The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Author: Johan Huizinga

Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch
Chicago University Press, 1996

This review describes only a little more than the first chapter of Huizinga's book, the chapter titled "The Passionate Intensity of Life." Writing in the early 1900s, Huizinga compares his time with that of the late Middle Ages, claiming that then "all events had much sharper outlines." He writes:

There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health... Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty... all things in life had about them something glitteringly and cruelly public. The lepers, shaking their rattles and holding processions, put their deformities openly on display. Every estate, order and craft could be recognized by its dress. The notables, never appearing without the ostentatious display of their weapons and liveried servants, inspired awe and envy....The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout... Bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voice, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation. ...[O]ne knew their individual tones and instantly recognized their meaning. People never became indifferent to these sounds, no matter how overused they were.

Huizinga writes of sad times and processions lasting "day after day even for weeks on end," always with many small children, and in Paris the processions included barefoot "country folk" from nearby villages. Also in Paris  were people who "railed against evil government." A Franciscan monk, Antoine Fradin, was one. The  government prohibited him from preaching. People laughed at the government's proclamation. People guarded him "day and night in the monastery of the Cordeliers; women standing watch "with their ammunition of ashes and stones ready."

Following the death of Charles VII, King of France in 1461, people "lost their composure when the funeral procession came into view..."

Turning to politics in the 1400s Huizinga writes:

Politics are not yet completely in the grip of bureaucracy and protocol; at any moment the prince may abandon them and look elsewhere for guidelines for his administration. Fifteenth-century princes repeatedly consulted visionary ascetics and renowned popular preachers on matters of state...

In these centuries a good many dethroned kings made the rounds of the princely courts – usually short of money and rich in plans, bathed in the splendor of the mysterious East from which they came: Armenia, Cyprus, and even Constantinople.

The English Court was a full of hatred. Nowhere else had suspicions of royal relatives, charges against powerful servants of the crown, and secretive and judicial murders for the sake of security and partisanship so permeated the political scene as in England.

Huizinga describes the people of the Middle Ages as more volatile:

[Emotions] blazed reckless passions during feuds and strife. It was the feeling of party, not of statehood.

During medieval times, all those emotions were missing that have made us [in the early 20th century] cautious and tentative in matters of justice: the insight into diminished capacity, the concept of judicial fallibility, the awareness that society has to share in the blame for the guilt of individuals, the question whether an individual ought not be rehabilitated rather than made to suffer. Or, perhaps, better stated: a vague sense of all this is not lacking, but rather concentrates itself, unverbalized, in instant impulses of charity and forgiveness (unconcerned with the issue of guilt) which could suddenly break through the cruel satisfaction over the administration of justice.

Huizinga writes of the importance of honor:

Family pride and the thirst for vengeance or the passionate loyalty on the part of supporters are, in such cases [of honor], primary motivations.

Huizinga writes more generally, describing the age as "more conscious of greed than of any other evil....[G]reed lacks the symbolic and theological character of pride; it is the natural and material sin, the purely earthly passion, It is the sin of that period of time in which the circulation of money has changed and loosened the conditions for the deployment of power.

In his last paragraph of Chapter One he describes people seeing their time, in the Middle Ages as "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 churches struggles, and the preachers and poets warn and lament in vain.

The first six pages of Chapter One can be viewed at in their entirety.

Moving on to Chapter Two, "The Craving for a More Beautiful Life," Huizinga describes three paths for people during the Middle Ages. The first is "the path of denial."

The more beautiful life seems to be attainable only in the world beyond; it will prove to be a deliverance from all earthly concerns. 

The second path leads "to the improvement and perfection of the world itself.

The Middle Ages hardly knew this way. To them, the world was as good and as bad as it could be...

The third path Huizinga describes as "a land of dreams."

If early reality is so hopelessly miserable and the denial of the world so difficult, this leaves us to color life with lustrous tones, to live in a dreamland of shining fantasies, and to soften reality in the ecstasy of the ideal.

Chapter Three is titled the "Heroic Dream." Near the chapter's beginning he writes:

The period of genuine feudality and the flourishing of knighthood ended during the thirteenth century. What follows is the urban-princes period of the medieval era, during which the dominant factors in state and society are the commercial power of the bourgeoisie and, based on it, the monetary powers of the princes.

One of the views of this time, expressed by George Chastelain, is described by Huizinga:

God created the common people to work, to till the soil, to sustain life through commerce; he created the clergy for works of faith; but he created the nobility to extol virtue, administer justice, and so that the beautiful members of this estate, may, through their deeds and customs, be a model for others.

Other chapter headings:

  4. The Forms of Love
5. The Vision of Death
6. The Depiction of the Sacred
7. The Pious Personality
8. Religious Excitation and Religious Fantasy
9. The Decline of Symbolism
10. The Failure of Imagination
11. The Forms of Thought In Practice
12. Art In Life
13. Image in Word
14. The Coming of the New Form