‘The autumn of the Middle Ages’ : Johan Huizinga and Henri Pirenne or ‘plusieurs vérités pour la même chose’. Marc Boone (University of Ghent) Looking at the cultural and general history of the late Middle Ages is an almost unconceivable task without reference being paid to Johan Huizinga’s seminal ‘Autumn of the Middle Ages’ (first dutch edition in 1919). This famous book by Huizinga (though remarkably only since 1996 available in a bad complete English version) has been welcomed by the postmodernist approach in history and by authors like Hayden White or Frank Ankersmit (in the Netherlands) as a forerunner. Huizinga (1872-1945) indeed stands for an emphatic and intuitive approach to history in which textual elements play an important if not decisive role: the ‘historical sensation’ as driving force and methodological tool. In this paper I will reconsider Huizinga’s philosophical and methodological inspiration and the way he conceived historical truth to be attainable, in confrontation with the work and methods put forward by one of his contemporaries, the leading Belgian mediaevalist Henri Pirenne (1862-1935). Comparing the work of both historians makes not only sense because both men were contemporaries. They have indeed repeatedly sought each others company and advice and as such have come to know each other rather well; and they held each other’s work in high esteem, yet they were also very much aware of the differences between them. These differences concerned mainly the question which historical reality existed and how, being historians, they could come to terms with it. To put it in the words used by Pirenne in one of the last letters he ever wrote to Huizinga (1931): Il y a, en somme, plusieurs vérités pour une même chose : c’est un peu, comme en peinture, une question d’éclairage. L’essentiel est de faire 1 réfléchir’ . This little sentence, sounding almost as a postmodernist act of belief by a historian known for his positivist approach to history may sound strange. Huizinga himself was very much aware of this, for in the biographical note he published after Pirenne’s death in 1935, he cited this sentence, warning his readers that it could in no way be interpreted as the confession of some doubt whatsoever in the possibility to come to terms with history in a positivist way by a man he qualified as ‘deze robusten realist’ (this stounch realist). Both contemporaries, Pirenne and Huizinga have influenced greatly the way following generations have conceived the middle ages, though the success of their writings has been subject to important shifts. When, for instance the university in Groningen commemorated the centenary of Huizinga’s birth in 1972, one of the speakers, Gerhard Oestreich (univ. of Marburg) complained about the loss of interest by his contemporaries for the way Huizinga practised history and for the cultural themes he cherished in doing so. Social and economic history and the then dominating mode of quantification seemed to have put an end once and for all to Huizinga’s beloved cultural history. In our time, Huizinga, I already made an allusion to it, is on the contrary hailed as a fore runner of a certain postmodern approach to history. The notion of ‘historical sensation’ borrowed from him, is read as a premonition for the way history finally choose to follow, after having taken the ‘linguistic turn’. If one takes into account the popularity of both historians, Huizinga and Pirenne, in what may seem a obvious way to measure their impact nowadays, by counting the number of hits in Google, the situation deplored by Oestreich in 1972 seems completely reversed: on May 1st 2004 I counted 6920 hits for Pirenne, against no less than 21100 hits for Huizinga ! 1 Edited and commented by Huizinga himself in the biographical note he published after Pirenne died : J. HUIZINGA Henri Pirenne, in: « Handelingen en levensberichten van de Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde te Leiden », 1934-1935, p. 179-184, reedited in his complete works: Verzameld Werk, 5, Haarlem, 1950, p. 504. As both historians did not bother much about explicitly formulating their theoretical points of view, much evidence is indirect and/or circumstantial, yet the way both dealt with the dramatic outcome of their own times and handled the brutal interference of political actuality in their private lives and their role in society as leading historians allow a lot of critical insight. More generally, the difference in their approach and its consequences may be linked with the debate on history and its role in society in the general cultural crisis following World War I. But before dealing with these events, let’s have a closer look at how they formed their ideas and how they practised history. Huizinga entered the world of professional historians by a back door. Though in a short autobiographical notice written shortly before his death (1945), he suggests he was predestined to become a historian, in fact he started an academic career by writing a PhD in 1897 on the ‘vidushaka’ (a court jester in Indian culture). In the preceding years he had studied compared linguistics in Leipzig and when back in the Netherlands he was strongly influenced by the ‘fin-de-siècle’ literature and