitter despondency. The note of an assertive joy of life and of a strong confidence in an individual’s powers, which permeates the history of the Renaissance and that of the age of Enlightenment, is barely audible in the French-Burgundian world of the fifteenth century. Was life really more unhappy then than usual? It may, at times, seem to be the case. Wherever one looks in the sources of that period, in the chronicles, in poetry, in sermons and religious tracts and even official documents—with few exceptions, only the traces of strife, hatred and malevolence, greed and poverty seem to have survived. One may well ask, was this age incapable of enjoying nothing but cruelty, arrogant pride, and intemperance? Is joyfulness and quiet happiness nowhere to be found? To be sure, the age left in its records more traces of its suffering than of its happiness. Its misfortunes became its history. But an instinctive conviction tells us that the sum total of happiness, serene joy, and sweet rest given to man cannot differ very much in one period from that in another. The splendor of late medieval happiness has still not completely vanished; it survives in folk song, in music, in the quiet horizons of landscape paintings and in the sober faces seen in the portraits.

But in the fifteenth century, it is tempting to say, it was not yet customary, it was not in good taste, to loudly praise life and the world. Those given to the serious contemplation of the course of daily events, and who subsequently pronounced judgment on life, were accustomed to dwell on only suffering and despair. They saw time coming to an end and everything earthly inclining to ruin. The optimism that was to rise beginning with the Renaissance, and to fully bloom during the eighteenth century, was still unknown to the French mind of the fifteenth century.

  1. 1

    Claire Farago, Reframing the Renaissance—Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450–1650 (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 3, referring also to Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy, revised edition (Princeton University Press, 1987). A number of essays in the volume edited by Farago (including her own) are of notable interest for the elucidation of what she describes as “the Renaissance Problem.” Although published in 1948, Wallace K. Ferguson’s masterpiece of historiography, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Houghton Mifflin), provides what is still an absorbing account of “The Problem,” and it is inexplicable—as well as inexcusable—that it has been out of print and hence unobtainable for so long.

  2. 2

    The most striking change of this nature is in Huizinga’s discussion of the overelaborate detail to be seen in Van Eyck’s The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre. In the original version of the book (and hence in the new translation) he comments: “And … in all this … unity and harmony are not lost.” In the Hopman adaptation this is altered to: “Are not unity and harmony lost in the aggregation of details … ? Having recently seen the picture again, I can no longer deny it, as I formerly did on the strength of recollections many years old.”

  3. 3

    Thus I prefer the Huizinga-Hopman summing up of the poetic dreams which made possible the escape from harsh reality—”The themes are few in number, and have hardly changed since antiquity; we may call them the heroic and bucolic theme. Nearly all the literary culture of later ages has been built upon them”—to the more overbearing original: “All literary culture since antiquity was based on two themes: the heroic and the bucolic. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries managed nothing more than new variations on the old song.”

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