Book Review: “The Waning of the Middle Ages” by Johan Huizinga

Personal note: This book was on my shelf of my father’s extensive book collection and I remember being intrigued by it as a young child. Perhaps it was just the cover which probably had some Flemish piece of art on it. Or maybe my interest in the Middle Ages began at an early age. Whatever the case, I purchased a copy of it a while ago and recently read it.

In doing research in the reigns of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, this book always pops up as a reference. I had the impression the subject of the book was the Middle Ages in general but upon learning Huizinga wrote about Burgundy and France, it seemed like it was time to dive in. Huizinga states he set out to write about medieval art as the Middle Ages were transitioning into the Renaissance. But he discovered, in order to explain the art, he had to delve into the medieval mindset.

To my surprise, Huizinga gives a complete description of how medieval people viewed the world. The first chapter alone, titled “The Violent Tenor of Life” is full of erudite gems, acknowledging the contrasts between suffering and joy, adversity and happiness, in which every event and action is embodied in expressive and solemn forms to the dignity of ritual. Calamities and indigence were difficult to guard against. All things in life were proud and cruel at the same time and presented themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms.

Huizinga talks of the uninterrupted spectacles of executions, the luxurious entries of princes, the jousting tournaments, the religious and spiritual processions, sermons of itinerant preachers, religious reverence and pomp and grandeur and the emotions and tears of public mourning. He discusses chivalry and courtly love, the poetry of the troubadours and writers, as well as the prose and the lives of the religious in monasteries and convents. The lords of the era lived a life of honor, revenge, pride and asceticism. The fashion of the times mirrored these values, with the long-pointed toes of shoes, sumptuous fabrics and furs and the high hennins and the shaved foreheads and temples of the women.

Religious thought is crystalized into images. The art of the era followed fixed principles, mostly religious and classical themes with a strict hierarchy. The only way an artist could put his personal touch to a painting was by adding specific and minute details in the background. The sculptors followed these same principles although they had less leeway in expressing themselves than the painters.

Dance of Death images

One chapter in particular I found fascinating: “The Vision of Death”. The words and sermons of preachers morphed into expressing themselves into the popular woodcut. An excellent of example would be Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Dance of Death” series of woodcuts from the early 1520’s. There were poems and treatises on expressing the violence of death, the putrefying corpse and details of decomposition. These were turned into paintings and sculptures, immortalized in memento mori and seen in cadaver monuments and images of the macabre dance.

Cadaver monument

Huizinga’s language and expression are exquisite. He distills the writings and art of the age into portraying the medieval mindset as the Middle Ages came to a close. Admittedly, if I had read this book ten years ago, it might not have made sense. But after studying medieval times for many years now, it all comes together in describing what I have learned. His words explain the hysterics of Margery Kempe in her autobiography. It clarifies why the people of England during the reign of King Henry VIII didn’t conceive of him as a monster. This book is a classic and should be read by anyone who aspires to learn about the Middle Ages.