philosophy, arts and literature (more precisely influential by French authors like Joris-Karl Huysmans ou Rémy Gourmont). A clear example of his links and enduring friendships with poets and artists is revealed by the fact that some of the most striking titles of his works (such as ‘waning of the Middle ages’ afterwards also more literally formulated as ‘autumn of the Middle Ages’ or still ‘in de schaduwen van morgen’ – in tomorrow’s shadow’ of 1935) were suggestions by his life long friend the poetess Henriette Roland-Holst Van der Schalk. Very little if not nothing, in his early career and tastes allowed to foresee he was to build a career as professor in medieval history, at the turning of the 20th century a still unquestioned stronghold of positivist scientism. When he finally was appointed professor of medieval history at the university of Groningen in 1905, this happened at the compelling demand of his old teacher, P.J. Blok until then keeper of the chair and after Huizinga had written, again under a certain pressure exercised by Blok, a study on the medieval history of the town of Haarlem. Soon after this appointment, in 1908 he came to Ghent in order to pays a visit to Pirenne and to witness with his own eyes the functioning of Pirenne’s already famous ‘classes pratiques’ (a variant of the historical seminar Pirenne had adopted from his German teachers, above all Karl Lamprecht). Though confronted with what medieval history had to offer at its best, Huizinga continued to feel badly when engaged in these classical forms of research. In another letter to Pirenne (written when the latter was in German custody during World War I) he formulated it in this way in a fierce attack and criticism of his Utrecht colleague Oppermann : (lettrer dating from 23 October 1917) : ‘Et pourtant les dernières années m’ont rendu de plus en plus incapable de goûter ces ouvrages ultrascientifiques et illisibles qui abondent dans notre science. Je dis souvent à mes étudiants qu’un livre illisible est un mauvais livre, quel que soit le sujet (excepté en mathématiques je pense, mais peut être ces messieurs les mathématiciens trouvent illisible beaucoup ce qui ne nous le paraît pas). J’ai sous main un beau spécimen d’un tel ouvrage justement à présent. Vous connaissez M. Oppermann, professeur à Utrecht. Il a présenté à notre Académie royale une dissertation sur les sources de l’histoire de la Hollande du X. au XII. siècle, que je dois lire pour rapporter là- dessus. Vous savez comment c’est maigre cette tradition d’Egmond dont il s’agit. Et vous savez peut-être que M. O. a la manie de signaler partout les falsifications. Il voit partout des moines infiniment astucieux et d’une habileté de faussaires incomparable. Il les démasque tous. Mais les grands travaux demandent de grands efforts, et voilà qu’il met 968 pages sans les pages numerotées a b c d à disqualifier nos braves Dirk et Floris, qui nous ont été chers depuis l’enfance. On raconte de Voltaire, qu’il dit en montrant à un visiteur dans sa bibliothèque les gros volumes des pères de l’église : ‘je les ai lus, mais ils me le paieront’. Il me coûtera un effort de sentiments chrétiens pour ne pas dire la 2 même chose à propos de mon collègue’ . 2 J. HUIZINGA, Briefwisseling I, 1894-1924, éd. L. HANSSEN, W.E. KRUL, A. VAN DER LEM, Veen, 1989, p. 208. Le livre en question d’Oppermann n’est finalement pas paru dans la série de l’Académie royale, mais dans une In his memoirs written during his captivity in Germany, Pirenne formulated comparable remarks. But what concerns Huizinga’s convictions, the citation I just referred to underlines to what extent he had been faithful to the position he had already chosen in his inaugural lecture of 1905, one of the more explicit texts concerning his theoretical viewpoints. Its title being a clear programme: ‘on the aesthetical elements in historical representation’. Huizinga’s position was with anti-positivism and neo-kantian as expressed in the ‘Methodenstreit’ raging in these years in Germany. This ‘Methodenstreit’ was sometimes even labelled ‘Lamprechtstreit’ since Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915) teacher of Pirenne and professor of medieval history at Leipzig when also Huizinga studied there, had become the personification of the debate. Lamprecht’s aim had been to rescue 19th century positivism from asphyxiation by merging cultural and ‘total’ history based on natural laws with a socio-psychological basis. All this leading to the notion of ‘Kulturzeitalter’, rejected by Huizinga, but enthousiastically adopted by Blok and Pirenne alike. In this debate, Huizinga had on the contrary clearly chosen the side of neo-kantian philosophers like Wilhelm Dilthey, Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert or Edward Spranger. Their approach was based on intuition, ideography, a refutation of the existence of ‘laws’ in history, esthetical and literary preoccupations. Huizinga’s first general book as a mediaevalist (he was then 47 years old, hardly the book of a young scholar, eager to penetrate his field of study), his ‘Herfsttij’ (1919) - a book to which his dutch colleagues mediaevalists reacted in an embarrassed way – was greatly influenced by this neo-kantian approach. The