'The Autumn of the Middle Ages' by Johan Huizinga (1919)

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-16

A selection from The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen) by Johan Huizinga, 1919, subtitled 'a study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.'

In 1936 Huizinga wrote In the Shadow of Tomorrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Ills of Our Time. [see here for a selection]

The following selection is made from the 1924 English translation from the Dutch by F. Hopman titled The Waning of the Middle Ages, although I have used the title of the 1996 translation based on the German translation of the Dutch original ('autumn' seems a better translation of Herfsttij, as well as being more evocative, than the synonym 'waning').

Chapter 1

The Violent Tenor of Life

To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. [...] All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life. Every event, every action, was still embodied in expressive and solemn forms, which raised them to the dignity of a ritual. For it was not merely the great facts of birth, marriage, and death which, by the sacredness of the sacrament, were raised to the rank of mysteries; incidents of less importance, like a journey, a task, a visit, were equally attended by a thousand formalities: benedictions, ceremonies, formulas.

Every order and estate, every rank and profession, was distinquished by its costume.

A medieval town did not lose itself in extensive suburbs of factories and villas; girded by its walls, it stood forth as a compact whole, bristling with innumerable turrets. However tall and threatening the houses of noblemen or merchants might be, in th aspect of the town the lofty mass of the churches always remained dominant.

One sound rose ceaselessly above the noises of busy life and lifted all things unto a sphere of order and serenity: the sound of bells. The bells were in daily life like good spirits, which by their familiar voices, now called upon the citizens to mourn and now to rejoice, now warned them of danger, now exhorted them to piety.

Medieval doctrine found the root of all evil either in the sin of pride or in cupidity. It seems, nevertheless, that from the twelfth century downward people begin to find the principle of evil rather in cupidity than in pride. [...] Pride might perhaps be called the sin of the feudal and hierachic age. [...] Pride... is a symbolic sin, and from the fact that, in the last resort, it derives from the pride of Lucifer, the author of all evil, it assumes a metaphysical character.
Cupidity, on the other hand, has neither this symbolic character nor these relations with theology. [...] In the later Middle Ages the conditions of power had been changed by the increased circulation of money, and an illimitable field opened to whosoever was desirous of satisfying his ambitions by heaping up wealth. To this epoch cupidity becomes the predominate sin.

A furious chorus of invectives against cupidity and avarice rises up everywhere from the literature of that period. Preachers, moralists, satirical writers, chroniclers, and poets speak with one voice.

A general feeling of impending calamity hangs over all.

Chapter 2

Pessimism and the Ideal of the Sublime Life

At the close of the Middle Ages, a sombre melancholy weighs on people's souls.

With the humanists optimism is still tempered by the ancient contempt, both Christian and Stoic, for the world. A passage extracted from a letter written by Erasmus in 1518, may serve... to show the average valuation put upon life by a humanist. 'I am not so greatly attached to life;... I see in this life nothing so excellent or agreeable that a man might wish for it, on whom the Christian creed has conferred the hope of a much happier life, in store for those who have attached themselves closely to piety. Nevertheless, at present, I could almost wish to be rejuvenated for a few years, for this only reason that I believe I see a golden age dawning in the near future.' He then describes the concord reigning among the princes of Christiandom and their inclination to peace-- which was so dear to him personally-- then he continues: 'Everything confirms my hope that not only good morals and Christian piety will be reborn and flourish, but also pure and true literature and good learning.' Thanks to the protection of princes, be it understood. 'It is to their pious feelings that we are indebted for seeing everywhere, as at a given signal, illustrious spirits awakening and conspiring to restore good learning.'

The men of letters at the court of Charles VII, or at that of Philip the Good, never tire of inveighing against life and the age.

No one has been so lavish of complains of this nature as Eustache Deschamps:

Time of mourning and of temptation,
Age of tears, of envy and of torment,
Time of languor and of damnation,
Age of decline nigh to the end,
Time full of horror which does all things falsely,
Lying age, full of pride and of envy,
Time without honour and without true judgement,
Age of sadness which shortens life.

All mirth is lost,
All hearts have been taken by storm
By Sadness and melancholy.

