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Huizinga, Johan

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Huizinga, Johan

    Other Names:

    • John Huizinga

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1872

    Date Died: 1945

    Place Born: Groningen, Netherlands

    Place Died: De Steeg, Gelderland, Netherlands

    Home Country/ies: Netherlands

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European)


    Cultural historian (and champion) of the Middle Ages. Huizing’s father, Dirk Huizinga, was a professor of physiology. His mother, Jacoba Tonkens, died when Huizinga was only two. As a child, he witnessed the re-enactment of medieval procession in Groningen, which kindled an interest in history. He attended the municipal Gymnasium, intent on studying history, but, the history teachers were so poor that he changed to linguistics, learning Arabic. He entered the University of Groningen in 1891, studying Sanskrit and literature. His Indic studies were greatly influenced by the writing of the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917). He studied comparative linguistics at the University of Leipzig, returning the Netherlands to receive his Ph.D. in 1897. His dissertation was written on classical Indian drama. In 1902, Huizinga saw the famous exhibition of early Netherlandish “primitives” and read the accompanying documentary catalog by William Henry James Weale. This instilled a lifelong interest in the middle ages, particularly as it was represented through the arts. He taught school in Haarlem, lecturing on ancient history between 1903-1905 at the university in Amsterdam. His history professor, Petrus Johannes Blok (1855-1929), secured a chair in History for Huizinga at the university in Groningen in 1905. Huizinga’s wife, Mary Vincentia Schorer (1877-1914) died in 1914. The following year he accepted the chair of history at Leiden. Between 1916 and 1932 Huizinga edited the periodical De Gids. Huizinga was fascinated with the United States. In 1918, he published his Mensch en menigte in Amerika, a study of what he considered the national characteristics without ever having visited the U.S. His most famous book, Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, the Waning of the Middle Ages (retranslated as the Autumn of the Middle Ages) appeared in 1919. Using the painting of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, he theorized their time as the transition from the middle ages to the renaissance. Dutch historians were largely unimpressed by the work which was written for a wider, popular audience as much as scholars. It was translated into English and became an immediate success in the English-speaking world. A work on Erasmus was published in 1924. In 1926 he visited the U. S., producing a second book on the country, Amerika Levend en Denkend the same year. His reputation as a cultural historian found a strong following in Germany; his studies were translated into German in 1930 by Werner Kaegi (1901-1979). However, as fascist dictators in Germany, Italy and Spain came to power, Huizinga found himself ever at odds with them. He authored In de schaduwen van morgen (In the Shadow of Tomorrow), 1935. In 1937 Huizinga remarried to a twenty-eight year old woman, Auguste Schölvinck. He delivered a lecture at the Warburg Institute the same year on the concept of play in history and linguistics. The talk was expanded and published the following year as Homo ludens. In 1938, too, he accepted the vice-presidency of the International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation with the League of Nations in 1938 to defend Western intellectual traditions against totalitarianism. During the German occupation of the Netherlands the Nazis closed the University of Leiden. Huizinga was arrested after a speech criticizing the Nazis and banished to the village of De Steeg in Gelderland, near Arnhem, in 1942. Huizinga died during the harsh winter of 1945, shortly before the town’s liberation, ever confident of the ideals for which he had stood and written about. Kaegi published both an ecomium and a biography shortly after Huizinga’s death. Huizinga was a conservative historian who favored the positivists of the previous century, such as Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-1859) and Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886), to the methodologies of his day. He criticized the work of Jacob Burckhardt and its attribution of the rise of the individual to the renaissance instead of the middle ages. From Tylor, Huizinga adopted the view that cultures functioned the same worldwide; it was only in their particulars that they varied (Payton). Though his book on the middle ages employs the biomorphic rise-and-decline analogies, Huizinga denied a cyclical view of history, such as Marxism, asserting that historical knowledge is essentially intuitive and subjective, not based upon material. The Autumn of the Middle Ages is his most clear thesis of this. He emphasized history as an esthetic concept and declared that art museums should be incorporated in the general museums. The art historian E. H. Gombrich praised Huizinga’s Homo ludens (1938) for its Warburg-like concept of broad cultural phenomenon. His belief that art history made sense only through the outline of general (cultural) history, stated in Cultuurhistorische verkenningen was criticized by subsequent art historians, notably Horst Gerson.

    Selected Bibliography

    [collected works:] Verzamelde Werken. 9 vols. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1948-1953; Herfsttij der Middleeuwen: Studie over Levens- en Gedachtenvormen der Veertiende en Vijftiende eeuw in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1919, English, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought, and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries. London: E. Arnold, 1924, retranslated and published as, The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996; Nederlands beschaving in de zeventiende eeuw: Een schets. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink,1941, English, Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century: and Other Essays. New York: F. Ungar, 1968; Nederland’s geestesmerk. Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1935; Leven en werk van Jan Veth. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1927; Cultuurhistorische verkenningen. Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willink, 1929, German, Wege der Kulturgeschichte: Studien. Munich: Drei Masken, 1930; In de schaduwen van morgen: Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onzen tijd. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1935, English, In the Shadow of Tomorrow. New York: W. W. Norton; Philosophy and History; Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1936; De wetenschap der geschiedenis. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1937; Homo ludens: Proeve eener bepaling van het spelelement der cultuur, 1938, English, Homo ludens: a Study of the Play Element in Culture. New York: Roy Publishers, 1950; Geschonden wereld: een beschouwing over de kansen op herstel van onze beschaving. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1945; Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance: Essays. New York: Meridian Books, 1959; De Nederlandse natie: vijf opstellen. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon N.V., 1960.


    Kaegi, Werner. Johan Huizinga: zum Gedächtnis. Bern: Presseabteilung der Kgl. Niederländischen Gesandtschaft, 1945; Polman, Pontien. Huizinga als kultuurhistoricus. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon, 1946; Kaegi, Werner. Das historische Werk Johann Huizingas. Leiden: Universitaire pers Leiden, 1947; Schallenberg-Van Huffel, Wa. C. Huizinga. Baarn: Hollandia, 1950; Weintraub, Karl J. “Huizinga 1872-1945.” in Visions of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 208-292; Huizinga, Johan. “My Path to History.” in, Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century: and Other Essays. New York: F. Ungar, 1968; Gerson, Horst. “Huizinga und die Kunstgeschichte.” Bijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 88 no. 1 (1973): 348-364; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 147; Gombrich, Ernst. “The High Seriousness of Play: Reflections on Homo ludens by J. Huizinga (1872-1945).” in, Tributes: Interpreters of Our Cultural Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 138-163; Payton, Rodney J. “Renaissance, Interpretation of the, ‘Johan Huizinga’.” The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (1999) 5: 296-297; Strupp, Christoph. Johan Huizinga: Geschichtswissenschaft als Kulturgeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000.


    "Huizinga, Johan." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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