period during which this seminal book took shape was for its author a period of great and worrisome preoccupations: in 1914 Huizinga had lost his wife in July, and had accepted in October a nomination as professor of mediaeval history in Leiden, and in between World War One had started. On the 7th of August he found it necessary, despite all his personal grief, to write to his friend and colleague Pirenne a letter, containing among others following phrases: ‘Je conçois quelle douleur doit être la vôtre, vous qui avez donné l’expression historique à l’âme belge, qui avez aidé par cela à former la nationalité même qui est aux prises maintenant. Et c’est votre sol natal : Verviers, le pays liégeois qui a été envahie ! Et sans doute plus d’un de vos quatre fils est à l’armée’3. Pirenne, far behind Huizinga nowadays concerning public and scientific interest was, on the contrary, during his lifetime recognised as one of the leading historians of his period. This fame was reinforced after world war one, since Pirenne stood (with king Albert and cardinal Mercier) as the personification of ‘poor little Belgium’. Nevertheless at the moment of maximal scientific and public recognition, personal grief (Pirenne had lost one of his sons in the war) and the feeling that all scientific certainties in which he had been formed as a historian were shattered, must have been overwhelming. Some years ago, the Italian mediaevalist, Cinzio Violante has written a study (Bologna, 1997, translated in German, Berlin, 2004) on Pirenne in this phase of his scientific life, its eloquent title synthesises this feeling perfectly: ‘La fine della grande illusione’. Back from German captivity, Pirenne becomes rector of Ghent university, the title of his inaugural lecture of 1921 ‘ce que nous devons désapprendre de l’Allemagne’ illustrates again the intellectual distress that must have been his. Indeed, in history as in much other fields of science imperial Germany had been the emblematic nation, giving a lead to others. The experience that of all nations, this one had started a devastating war in which all existing moral norms were gradually abandoned, must have been a terrible shock for contemporaries. When back from Germany Pirenne receives série locale d’Utrecht : Untersuchungen zur nord-niederländischen Geschichte des 10. bis 13. Jahrhunderts, Utrecht, 1920-1921 (Bijdragen van het Instituut voor middeleeuwsche geschiedenis der Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht, dl. 3-5). Ajoutons que des recherches plus récentes notamment celles de J. Kruisheer ont confirmé les positions de Huizinga : J.-A. KOSSMANN-PUTTO, Huizinga als mediëvist in Groningen, p. 101. 3 J. HUIZINGA, Briefwisseling I op. cit., p. 164 (n° 145). Huizinga’s ‘magnum opus’ the Herfsttij after its first publication in 1919, his reaction is not a rejection (as was the case with Huizinga’s Dutch colleagues) but one of incomprehension. The real debate is however not touched upon in the abundant exchange of letters between Huizinga and Pirenne: how does it come and what are the methodological stakes, in order to explain that two historians, among the best of their generation, working with the same, mainly narrative sources from the burgundian period, arrive at such a fundamentally different outcome? That both have given priority to narrative sources is in itself not a source of amazement, after all: at the beginning of the 20th century the wide range of sources we now use for studying the burgundian period was to a very large extent unknown or in the best of cases difficult of access or almost not inventoried. The reading of the same texts had, however, as a result two books (Pirenne’s Histoire de Belgique, part II in which he deals with the Burgundian period and Huizinga’s ‘Herfsttij’) that were in many respects each other’s opposite. ‘Plusieurs vérités pour la même chose’ undeniably. Pirenne’s vision of the action of the Burgundian dukes is one of a period of great changes in which for the first time in history his beloved Belgian political space takes shape. Therefore, the dukes of Burgundy and their party had to deal with traditional opposition and mark in some way the end of some typical ‘mediaeval’ developments (the ‘démocraties urbaines’ another of Pirenne’s beloved themes), as such they were bearers of some kind of ‘modernity’. In many respects, a rather teleological vision on history. Huizinga’s look on the same burgundian period, though he did his utmost best to mark the distances that he believed existed between his approach and Spenglers pessimist view on history (Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918) was one of decadence and a growing distance between cultural forms and their content. A true cultural ‘autumn’, though Huizinga kept his distances equally with Burckhardt’s notion of Renaissance (formulated essentially in his Kultur der Renaissance from 1860), though many of his contemporaries (among them Pirenne) had pointed to the links and resemblances between his book and Burckhardt’s. At a first sight these two different approaches may be explained by the different historical and theoretical background of both authors, and indeed if one looks at fifteenth century history through the eyes of historian