It is curious to notice the variation of meaning which the word melancholy shows in the fourteenth century. [...] Deschaps says of something that is uglier than could be imagined: no artist is 'merencoliux' enough to be able to paint it. The change of meaning evidently shows a tendency to identify all serious occupations of the mind with sadness.
The poetry of Eustache Deschamps is full of petty reviling of life and its inevitable troubles. Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety; they have to be clothed, shod, fed; they are always in danger of falling and hurting themselves; they contract some illness and die. [...] Nothing but cares and sorrows; no happiness compensates us for our anxiety, for the trouble and expenses of their education. Is there a greater evil than to have deformed children?

Happy are bachelors, for a man who has an evil wife has a bad time of it, and he who has a good one always fears to lose her. [...] In old age the poet sees only evil and disgust, a lamentable decline of the body and mind, ridicule and inspidity. [...] It is a far cry to the serene ideality of Dante's conception of noble old age in the Convivio!
The world, says Deschamps, is like an old man fallen into dotage.

Now the world is cowardly, decayed and weak,
Old, covetous, confused of speech:
I see only female and male fools... .
The end approahces, in sooth...
All goes badly.

In another place he laments:

Why are the times so dark
That men do not know each other,
but governments move
From bad to worse, as we see?
The past was much better.
Who reigns?
Affliction and Annoyance;
Justice nor law are current;
I know no more where I belong.

And again:

If the time remains so, I shall become a hermit,
For I see nothing but grief and torment.

[cont. here]

Chapter 11

The Vision of Death

No other epoch has laid so much stress as the expiring Middle Ages on the thought of death. An everlasting call of memento mori re-sounds through life.

The endless complaint of the frailty of all earthly glory was sung to various melodies. Three motifs may be distinguished. The first is expressed by the question: Where are now all those who once filled the world with their splendour? The second motif dwells on the frightful spectacle of human beauty gone to decay. The third is the death-dance: death dragging along men of all conditions and ages.

Ascetic meditation had [for a long time] dwelt on dust and worms. The treatises on the contempt of the world had, long since, evoked all the horrors of decomposition, but it is only towards the end of the fourteenth century that pictorial art, in its turn, seizes upon this motif. [...] Until far into the sixteenth century, tombs are adorned with hideous images of a naked corpse with clenched hands and rigid feet, gaping mouth and bowels crawling with worms.

It is noteworthy that the pious exhortation to think of death and the profane exhortation to make the most of youth [editors note: recall here the Roman origins of the  momento mori] almost meet. A painting in the monastery of the Celestines at Avignon... represented the body of a death woman, standing, enveloped in a shroud, with her head dressed and worms gnawing her bowels. In the inscription at the foot of the picture the first lines read:

Once I was beautiful above all wemon.
My body was very pretty,
I used frequently to dress in silk,
Now I must rightly be quite nude.
I lived in a great palace as I wished,
Now I am lodged in this little coffin.
My room was adorned with fine tapestry,
Now my grave is enveloped by cobwebs.

Here the mememto mori still predominates. It ends imperceptibly to change into the quite worldly complaint of the woman who sees her charms fade, as in the following lines of the Parement et Triumphs des Dames by Oliver de la Marche:

These sweet looks, these eyes made for pleasance,
Remember, they will lose their lustre,
Nose and eyelashes, the eloquent mouth
Will putrefy...
If you live your natural lifetime,
Of which sixty years is a great deal,
Your beauty will change into ugliness,
Your health into obscure malady,
If you have a daughter, you will be a shadow to her,
She will be in request and asked for,
And the mother will be abandoned by all.

At the close of the Middle Ages the whole vision of death may be summed up in the word macabre, in its modern meaning. [...] A line of the poet Jean Le Fevre, 'Je fis de Macabre la dance', which may be dated 1376, remains the birth-certificate of the word for us.
Towards 1400 the conception of death in art and literature took a spectral and fantastic shape. [...] The macabre vision arose from deep psychological strata of fear; religious thought at once reduced it to a means of moral exhortation.

