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Much sharper outlines than now

July 7, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Jan van Eyck - The Annunciation

Jan Van Eyck – The Annunciation

Johan Huizinga (pronounced “Housing-ha”) published his Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (Autumn (or, Waning; literally Autumn-tide) of the Middle Ages) in 1919, and it was thought behind the times: too impressionistic, insufficiently scientific, for serious historical scholarship. Popular among literary types, it was an inspiration for the emergence of the field of “cultural studies”; historians paid attention to it when they felt they had no choice, then forgot about it when it became in fact behind the times–that is, when historians stopped paying attention to anything written more than thirty years ago. I found a used copy in a bookstore last year and read it immediately; I soon decided it would fit into the history section of my list as well as just about anything else.

Now, the “modern history” section of the Fundamentals exam always gives people trouble. There the usual Enlightenment suspects–Gibbon, Carlyle, Michelet, etc.–but their books are very long, and very much products of their time. In any case, by the time you get to the late 19th century, such grand unifying endeavors have for the most part been replaced by historical scholarship. We might define “scholarly” as the opposite of “fundmental”: a scholarly work is one which later scholarship can render irrelevant. I don’t know that such scholarly amnesia is necessarily a bad thing, but it does make locating a fundamental work of modern history difficult.


I thinks Huizinga’s Autumn makes the cut for three basic reasons: one historiographical, one psychological, and one historical.

First: While primarily a work of history focused on the culture of Burgundy (roughly north-eastern France) in the late Middle Ages, Autumn can also be read as an historiographical manifesto. At the time Huizinga wrote, historical research was dominated by study of legal charters and merchant records, in an attempt to uncover the hidden truth of how the society of the era “really” “worked”. Huizinga insisted on the importance of the chronicles and arts and literature of the time: that is, of its self-understanding and self-expression. Autumn thus argues against “objective” history and in favor of an entering into an era’s Weltanschauung–not naively taking its inhabitants at their word, but rather seeking to understand what lead them to value, believe, desire what and how they did. This is a timeless question about historiographic methodology, and Huizinga argues his position well. Such attempts to psychoanalyze the past have their dangers, but it seems right to me to think that, if we cannot describe what it was like for a 14th-century Burgundian to go on a pilgrimage, hear an itinerant preacher, attend a tournament, read the Roman de la Rose, then we really know very little about him.


Second: The approach Huizinga takes to such historical psychoanalysis (a phrase which need not invoke Freud) remains even today both compelling and problematic. The book opens with these words, from which the title of this post has been taken:

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. (p. 1)

And so it sounds, at first, as if this will be yet another narrative of mankind’s journey from childhood, Medieval superstition, through adolescence, Renaissance skepticism, to adulthood, Enlightenment secular humanism. But in fact, Huizinga says, the late Middle Ages are not young, but old, very old, and nearly dead; as the first chapter concludes:

It is an evil world. The fires of hatred and violence burn fiercely. Evil is powerful, the devil covers a darkened earth with his black wings. And soon the end of the world is expected. But mankind does not repent, the church struggles, and the preachers and poets warn and lament in vain. (p. 29)

The Middle Ages were what they were, not because they had yet to arrive at civilization, but because the forms of their civilization were old, worn-out, empty husks, letters without spirit. The possibilities of the forms of life had been exhausted, nothing new could be said, and all that was left was to repeat ad nauseam what others had said before, to mindlessly recite the prescribed formulae for times of sadness, times of joy, good fortune, or bad. The hallmarks of the era were repetition, exaggeration, multiplication of symbols, mechanical irony. There could be no nuance; it was impossible to mean what one said. The problem could only be solved by piecing together a new form of life–no less artificial, but at least younger, more flexible–out of the fragments of the old. (Huizinga’s account of the end of the Middle Ages is sarcastic and difficult to parse, but he seems suspicious of the idea that Renaissance humanism really changed much of anything; one wonders what he’d think of a narrative focused not on letter-writing circles, but on the printing press.)

