Huizinga explicates the development of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France and the Netherlands through his understanding of the forms of thinking, of feeling, and of the arts. Deep contradictions and violent expressions are to be expected in feeling; a riot of ideas and essences captured in symbolic realism is the mode of thinking; and the arts of painting and poetry, sampled at the end of an epoch, partake of these rigid extremes. Huizinga argues that even if later historians can identify the economic or social forces at work in an age, this knowledge is not enough to capture the spirit of an age. A knowledge of economic and social forces would be enough, "if, to understand the spirit of an age, it sufficed to know its real and hidden forces and not its illusions, its fancies and its errors. But for the history of civilization every delusion or opinion of an epoch has the value of an important fact." (47) These delusions, opinions, and feelings are the subject of his loyalties as a historian.
Life in the Middle Ages is characterized by violent swings "between despair and distracted joy" (5-9). Solemnities and heightened (to us) emotions are expected ways to mediate life. Royal conflicts are chronicled as high tragedy, passion, and adventure or single-minded revenge, pride and cupidity. Judicial brutality (expressed with attention to hierarchies) serves as social catharsis. "So violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses. The men of that time always oscillate between the fear of hell and the most naive joy, between cruelty and tenderness, between harsh asceticism and insane attachment to the delights of this world, between hatred and goodness, always running to extremes." (18)
Huizinga himself expresses a medieval conviction when he says, "Great evils form the groundwork of history." (22) Much of the poetry of the day indulges in gloom, in a "garb of woe," (25) and in "confessed pessimism" (27). Funerals were noisy affairs, jostling to see who could be more grief-stricken, expressing also "the overstrung sensibility of the epoch." (41) One key sensibility is hierarchy and manners: aristocratic life pays great attention to the forms of chivalric life, including clothing, precedence in all events such as meals and participating in sacraments. Etiquette expressed morality and personal character.
Chivalry and Christianity are dominant modes of thinking. The "traditional fiction" of chivalry was an organizing and explanatory structure for medieval minds, embracing what would later be separated out as economic and social forces, and serving as a "sublime form of secular life." Knighthood is colored with austerity, piety and fidelity, as in the life of Jean le Meingre, Marshal Boucicaut. The nine worthies are held up as models for all nobility: Hector, Caesar, Alexander, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Boullion. Huizinga identifies "primitive and spontaneous asceticism" (65) as the root of the chivalrous idea. Knighthood (dedicated to learning, faith and chivalry) and a doctor's degree held ethical and intellectual equality. However, Huizinga also argues that medieval romanticizing is expressed through staged and stagey jousting tournaments. He retells the story of the knight who wore lady's shirt as armor in a joust, coming home injured and all over blood, and sending the torn and bloody shirt back to her to wear as an evening gown in front of her husband and husband's guests. The question at the end, "who gave up more?" is the essence of chivalric and courtly gaming.
Every noble was eager to found a new order; notable were the Knights of the Bath and the Golden Fleece. Vows were relatively common, although bizarre sounding to us, as a way of invoking courage, imposing the spur of privation, of asceticism and eroticism. Some raillery and mockery is also captured by vows: e.g. promising to marry the first girl with 20,000 gold pieces that says "yes."
Again Huizinga inveighs against anachronistic 20th century rationalism. "For the history of civilization the perennial dream of a sublime life has the value of a very important reality. And even political history itself, under penalty of neglecting actual facts, is bound to take illusions, vanities and follies in to account. There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past, as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests." (82) (c.f. business decisions). For instance, single combat was proposed as an acceptable way to solve problems for kings and princes -- fewer people die, and God's will is clearly illustrated -- but usually advisors and nobles were unwilling to risk all in this fashion. As a military principle, chivalry dies out with guns and after ransoms. Huizinga does take note of class interest expressed in social trends: he mentions that the small but growing wealthy middle class were sometimes preyed upon by the impecunious mobility. A belief in mercy to the unfortunate did nothing to change great social inequity. Chivalrous pride remains a motivating force.