The idea of the death-dance is the central point of a whole group of connected conceptions. The priority belongs to the motif of the three dead and three living men, which is found in French literature from the thirteenth century onward. Three young noblemen suddenly meet three hideous dead men, who tell them of their past grandeur and warn them of their own near end. Art soon took hold of this suggestive theme. We can see it still in the striking frescoes of the Campo Santo of Pisa. The sculpture of the portal of the church of the Innocents at Paris, which the duke of Berry had carved in 1408, but which has not been preserved, represented the same subject.

...the Dance of the Dead has been acted as well as painted and engraved. The duke of Burgundy had it performed in his mansion at Bruges in 1449.

The woodcuts with which the Parisian printer, Guyot Marchant, ornamented the first edition of the Danse Macabre in 1485 were, very probably, imitated from the most celebrated of these painted death-dances, namely, that which, since 1424, covered the walls of the cloister of the churchyard of the Innocents at Paris. The stanzas printed by Marchant were those written under these mural paintings... . The woodcuts of 1485 can give but a feeble impression of the paintings of the Innocents, of which they are not exact copies, as the costumes prove. To have a notion of the effect of these frescoes, one should rather look at the mural paintings of the church of La Chaise-Dieu... .

Add caption

In the stanzas the dancer is called 'the dead man' or 'the dead woman'. [...] The indefatigable dancer is the living man himself in his future shape, a frightful double of his person. 'It is yourself', said the horrible vision to each of the spectators. It is only towards the end of the century that the figure of the great dancer, of a corpse with hollow and fleshless body, becomes a skeleton, as Holbein depicts it. Death in person has then replaced the individual dead man.
While it reminded the spectators of the frailty and the vanity of earthly things, the death-dance at the same time preached social equality as the Middle Ages understood it, Death levelling the various ranks and professions.

Nothing betrays more clearly the excessive fear of death felt in the Middle Ages than the popular belief, then widely spread, according to which  Lazarus, after his resurrection, lived in continual misery and horror at the thought that he should have again to pass through the gate of death. [...] [The Ars moriendi and the Quatuor hominum novissima, the Art of Dying and the Four Last Things] were... propagated in the fifteenth century by the printing-press and by engravings.

Nowhere else were all the images rending to evoke the horror of death assembled so strikingly as in the churchyard of the Innocents at Paris. [...] The poor and the rich were interred without distinction. They did not rest there long, for the cemetery was used so much,... it was necessary, in order to make room, to dig up the bones and sell the tombstones after a very short time. [...] Skulls and bones were heaped up in charnel-houses along the cloisters enclosing the ground on three sides, and lay there open to the eye by thousands, preaching to all the lesson of equality. [...] No place was better suited to the simian figure of grinning death, dragging along pope and emperor, monk and fool. The duke of Berry, who wished to be buried there, had the history of the three dead and the three living men carved at the portal of the church. A century later, this exhibition of funeral symbols was completed by a large statue of Death, now in the Louvre, and the only remnant of it all.

The macabre vision does not represent the emotions of tenderness or of consolation. The elegiac note is wanting altogether.

The overcome grief, the only advice [Antoine de la Salle] could offer is to obstain from all earthly attachments. A doctrinaire and dry consolation!

The dominant thought, as expressed in the literature... of that period, hardly knew anything with regard to death but these two extremes: lamentation about the briefness of all earthly glory, and jubilation over the salvation of the soul. [...] Living emotion stiffens amid the abused imagery of skeletons and worms.

Chapter 13

Types of Religious Life

The general aspect presented by religious life in France towards the end of the Middle Ages is that of a very mechanical and frequently very lax practice, chequered by spasmodic effusions of ardent piety.

...contempt of the clergy... [can be] seen as an undercurrent throughout the Middle Ages, side by side with the very great respect shown for the sanctity of the sacredotal office.

...the restoration of the mendicant orders caused a revival of popular preaching, which gave rise to those vehement outbursts of fervour and penitence which stamped so powerfully the religious life of the fifteenth century.
There is in this special hatred for the begging friars an indication of a most important change of ideas. The formal and dogmatic conception of poverty as extolled by Saint Francis of Assis, and as observed by the mendicant orders, was no longer in harmony with the social sentiment which was just arising. People were beginning to regard poverty as a social evil instead of an apostolic virtue. Pierre d'Ailly opposed to the mendicant orders the 'true poor'-- vere pauperes. England, which, earlier than the other nations, became alive to the economic aspect of things, gave, towards the end of the fourteenth century, the first expression of the sentiment of the sanctity of productive labour in that strangely fantastic and touching poem, The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman.

