A Look Into Medieval Sensibilities

Knightly Prowess and Courtly Love Revealed

The Autumn of the Middle Ages

By Johan Huizinga

Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch

University of Chicago Press

467 pp., $39.95

Johan Huizinga remains today, just as he was 70 years ago, a giant among giants. His name is to medieval and Renaissance history what Richard Lattimore is to the classics, what Stephen Hawking is to physics.

"The Autumn of the Middle Ages" is a trenchant study of the social, political, spiritual, cultural, ecclesiastical, and artistic aspects of life in the 14th and 15th centuries in northern France and the Netherlands.

From its earliest publication in 1919, Huizinga's work, "The Waning of the Middle Ages," as it has been known in English, has provided the foundation for our understanding of both the history and the historiography of the late Middle Ages in Northern Europe.

Unfortunately, up to this point much of Huizinga's work has been accompanied by flaws - at least in its thus far better-known English translation by Fritz Hoppman. Under scrutiny, it turns out not to be a literal translation, but an adaptation of the Dutch work, one-third shorter than the original, with many of the original references omitted.

Studying it, for the English-speaking scholar, has been like reading Dickens in the condensed children's version: the basic story is there, but all nuance and style are lost.

Now Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch have redressed the imbalance; they have retranslated Huizinga's work from the Dutch and retitled it, "The Autumn of the Middle Ages." They have retained and translated all the original references, they have kept Huizinga's sequence of titles, ideas, and paragraphs intact, and they have cut nothing. Moreover, they have amply footnoted the work.

Though often perceived as an age of chivalry - of knightly prowess and courtly love - Huizinga's thorough investigation reveals this as a period of almost ludicrous juxtaposition between sincere piety and extravagant frivolity, between devotion to the most sacred ideals and rapacious greed, all motivating and operating under the cloak of chivalrous tradition.

As often as not, he finds these opposites functioning equally within the character of a single individual.

Huizinga's work explores how the characteristic forms of the medieval period - the knightly jousts, the poetry and romances of courtly love, the ostentatious display of the princely circles - had lost their relevance for the age and their ability to inspire. But rather than abandoning these forms as redundant, the age sought to maintain them: The romances became more flowery, the fashions grew more extreme, the code of chivalry more elaborately antique, and life at the court more gilded and stilted, as if the trappings of beauty and piety would adequately engage the hearts and minds of an age in search of inspiration, justice, and a better life. The author resolves this discussion with an examination of the artists of the age - the Van Eycks, Van der Weyden, Foucquet, and Memling.

The differences between the two translations are striking. In many instances, the presentation and development of ideas is nearly antithetical. Hopman often chooses words with negative connotations as, for example, when he speaks of "the violent tenor of life" which Payton and Mammitzsch render "the passionate intensity of life."

Equally unsettling is Hopman's general distaste for the period, a sentiment which is alien to Huizinga. Payton and Mammitzsch have obliterated all traces of this, replacing it with Huizinga's warmth, affection, and compassion. They have also restored his elegant turn of phrase and his dry wit: "The image of a society sustained by the image of knighthood coats the world with a peculiar color. This color peels off rather easily."

Finally, this new translation overcomes Hopman's chief failing - his turgid prose. One hopes that this new translation of "The Autumn of the Middle Ages," will make Huizinga's work more accessible.

It certainly deserves to be. His insight into this lost world is not just thought-provoking for the scholar. By tracing universal human concerns it also forces a greater understanding of our own day and age.

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