Civilization is linked to the idea of love as a solemn ritual but that ritual is in continual juxtaposition with erotic licentiousness. "We should rather picture to our selves two layers of civilization superimposed, coexisting though contradictory." (97) The key work to be understood is the Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Fantasy and allegory are combined: Amour the Lover, is invited to visit a court and a castle and a garden with a rose, and then is chased out by Shame and Fear. With the help of Nature and Venus, he must conquer these opponents, and enter the garden to the pluck the rose. The work (summarized here far too briefly) has passionate defenders and detractors. Huizinga himself sees in it the "cruel contempt" for the "feebleness" (102) of women, an expression of "refined frivolity and open cynicism." (113) The narrative shape of a love-affair had expression in other works: meetings, chaperones, increasing admissions into intimacy, renunciation, and literary enshrinement was the pattern for Guillaume de Machaut's Le Livre du Voir Dit December-May romance. Huizinga compares this somewhat sorry love story with the Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry pour l'Enseignement de ses Filles, a book of romantic advice written by an Angevin nobleman for his daughters. It is a sober accounting of why to marry (money) and what to avoid (love). Again, Huizinga's own background shows through: "Indeed medieval literature shows little true pity for woman, little compassion for her weakness and the dangers and pains which love has in store for her." (114)
Huizinga canvasses the idyllic life and the deepest-rooted fears of the medieval mind. Bucolic life -- shepherds with cheese and bread and apples and onions -- is admired as a type of the simple life. The faithful shepherd is another variant of the faithful knight, neither entirely serious nor entirely silly. (Who, in fact, wants to give up a warm bed and a good fire, with food enough to stay well?) The medieval version of the idyllic life stands in contrast to peculiar medieval fears of death. Huizinga distinguishes three strands in the gloomy theme of death: first, "ubi sunt;" second, the spectacle of material body decay; and third, the dans macabre, the death dance. The first theme has an ancient pedigree as well as theme; the second is unique perhaps to the late Middle Ages, especially the very material fear which focuses on putrefaction; the third Huizinga sees as the Middle Age's version of social equality. The death dancer was at first a representation, a doppelgänger, of one's own future putrefied self. Only later was the skeletal dancer the figure of all death. The cemetery of the Innocents captures much of the feeling on this subject: its walkways, feasts, frescoes, burials, exhumations, charnel houses. Woodcuts carried the theme to all sectors of society.
As in the emotional tenor of life, so too there are complexities and
contradictions in the forms of piety and religion.
Endless representations of the saints expresses the veneration of mediators -- holy but humanly accessible -- who have each their iconographies, blessings, and -- what we have since forgotten -- their curses. Just as there were nine heroic worthies, so too there were 15 saintly worthies. Religious thought is not separate from secular thought and so, to our eyes and ears, reverence and irreverence are everywhere mingled in pilgrimages, saint-processions and festivals. Blasphemous oath taking is an example of piety inside-out, as are relics sold, collected, and given away, and saints' images so tricked out as to be completely secular. (Huizinga says that in the Reformation "the saints fell without a blow," because mystic awe had evaporated in an excess of veneration and secularization.)
Contempt for clergy -- a subject on which the French (says Huizinga) could be excellently entertained -- flourished along side of what seems extraordinary disciplined piety, even on the part of characters otherwise licentious. An important shift in social sentiment is represented by the dislike of mendicant orders -- them being seen as a nuisance, and being distinguished from the "actual" poor is a new attitude. (162). Huizinga gives the examples of "hyperbolic humilty" (164) of the king of Naples, who came into a new town in wheeled in a hand barrow of the sort usually used for dung. Charles of Blois a life-long soldier in a battle against the English pretender, wore a hair shirt, confessed every evening, and made a pilgrimage barefoot in the snow. Aiming for, or angling for, sainthood appears to have been the intent of at least some ascetics, such as Pierre de Luxemborg. Simple eccentricity and perhaps pathological fear of sin is turned to good effect.
Religious sensibility, the pain of the passion, is deeply embedded into everyday affairs, carrying wood, washing, praying, cooking, drinking. Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University (which one?) writes of and distinguishes, those religious sentiments that are holy and laudable (176) from those that are carnal, revolutionary and immoral. By contrast, Alaine de la Roche offers "the reverse side of suave fancies of spiritual love," (181) in visions of "animals which represent the various sins equipped with horrible genitals and emitting torrents of fire which obscure the earth with their smoke." (181)
Religious thought is crystallized into images and a system of symbolism. Medieval minds linked Platonic realism --essence to essence -- rather than synchronic event to event. Symbolism then leads realism, and realism to anthropomorphism. "These three modes of thought together -- realism, symbolism, and personification -- have illuminated the medieval mind with a flood of light." (186) The decline of symbolism is a welter of confusion, and the lower representing the higher (this shoe is humility, this ribbon is faithfulness). Huizinga acknowledges that medieval thinking seems primitive and meager to modern writers, but he asserts its power to order and to explain. "Symbolism's image of the world is distinguished by impeccable order, architectonic structure, heirarchic subordination." (187) "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 connections." The medieval mind, then, looks for types and examples rather than individual realities. Medieval mystics are characterized by their yearning for the ineffable as expressed in personified images (Wisdom, Love). (Huizinga excepts Thomas a Kempis).
