So begins one of the most famous works of history ever published, Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Few who have read this book in English realize that The Waning of the Middle Ages, the only previous translation, is vastly different from the original Dutch, and incompatible with all other European-language translations. Now, for the first time ever, the original version of this classic work has been translated into English. Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, or The Autumn of the Middle Ages - the original title - is a brilliant portrait of life, thought, and art in fourteenth- and fifteenth- century France and the Netherlands. For Huizinga, this period marked not the birth of a dramatically new era in history, the Renaissance, but the fullest, ripest phase of medieval life and thought. Criticized both at home and in Europe for being "old-fashioned" and "too literary" when first published in 1919, the book is now recognized not only for its quality and richness as history, but also as a precursor to the Annales "histoire des mentalites" school of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, two of the few reviewers who praised the book initially. In the 1924 translation, Fritz Hopman adapted, reduced, and altered the Dutch edition - softening Huizinga's often passionate arguments, dulling his nuances, and eliminating theoretical passages. He dropped many passages Huizinga had quoted in their original old French. Additionally, chapters are rearranged and redivided, all references are dropped, and mistranslations are introduced. This translation corrects such errors, recreating the second Dutch edition - which represents Huizinga's thinking at its most important stage - as closely as possible. Everything that was dropped or rearranged has been restored. Prose quotations appear in French, with translations printed at the bottom of the page. Mistranslations have been corrected. Payton and Mammitzsch also have added helpful material, including Huizinga's preface to the first and second Dutch editions (published in 1919 and 1921) and the one to the 1924 German translation, where he touches on the book's title and offers some thoughts on translations. Several notes clarify Huizinga's references to things which would be common knowledge only to Dutch readers. Huizinga frequently refers to paintings, sculptures, and carvings, some little known; this edition is the first in any language to include a full range of illustrations.
This brilliant portrait of the life, thought, and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is our most trenchant study of that crucial moment in history when the Middle Ages gave way to the great energy of the Renaissance. From an analysis of the dominating ideas of the times – those that held the medieval world together, supported its religion and informed its art and literature – emerges the style of a whole culture at the extreme limit of its development.
The writing/translation flows magnificently as Huizinga covers topics such as: the passionate intensity of life, the static social structure, failure of knighthood, the preoccupation of death and fear of life, power of religious imagery, the dualism of piety and worldliness, a failure of imagination and art and literature. Huizinga takes a bleak view of the period and says at the end of the first chapter:
"It is 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 church struggles, and the preachers and poets warn and lament in vain."
Huizinga warns us that to understand the culture the reader should transpose his/her thoughts into the minds of the the medievals' and no matter how incomprehensible they are to us we must accept them. The real strength of the book is the attempt to see the world through the eyes of the participants in the history. We learn that they are intensely passionate, cruel aggressive but easily reduced to tears, a belief that God made the world good but man's sinfulness has made it miserable, a mind stuffed with religious imagery and proverbs preventing critical thought and a propensity to take every thought and argument to the highest level (God)
This book has given me an insight to books that I have recently read on this period I have a better understanding of why King Edward III was so intent on securing his French territories and why Chaucer wrote the way he did.
The book was first published in 1919 and academic study of the late middle ages has moved on since then. This is no reason to ignore this marvellous book which gives a view of the period that still has plenty to offer.