Johan Huizinga
Johan Huizinga; drawing by David Levine

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.

Yet although Huizinga remains extremely popular—it is tempting to echo, but not to repeat, the comment I made earlier about Burckhardt and to point out how very difficult it would be to think of any other historian writing more than three quarters of a century ago whose work is still so widely read—his fate has been very different from that of his Swiss predecessor. Virtually no current revaluation of the culture of Northern Europe in the fifteenth century begins by acknowledging The Autumn of the Middle Ages except in the most cursory way. The adjective “great” is attached to Huizinga’s name as a matter of course, and yet scarcely a single modern scholar accepts either the methodology (which has been dismissed as the product of a rather vague aestheticism) or the conclusions, on which his reputation is based. Above all, no art historian now agrees with the central tenet of his book, to the effect that the magnificent art of fifteenth-century Flanders—the art of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden—represents not an innovative “Renaissance” but an autumnal, if ostentatious, decline from the High Middle Ages. Just how that art did emerge remains very controversial, but Huizinga’s view has been either explicitly rejected or (more usually) passed by in silence.4

Cultural historians working outside the field of painting have been just as skeptical of Huizinga’s views. In recent years scholars have gone out of their way to dispute his claim—hitherto perhaps the most influential of all his claims—that by the fifteenth century the notion of chivalry, with its attendant enthusiasm for tournaments of the most ritualized yet extravagant nature, had lost its function of training virtuous warriors to defend Christianity and had sunk into meaningless prodigality and become a dream-like evasion of reality. On the contrary, we are now told, the tournament still retained its value as a preparation for actual warfare, and in any case the nostalgia for the chivalric values of three hundred years earlier—a nostalgia which, as was proclaimed by Huizinga and is still acknowledged by modern scholars, certainly did pervade Burgundian court culture—served the desirable purpose of upholding those values against later distortions.

Most devastating of all, perhaps, are the couple of pages in which the fine French historian Lucien Febvre questions the very notion of singling out some particular sentiment—the violent oscillation, for instance, between extreme cruelty and extreme goodness—as having been characteristic of the decline of the Middle Ages. Cannot the same sentiment be detected, Febvre asked, just as clearly at the dawn of the Middle Ages or, in fact, at the dawn of modern times?

The point is a valid one because Huizinga, like Burckhardt—or indeed any other historian primarily concerned with charting the culture or the “mental set” of a particular age—inevitably had to face the problem that the very features he singled out as characteristic might often be found just as prominently in widely different periods or locations. Burckhardt, as we have seen, coped with this issue by pursuing a policy that combined annexation and exclusion: a “medieval” Italian tyrant or a “proto-classical” church outside Florence would be granted almost full Renaissance honors, whereas an astute, cultivated, and self-assured Burgundian duke would be left out in the cold mists of the Middle Ages.

Huizinga, well aware of these methodological weaknesses, nonetheless found himself unable to escape them. In a subtle and admirable study of the imagery associated with the early years of François I of France, the French art historian Anne-Marie Lecoq quite often finds Huizinga’s concepts relevant to her discussion, despite the fact that the subtitle of her book contains a phrase, l’aube de la Renaissance française, which seems to pose a deliberate challenge to The Autumn of the Middle Ages. On one occasion, she considers that Huizinga’s analysis of a popular feature of decaying Burgundian rhetoric—the use of “reverse symbolism,” whereby “the lower does not point to the higher, but rather the higher to the lower, since, in the mind of the inventor, the earthly things that he intends to glorify with some heavenly ornamentation are foremost”—is more applicable to the court of Henri IV early in the seventeenth century than to that of François I in the sixteenth.5

Despite these and other inconsistencies, Huizinga’s much-loved book can certainly satisfy our longing for a conception of history which, along with richness of information and subtlety of interpretation, combines the anecdotal and the intellectually stimulating, and echoes our personal experiences of life to such telling effect. Huizinga’s failure to have achieved the canonical status accorded to Burckhardt is probably due not so much to weaknesses of his own or to his choice of a less important subject as to the tacit assumption by most modern historians that the very concept of an all-embracing cultural synthesis is no longer attainable.

Huizinga himself was very aware or the difficulties that faced him. Even before embarking on his book, for instance, he was far more cautious than is usually realized about the weight that should be attached to artistic as opposed to written sources, and later in life he was almost apologetic about the part that he himself had played in apparently emphasizing the former at the expense of the latter. Moreover, even in The Autumn of the Middle Ages he specifically balances the one form of evidence against the other. Is it from poetry or from painting, for instance, that we can derive a truer understanding about medieval attitudes toward love or the beauty of landscape? His analyses of the issues involved in reaching a valid decision in such matters vividly recall those made by Lessing in his Laocöon a century and a half earlier. “Hidden deep in all these [portraits by Van Eyck],” Huizinga claims with untypical exaggeration,

is the miracle of the personality explored to its innermost reaches. In this we encounter the most profound characterization possible: we are allowed to see it, but it cannot be put into words. Even if Van Eyck had simultaneously also been the greatest poet of his century, the secret that reveals itself in the pictures would not have opened itself to him in words.