Chapter 15

Symbolism in its Decline

...religious emotion always tended to be transmuted into images.

The abundance of images in which religious thought threatened to dissolve itself would have only produced a chaotic phantasmagoria, if symbolic conception had not worked it all into a vast system, where every figure had its place.

The Middle Ages never forgot that all things would be absurd, if their meaning were exhausted in their function... in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. [...] 'By cultivating the continuous sense of our connexion with the power that made things as they are, we are temptered more towardly for their reception. The outward face of nature need not alter, but the expressions of meaning in it alter. It was dead and is alive again. It is like the difference between looking on a person without love, or upon the same person with love... When we see all things in God, and refer all things to Him, we read in common matters superior expressions of meaning.'

So the conviction of a transcendental meaning in all things seeks to formulate itself. About the fiture of the Divinity a majestic system of correlated figures crystallizes, which all have reference to Him, because all things derive their meaning from Him. The world unfolds itself like a vast whole of symbols, like a cathedral of ideas.  It is the most richly rhythmical conception of the world, a polyphonous expression of eternal harmony.

Expressed in terms of experimental psychology: all mental association based on any causal similitude whatever will immediately set up the idea of an essential and mystical connexion. [...] Primitive thought... tends to incorporate into the notion of a definite something all the notions connected with it by any relation or similitude whatsoever.

With this tendency the symbolizing function is closely related. It is, however, possible to view symbolism in a more favourable light by abandoning for a while the point of view of modern science.

Symbolism will lose this appearance of arbitrariness... when we take into account the fact that it is indissolubly linked up with the conception of the world which was called Realism in the Middle Ages, and which modern philosophers prefer to call, though less correctly, Platonic Idealism.
Symbolic assimilation founded on common properties presupposes the idea that these properties are essential things. The vision of white and red roses blooming among thorns at once calls up a symbolic assimilation in the medieval mind: for example, that of virgins and martyrs, shining with glory, in the midst of their persecutors. The assimilation is produced because the attributes are the same: the beauty, the tenderness, the purity, the colours of the  roses, are also those of the virgins, their red colour that of the blood of the martyrs.

But this similiarity will only have a mystic meaning if the middle-term connecting the two terms of the symbolic concept expresses an essentiality common to both; in other words, if redness and whiteness are something more than names for a physical difference based on quantity, if they are conceived as essences, as realities. The mind of the savage, of the child, and of the poet never sees them otherwise.

To such a mentality everything that receives a name becomes an entity and takes shape which projects itself on the heavens.

This shape, in the majority of cases, will be the human shape.

Embracing all nature and all history, symbolism gave a conception of the world, of a still more rigorous unity than that which modern science can offer.

Symbolism's image of the world is distinguished by impeccable order, architectonic structure, hierarchic subordination.

Symbolist thought permits of an infinity of relations between things. Each thing may denote a number of distinct ideas by its different special qualities, and a quality may also have several symbolic meanings. [...] The assimilation of roses and virginity is much more than a poetic comparison, for it reveals their common essence. As each notion arises in the mind the logic of symbolism creates a harmony of ideas. The special quality of each of them is lost in this ideal harmony and the rigour of rational conception is tempered by the presentment of some mystic unity.

About each idea other ideas group themselves, forming symmetrical figures, as in a kaleidoscope.

Eventually all symbols group themselves about the central mystery of the Eucharist... .

In the later Middle Ages the decline of this mode of thought had already long set in. The representation of the Universe in a grand system of symbolic relations had long been complete. [...] Symbolism at all times shows a tendency to become mechanical.

An immense perspective of ideal series of relationships is opened up... . Thus the twelve months signified the apostles, the four seasons the evangelists, the year Christ.

The tendency to symbolize and to personify was so spontaneous that nearly every thought, of itself, took a figurative shape. Every idea being considered as an entity, and every quality as an essence, they were at once invested by the imagination with a personal form.