The broadly-speaking-psychoanalytic innovation here is the concept of “form of life.” To be sure, it picks out something real; the conventions of social life are in many ways akin to the conventions of poetry or painting. And Autumn‘s account of the aging of the medieval mind is subtle and sympathetic. And yet, there’s a danger here, a trap Huizinga may not fall into, but which he leads us towards. Do we really want to say that medieval mind simply could not speak with nuance? Some languages may be more difficult to learn than others, some more difficult to use well, but are there really linguistic contexts in which fully honest thoughts cannot be spoken? Or even contexts in which any thought whatsoever can fail to find expression?

Literary and “cultural” scholars, of course, love the idea that there are things we can think that they could not, and vice versa, though somehow we’re always able to say what it is that we can’t. I find this tendency troubling. To be sure, there are things they didn’t say, and thoughts they would have found prima facie implausible, and ways of feeling they found natural that we find bizarre. But none of this makes them artificial and us natural (it’s all second nature), nor does it make them unable to understand us as we understand them. Intelligibility might be difficult, but it’s either mutual, or absent entirely. And the thought that the past is unintelligible I find even less plausible than the thought that it could not have understood us.


Third: Despite my concerns regarding Huizinga’s psychology, I find the interpretation Autumn offers of Burgundian art and literature quite compelling. The book originated, Huizinga said, in an effort to understand what kind of a culture could have produced a painter like Jan Van Eyck. This explains both the book’s limited scope–it examines only the 14th & 15th centuries, only Burgundy, and only, for the most part, the aristocracy–and how it might be responsibly extended. Where both the social phenomena and the artistic production appear to be of a similar cast to those of medieval Burgundy, there analogous interpretive arguments to those made about van Eyck will likely obtain. And where literature and art do not resemble those of medieval Burgundy–as, in my estimation, (and here I reveal an ulterior motive for interest in Autumn–what does it say about Chaucer and Langland and the Pearl-poet?), those of medieval England do not–there a correspondingly different analysis of society will be required.

Huizinga’s analysis of Burgundian art is difficult to summarize; to give a taste of it, I’ll close with a few quotations from the ante- and penultimate chapters of Autumn, in which he offers close readings of several poems and paintings, including Van Eyck’s Annunciation, the painting featured above. I find particularly fascinating the account the angel’s clothing.

The painting of the fifteenth century is located in the sphere where the extremes of the mystical and the crudely earthy easily touch one another. The faith that speaks here is so overt that no earthly depiction is too sensuous or too extreme for it. Van Eyck is capable of draping his angels and divine figures in the heavy ponderousness of stiff robes dripping with gold and precious stones; to point upwards he does not yet need the fluttering tips of garments and fidgety legs of the Baroque. (p. 317-8)

Literature and art of the fifteenth century possess both parts of that general characteristic that we have already spoken of as been essential for the medieval mind: the full elaboration of all details, the tendency not to leave any thought unexpressed, no matter what idea urges itself on the mind, so that eventually everything could be turned into images as distinctly visible and conceptualized as possible. (p. 333)

It seems as if Van Eyck [in the Annunciation] intended to demonstrate the complete virtuosity, shrinking away from nothing, of a master who can do anything, and dares everything. None of his works are simultaneously more primitive, more hieratic, and more contrived. The angel does not enter with his message into the intimacy of a dwelling chamber (the scene that the entire genre of domestic painting took as its point of departure), but, as was prescribed by the code of forms of the older art, into a church. Both figures lack in pose and facial expression the gentle sensitivity displayed in the depiction of the Annunciation on the outer side of the altar in Ghent. The angel greets Mary with a formal nod, not, as in Ghent, with a lily; he does not wear a small diadem, but is depicted with scepter and splendid crown; and he has a rigid Aegean-smile on his face. In the glowing splendor of the colors of his garments, the luster of his pearls, the gold and precious stones, he excels all the other angelic figures painted by Van Eyck. The dress is green and gold, the brocade coat dark red and gold, and his wings are decked with peacock feathers. Mary’s book, the pillow on the chair, everything is again detailed with the greatest of care. In the church buildings the details are fitted with anecdotal elaborations. The tiles show the signs of the zodiac, of which five are visible, and in addition three scenes from the story of Samson and one from the life of David. […]

And again the miracle that in such an amassing of elaborate details […] the unity of key and mood is not lost! [… T]he most mysterious darkness of the high vaulted church veils the entire scene in such a mist of sobriety and mysterium that it is difficult for the eye to detect all the anecdotal details. (p. 335-6)

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