Practical life, too, was dominated by symbolism and the tendency to personify. Ships, bells, houses had names (as they still do in places). Texts are used to support arguments, but "a strong formalism" dominates all thinking, so that each idea has its own clear and defined expression, "isolated in a plastic form." (212) To this tendency Huizinga attributes the "inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency," inability to suggest or compile more than a single motive for action, superficiality and feebleness. (214) To these tendencies he also attributes the acceptance of witch hunts and persecutions.
How is art affected by medieval forms of thought? It is impossible to know clearly, because far more religious than "secular" art has survived. Much of costumes, luxury items, ships, and buildings, commissioned by wealthy patrons, and requiring the skills of artists, have perished. Tasteless pomp, festivals of display and unbridled luxury, says Huizinga, characterizes medieval high life. A striving for memorable style is common to both religious and secular events, which included such bizarre trappings as musicians in giant pies and ascending and descending angels. Huizinga does see a division between religious life in devout circles (mostly Dutch) -- eschewing dance, song, and textual illuminations -- and the formalized lifestyles of the wealthy. However, he also sees "in the piety interpreted by the art of the fifteenth century, the extremes of mysticism and of gross materialism meet. The faith pictured here is so direct that no earthly figure is too sensual or too heavy to express it. Van Eyck may drape his angels and divine personages with ponderous and stiff brocades, glittering with gold and precious stones; to call up the celestial sphere he has no need of the flowing garments and sprawling limbs of the baroque style." (240) This emphasis on symbolism is a somewhat different reading than the materialist view that Lisa Jardine offers. "The naive, and at the same time refined, naturalism of the brothers Van Eyck was a new form of pictorial expression; but viewed from the standpoint of culture in general, it was but another manifestation of the crystallizing tendency of thought which we notices in all the aspects of the mentality of the declining Middle Ages. Instead of heralding the advent of the Renaissance, as it is generally assumed, this naturalism is rather one of the ultimate forms of development of the medieval minds. The craving to turn every sacred idea into precise images, to give it a distinct and clearly outlined form...controlled art, as it controlled popular beliefs and theology." (242) He suggests that is at odds with other scholars in his understanding, and one suspects that it would be worth tracing these arguments further.
What was the aesthetic sentiment of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? In painting and prose it is identified by St. Thomas as integrity, proportion and brightness (245) but Huizinga argues that the aesthetic is best expressed in a prolixity of detail, color and sound. In popular culture and painting, colors have specific meanings: blue and green, so common today, were rare. Blue was the color of fidelity (or, seen with a cynical eye, hypocrisy and/or foolishness); green the color of love and passion; yellow of hostility. Black, violet, red and grey are favored.
Huizinga turns from color to compare painting and prose at length. He argues that the prose of the waning middle ages, when it resorts to symbolism, is vapid, turgid, cloying and exhausted. Painting, by contrast, is a bit better because there is some freshness deriving from the inexpressible-- (and although I follow what he says, it still isn't much of an argument): "[p]ainting, even when it professes no more than to render the outward appearance of things, preserves its mystery for all time to come." (254) And again, "Although representing only the visible forms of things, painting nevertheless expresses a profound inner sense, which literature when it limits itself to describing externals wholly fails to do." (271) Huizinga critiques several paintings by Van Eyck, arguing that they express the tail end of the medieval tendency to symbolic realism. (254) Georges Chastellaine is compared favorably to Jan Van Eyck, having the "novelistic" skill to render exactly what is happening as it happens. Although Huizinga pans the serious prose of the Middle Ages, arguing that it works badly if at all, he suggests that humor is well served by the prolix tendency to create lists of things -- listing simply lends itself to raillery and irony. "Literature is incontestably sovereign both in the low-comedy genre of the farce and the fabliaux, and in the higher domain of irony." (282)
Huizinga's closing argument is a little difficult to follow, but it
seems essentially this: realism of detail in Netherlandish paintings
is not an expression of a new Renaissance attention to individuality; rather
it is the crystallizing of medieval realism, of symbols entirely petrified
in objects. Second, the French and Dutch minds lagged behind the
Italian in accepting and expressing the new forms of thinking in the Renaissance.
Third, what is not overstrained and Latinate, but specifically local and
still in some ways medieval, provides the road to modernity. Classicism
in Italy may lead to the Renaissance, but it does not do so in France.
In France the road to the Renaissance and modernity must leave behind chivalry,
hierarchy and pessimism and regain spontaneity.