And after closely considering the limitations of the medieval poems he discusses, he writes:

The basic characteristic of the late medieval mind is its predominantly visual nature. This characteristic is closely related to the atrophy of the mind. Thought takes place exclusively through visual conceptions. Everything that is expressed is couched in visual terms. The absolute lack of intellectual content in the allegorical recitations and poems was bearable because satisfaction was attained through the visual realization alone. The tendency to express directly the external aspects of things found a stronger and more perfect means of expression through pictorial rather than literary means. In the same way, it was able to express itself more forcefully in prose than in poetry. This is the reason why the prose of the fifteenth century constitutes in several respects the middle term between painting and poetry. All three have the unrestrained elaboration of details in common, but in painting and prose this leads to a direct realism unknown in poetry, which is left without anything better at its disposal to replace it.

It would be absurd to claim that Huizinga was a sort of premature post-modern who wished his book to avoid any conclusion and to end on a note of enquiry; nonetheless, it does seem to me that The Autumn of the Middle Ages, which, in some ways, is so close to the confident historical syntheses of the nineteenth century, is likely to continue to be read (and in this fine new translation) and enjoyed and—it is to be hoped—to offer inspiration during the next century precisely because it offers us the imaginative conceptions we need in order to escape from too rigid a historical frame.

John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance is able to benefit from that escape and is, at the same time, a deeply impressive achievement in its own right, partly because doubts about the validity of so bold an undertaking are now far more daunting than they were in Huizinga’s day. They have not, however, daunted Hale—although they have naturally persuaded him to write a very different sort of book from those discussed above. He moves with ease, for instance, between North, South, and Central Europe, and this geographical range allows him a much more generous approach to a number of major issues that powerfully divided earlier writers. Thus he is not too worried about where exactly the origins of Renaissance art have to be located, for truth to life and perception of reality are explored simultaneously by Jan van Eyck and by Masaccio, who “differed more in approach than intention.”

This example should not, however, give the impression that Hale is merely trying to substitute one strait-jacket for another—a large proportion of his book is, on the contrary, devoted to emphasizing the diversity of the Continent—nor should it suggest that, as with Burckhardt and Huizinga, his interpretation of history is directly conditioned by his feeling for the visual arts. The arts, inevitably, do play a very important role in coloring his view of the changing world, but more space is devoted to the neo-Stoic sage and university professor Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) than to Michelangelo. For it was, Hale claims, Lipsius who, of all the Humanist scholars of the Renaissance, “best taught men how to be ‘philosophical.’ ” The problem that Lipsius confronted was how to survive in the world of the late sixteenth century, which was, in his own words, “tormented not only by external wars, but by civil wars…. To these ills are added pestilence, famine, forced contributions, robbery, murder, and—worst of all ills—tyranny and repression not only of the body, but of the spirit.” From such a world (one, incidentally, that does not usually feature so prominently in discussions of the Renaissance) no escape was possible. Evil had to be faced “with firm self-knowledge and self-control, with constancy,” and order had to be enforced with authority. The guiding principle of a sound political structure was, then, “self-control within state control,” and it was through his preaching of this stern, but accessible, doctrine that Lipsius proved himself to be, Hale writes, “one of the most influential if not one of the most profound minds of the Renaissance.”

Hale’s range is astonishing; he writes about both the power of the military and the development of universities, about both the courts and the populace. He is not, however, swamped by so much material, and he, too,—like the best cultural historians—manages to integrate it into some sort of pattern, albeit this is (as has already been implied) necessarily of a rather looser kind than would have been acceptable to his mentor Burckhardt or to Huizinga. Hale sees the Renaissance as an intermittently civilizing process that gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, enabling man to dominate nature, the world, and even his more bestial instincts. He does not play down the horrors that often attended this process, but it is (I think) fair to assume that—most unusually for a historian engaged in a study of this kind—he is essentially an optimist. It is certainly impossible to read his book, which contains so vivid an account of the struggles between civilization and barbarism, without finding echoes in it of our own personal experiences of life and without being gripped by its profusion of anecdotes.

But Hale can, of course, no more escape the problems inherent in the genre than can his predecessors, and for him, too, the issue of chronology presents difficulties. In his preface he claims that “the period of European history from around 1450 to about 1620…does have a coherence of its own,” but the reasons for this choice of approximate dates do not emerge with total clarity from the book itself. Burckhardt’s Renaissance was well under way by 1450, and in practice Hale himself often has to move further back in time, while his ending is somewhat abrupt and not altogether explained. Such problems are, however, insoluble, and they in no way diminish the value of an enthralling, superbly readable, and imaginative book of the highest quality.

This Issue

April 4, 1996