Let us recall... the allegorical personages of the Roman de la Rose.

The symbolic mentality was an obstacle to the development of causal thought, as causal and genetic relations must needs look insignificant by the side of symbolic connexions.

The time was not distant when people were bound to awake to the dangers of symbolism... . Symbolism was a defective translation into images of secret connexions dimly felt, such as music reveals to us. [...] Symbolism was like a second mirror held up to that of the phenomenal world itself.

Chapter 17

Religious Thought Beyond the Limits of Imagination

The imagination was continually striving, and in vain, to express the ineffable by giving it shape and figure. [...] From the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite onward, mystic authors have piled up terms of immensity and infinity.

Every... attribute ascribed to God robbed Him of a little of His majesty.
Thus begins the tremendous struggle of the spirit which yearns to rise above all imagery.

But the support of imagination cannot be given up all at once.

Master Eckhart spoke of 'the abyss without mode and without form of the silent and waste divinity.' [Roysbroeck says:] 'The seventh degree [of contemplation],... is attained when, beyond all knowledge and all knowing, we discover in ourselves a bottomless not-knowing; when beyond all names given to God and to creatures, we come to expire and pass over in eternal namelessness, where we lose ourselves... .'

The contemplation of God, says Denis the Carthusian, is more adequately rendered by negations than by affirmations. 'For, when I say: God is goodness, essence, life, I seem to indicate what God is, as if what He is had anything in common with, or any resemblance to, a creature, whereas it is certain, that He is incomprehensible and unknown, inscrutable and ineffable, and separated from all his works by an immeasurable and wholly incomparable difference and excellence.' It is for this reason that the 'uniting wisdom' was called by the Areopagite: unreasonable, insane, and foolish.

Mysticism has always rediscovered the road from the giddy heights of sublime contemplation to the flowery meadows of symbolism.

Henry Suso sees his betrothed, Eternal Wisdom: 'She soared high above him in a sky with clouds, she was bright like the morning star and shone like the radiant sun; her crown was eternity, her robe beatitude, her speech sweetness, her kiss absolute delight; she was remote and near, high aloft and below; she was present and yet hidden; she let herself be approached and yet no one could grasp her.'
The Church has always feared the excesses of mysticism, and with reason. For the fire of contemplative rapture, consuming all forms and images, must needs burn all formulas, concepts, dogmas, and sacraments too. However, the very nature of mystic transport implied a safeguard for the Church. To be uplifted to the clarity of ecstasy, to wander on the solitary heights of contemplation stripped of forms and images, tasting union..., was to the mystic never more than the rare grace of a single moment. He had to come down from the mountain-tops. [...] ...the great mystics never lost their way back to the Church awaiting them with its wise and economic system of mysteries fixed in the liturgy. It offered to everybody the means to get into touch at a given moment with the divine principle in all security and without danger of individual extravagances. It economized mystic energy, and that is why it has always outlives unbridled mysticism and the dangers it compassed.
'Unitive wisdom is unreasonable, insane and foolish.' The path of the mystic leading into the infinite leads to unconsciousness. [...] Intensive mysticism signifies return to a preintellectual mental life. All that is culture is obliterated and annulled [editors note: a little earlier in the chapter, Huizinga says 'Mystics, it has been said, have neither birthday nor native land']

From the prepartory phases of intensive mysticism of the few issued the extensive mysticism of the 'devotio moderna' of the many. [...] Theirs was mysticism by retail. They had 'only received a spark'. But in their midst the spirit lived which gave the world the work in which the soul of the declining Middle Ages found its most fruitful expression for the times to come: The Imitation of Christ. [...] Thomas Kempis leads us back to everyday life.

Chapter 18

The Forms of Thought and Practical Life

...the true character of the spirit of an age is better revealed in its mode of regarding and expressing trivial and commonplace things than in the higher manifestations of philosophy and science. For all scholarly speculation, at least in Europe, is affiliated in a very complicated way to Greek, Hebrew, even Babylonian and Egyptian origins, whereas in everyday life the spirit of a race or of an epoch expresses itself naively and spontaneously.