who gradually had become a national icon (as was the case with Pirenne) of through the glasses of a historian sensible for the expression of cultural decay and loss of content. This belonging to two different worlds becomes very clear when in 1933 Pirenne writes to Huizinga, thanking him for the gift of Huizinga’s most recent public address as rector of Leiden university ‘Over de grenzen van spel en ernst in de cultuur’ (on the limits of game and seriousness in culture, a prelude to his book ‘Homo ludens’ published in 1937). Huizinga refers to culture, Pirenne thinks economics, for in his reaction he poses the question of where the boundaries of games have to be situated, where in human behaviour does the game end and where starts the serious business of economics ? The extraordinary times both were to live in, however, led to a growing reconsidering of these methodological certainties. For both paradigms came under pressure from outside developments: both the ‘national’ state as a driving and explaining force in history (present in Pirenne’s work) and cultural and moral values (put forward by Huizinga who after his ‘waning’ developed into a critical observer of the cultural malaise of the period he was living in) were to be subjected to the effects of the violence World War One had unleashed in western society. The same letter from Pirenne to Huizinga I just quoted deals with a sad story concerning a row in the small world of Dutch historians, provoked by the stealing by Huizinga’s colleague in Leiden, Colenbrander, of some of Pirenne’s insights on the actions of William the Taciturn. Huizinga, rector of Leiden University was demolished by this affair and set of to Berlin in a demoralised mood in order to give two lectures there, on January 27 and 28 1933, two days later the German general elections brought about the fall of the Weimar republic and the start of Hitler’s career as chancellor. As Pirenne in 1914, Huizinga was caught up by the course of history and it was this history, unfolding under his eyes which was going to dictate the future subjects he was to deal with. Pirenne’s belief in the force of historicism had already received an important blow during world war one, epitomised by the tragedy of the rupture with Lamprecht, when the latter visited Belgium in 1915 hoping to win support from Belgian intellectuals (among them Pirenne and his pupils) for a pro-german policy. After his return form German captivity (on March 18 1916 Pirenne and his Ghent colleague Paul Fredericq had been arrested because they had refused to endorse the imposed flamandisation of Ghent University by the German occupation) nothing was ever to be the same for Pirenne. Loaded with international recognition as one of the symbols for the martyrdom of Belgium during World War one and as an intellectual authority of prime importance, he was asked to participate as its first director to the new historical review the ‘Annales d’histoire et économique’ two ambitious young French scholars, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch were starting from 1929 on and which has ever since given decisive impetuses to the renewal of historical research, both in France and abroad. The ‘Annales’ were however in 1929 also considered as an anti German tool, aiming at weakening the traditional great impact of German historiography in the field of social and economic history. Huizinga on his side was only asked to participate in the intellectual adventure of the Annales (which, by the way he never did) after 1933, when another misfortune as rector of Leiden had brought him to the foreground of anti-fascist resistance in Europe. In the spring of 1933 a meeting of the international student service was organised in Leiden, leading Huizinga in the course of events to ask the German delegation to return home, since it was headed by a notable author of anti-Semite pamphlet (‘Forderung der Stunde: Juden raus, Berlin 1928, 1933 author: dr. Johann von Leers). The German authorities retaliated by adding a postscript to the publication of one of Huizinga’s essays in the Historische Zeitschrift (ironically dealing with the history of Burgundy), in which they admitted they would have refused the publication if they had been informed earlier of the incidents in April 1933 in Leiden. On its turn the Dutch ‘Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis’ stopped publicly its subscription and collaboration with the ‘Historische Zeitschrift’. Pirenne immediately intervened in the conflict by publicly supporting Huizinga, in what was to be the very last letter he ever wrote to the latter. Its wording matches strangely the letter written by Huizinga to Pirenne in 1914: ‘‘Votre belle attitude à l’égard de la brutalité hitlérienne a été digne d’eux. L’Historische Zeitschrift vous a exclu honoris causa et nous avons tous applaudi ici à la riposte si méritée de la Tijdschrift voor geschiedenis. Jusqu’où les aberrations du racisme entraîneront-elles ces malheureux allemands ? Qui donc a dit : ‘Der Weg der Menschheit geht von Humanität, durch Nationalität, zur Bestialität’?’4 It is without doubt that he hated the situation, but Huizinga was caught by the course of history in a situation which greatly resembled the one Pirenne had had to face in 1914. In 1935 (the year in which Pirenne died) he published his ‘In de schaduwen van morgen. Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onze tijd’ (In tomorrow’s shadow, essay on the moral suffering of our times) an essay in which he describes the consequences of the totalitarian regimes raging in his time (both Hitler Germany as Stalin USSR are considered) and deplores the loss of ethical, esthetical and intellectual values. To his own great amazement the book was six times reprinted in six months, a German translation was five times reprinted between 1935 and 37, and between 1935 and 1939 the book was translated into nine European languages. It would be totally wrong to conclude from the book’s title that Huizinga was to be ranged in the same line of culturally pessimist authors like Spengler. In the same spirit he will 4 J. HUIZINGA, Briefwisseling II, p. 492 (n° 1064) où l’on trouve l’identification de la citation, tirée d’un poème de Franz Grillparzer, poète autrichien du 19e siècle. write in the course of World War Two a follow up ‘Geschonden wereld. Beschouwing over de kansen op herstel van onze civilisatie’ (Shattered world, considerations concerning the chances of recovery of our civilisation), written in the course of 1943 but published posthumously (Huizinga died on February 1st 1945). This text confirms Huizinga’s internationally recognised role as cultural philosopher, as such he was (again the similarity with Pirenne’s fate during World War One is striking) considered to be an emblematic figure. The Nazi occupant attacked this living symbol of Dutch identity: by obliging him to leave the university (June 1942) and finally by arresting him and putting him in a camp, and in the end under international pressure he was allowed to go in a forced exile in the countryside (he will die there without witnessing the liberation of his country). Both men, Pirenne and Huizinga have faced the threat posed to their vision on history, on politics and society by a certain German-based historiography, mobilising the Middle Ages and a certain way of looking at the middle ages in order to justify the gradual demolition of the ephemeral democratic and republican experiment in German history, the Weimar Republic. In a recent book O. G. Oexle (L’historisme en débat. De Nietzsche à Kantorowicz, Paris, 2001) has made clear how circles, referring to the neo-kantian philosophy which also had won the heart and mind of the young Huizinga, put forward notions such as collectivity, vitality, force, youth (as opposed to individuality, rationality, modernity, historicism of old society). Gradually these values were joined by others: secrecy, the cult of heros from the past, virility, and a rejection of positivism and of historicism. The differences become clear, so Oexle argues in the different works of Ernst Kantorowicz, his earlier work on Frederik II (1929) appealing to the values of the neo-kantian and anti modern groups around Stefan George and while his other later work (mainly the ‘king’s two bodies’, 1957) is in line again with historical science as it belongs to the heritage of 19th century positivism. The way Kantorowicz, both his Frederik II as his ‘king’s two bodies’ are received nowadays (in some circles he is even hailed as the German Marc Bloch) does confirm the confusion enhanced by post modern approach to history and in many respects recalls the ‘plusieurs vérités’ faced already by Pirenne and Huizinga alike. Finally the question turns around the crucial element whether or not a historical reality exists or does not exist ? In the later option only representation of reality is there and our reading of it belongs as much to our own individuality as it belongs to an ‘outside’ view. I hope to have made clear that the discussion is not entirely new, Huizinga and Pirenne faced it; the way and perspicacity with which she has been formulated may be renewed though. Finally it’s about veracity and reality of things past. The living together of reality and idealism is often problematic, the first one having the often unpleasant characteristic of imposing itself on who thinks he has come to terms with it: as both Huizinga and Pirenne had to experience at their risks and costs. Let me finish then with following extract from the posthumous text by Marc Bloch, from his memoirs of World War II, ‘l’étrange défaite’ (ed. Gallimard 1990, Paris, p. 30): ‘Ecrire et enseigner l’histoire, tel est, depuis tantôt trente-quatre ans, mon métier. Il m’a amené à feuilleter beaucoup de documents d’âges divers, pour y faire, de mon mieux, le tri du vrai et du faux ; à beaucoup regarder et observer, aussi. Car, j’ai toujours pensé qu’un historien a pour premier devoir, comme disait mon maître Pirenne de s’intéresser « à la vie »’. Full-text (with references to sources and existing literature) will be available through : M. Boone, ‘L’automne du Moyen Age’: Johan Huizinga et Henri Pirenne ou ‘plusieurs vérités pour la même chose’ : in : ‘L’automne du Moyen Age. Textes, iconographie, philologie. Journées pour Alberto Varvaro (chaire Francqui au titre étranger 2003-2004), éd. Paola Moreno, Giovanni Palumbo,(Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège, 2005).