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Johan Huizinga (1872-1945)


Dutch historian, whose most famous works include Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (1919, The Waning of the Middle Ages / The Autumn of the Middle Ages), which dealt with life, ideas, art, and behaviors of the upper classes of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries, Erasmus (1924), a biography of the famous Dutch Renaissance scholar, and Homo Ludens (1938), focusing on the element of play in human culture. Like the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Johan Huizinga was a harsh critic of mass culture and technology.

"To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life." (from The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, translated by F. Hopman, 1924, p. 1)

Johan Huizinga was born in Groningen, the son of Dirk Huizinga, a professor of physiology at Groningen University, and Jacoba Tonkens, who died two years after his birth. Manna de Cock, his father'second wife, treated the children with care. While a student, Dirk had contracted syphilis, and he never got free from the disease, attacs of pain and migraine. Huizinga's half-brother Herman committed suicide by drinking photographic developer.

From early on, Huizinga was an avid reader. In his childhood his favorite books were historical adventure novels and fairy tales. Huizinga attended the municipal Gymnasium and entered in 1891 the university, earning his degree in Indo-Germanic languages in 1895. He then studied comparative linguistics at the University of Leipzig, and after returning from Germany he earned in 1897 his Ph.D. Huizinga's dissertation dealt with the clown figure in Sanskrit drama. His early interest was history, but at the gymnasium his teachers had been so poor, that he changed into linguistics. During the following years he taught history at a secondary school in Harlem and lectured in 1903-05 on ancient history at the University of Amsterdam. In 1905 he became professor of history at Groningen. After the death of his first wife, Mary Vincentia Schorer (1877-1914), he moved from Groningen to Leiden, where he was appointed in 1915 professor of general history at the university.

From 1916 to 1932 Huizinga was an editor of the periodical De Gids. He traveled in the United States in 1926, but he had already published a study on the national characteristics of the country, Mensch en menigte in America (1918, Man and the Crowd in America). The journey produced Amerika Levend en Denkend (1926, Life and Thought in America). Huizinga saw that America's mind was "fundamentally antihistorical," lamented "mediocrity which permeates American life," and agreed with William James's remark that "progress is a terrible thing". (Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture by Michael G. Kammen, 1987, p. 269) For Huizinga, the United States was an object of lesson on what could go wrong if Europeans adopt similar idols of technocracy and over-organization. Politically he was  moderately conservative.

In 1938 Huizinga became vice-president of the International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation with the League of Nations. Alarmed by the rise of fascism and cultural crisis Huizinga wrote In de schaduwen van morgen (1935), which his son Jacob Herman Huizinga translated into English under the title In the Shadow of Tomorrow. "We live in a demened world, and we know it," are its opening lines.

In 1937 Huizinga married Auguste Schölvinck (1909-1979), 37 years his junior. They had a daughter. After the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, the University of Leiden was closed. In 1941 Huizinga gave a speech in which he criticized German influence on Dutch science and he was arrested by the Nazis. Until October 1942 Huizinga was held as a hostage at Michielsgester. When he released he was not allowed to return to Leiden. Huizinga died in detention at De Steeg in Gerderland, near Arnheim, on February 1, 1945, just a few months before the end of the war.

In his inaugural lecture at Groningen Huizinga had supported the view, that historical knowledge is essentially aesthetic, intuitive, and subjective. This approach was fully developed in Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (The Autumn of the Middle Ages), a nostalgic views of the the past world, which he wrote for both the wide public and specialists. Dutch historians received the work coolly but abroad it became a success and was soon translated into English and other languages. Fritz Hopman's elegant translation was entitled The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924); this edition was shortened by one third. The Dutch-born historian Karl Joachim Weintraub dismissed it as a "very inferior, crippled version of the original". ('When the World was Half a Thousand Years Younger: Color and Concept in Johan Huizinga's Middle Ages' by David Pickus, in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Volume 25, edited by William C. McDonald, Edelgard E. DuBruck, 2000, p. 128) Nevertheless, it was assigned as a required text at American universities until the complete translation by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch came out in 1996. "Is it possible," Payton asked in his introduction, "that English-speaking historians have been discussing this book with their foreign colleagues without realizing that they were reading a significantly different text? If this is so, it is primary justification for the present translation." ('Translator's Introduction' by Rodney J. Payton, in The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch, 1996, p. xiii)

Huizinga's masterwork was inspired by an exhibition of early Netherlandic painting, which Huizinga saw in 1902 in Bruges. Jan van Eyck's art aroused his interest in the Middle Ages, but it also must be noted that after the mid-1920s, Huizinga devoted relatively little time to this period – his lectures at the Sorbonne being the major exception. Huizinga was not entirely happy with the word "herfsttij" in the title of the book, due to its associations with doom and decay, but preferred the positive side of the autumnal symbolism, the suggestion of harvestide.

Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen, written in poetic style, portrays vividly the age through contradictions – after witch hunts were finished in the city of Arras, people celebrated it by arranging a competition in moral tales (folies moralisées), and at the same time when religious thinking and fanaticism dominated everyday life, church services and the clergy were mocked. Monks cursed and prostitutes made deals inside church buildings. On the other hand, the poetic concept of love was an essential part of chivalry. Describing the book as "extraordinarily interesting," Bertrand Russell quotes Huizinga's words in his essay 'Life in the Middle Ages' (1925): "In no other epoch did the ideal of civilisation amalgamate to such a degree with that of love." (Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects by Bertrand Russell, 2004, p. 67) Love and cruelty lived side by side: people were tortured in the marketplaces for the entertainment of the people. "The citizens of Mons bought a brigand, at far too high a price, for the pleasure of seeing him quartered, "at which the people rejoiced more than if a new holy body had risen from the dead."" (The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, translated by F. Hopman, 1924, p. 15)

Homo Ludens examined the role of play in law, war, science, poetry, philosophy, and art. Huizinga saw the instinct for play as the central element in human culture – all human activities are playing: "Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play." (Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture by Johan Huizinga, translated by R.F.C. Hull, Beacon Press, 1950, p. 5) The true spirit of play is happy inspiration; it is voluntary, outside the ordinary life-boundaries, secluded and limited in time and space, rule-governed. According to Huizinga, the touch with pure play has been lost in modern time: "Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. All Europe donned the boiler-suit." (Ibid., p. 192) An important source of his theory of the play was a passage in Friedrich von Schiller's Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen (1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man): "Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playying." (On the Aesthetic Education of Man by Friedrich Schiller, translated by Reginald Snell, 2004, p. 80) Huizinga wrote the book when "old Europe" approaching its end, before war, and was translating it into English and adding material after the Nazis invaded Poland.

Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century was a collection of essays. In 'My Path to History,' which was first published in Dutch in 1947, Huizinga described his his early fascination with history, his studies and the genesis of The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Although the title of the book paralleled processes in nature, fruition and decline with culture, Huizinga did not believe that history follows certain cyclic pattern exemplified in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918-1922), or could be understood through Darwinist concepts. He emphasized intuitive understanding, regarding history essentially as a form of mental activity in which a culture views its past. For the modern technological world Huizinga had a strong dislike, and he claimed that educated people in the times of Macaulay (1800-59) and Ranke (1795-1886) understood history better than his contemporaries.

For further reading: Johan Huizinga by C. Antoni (1935); Herinneringen aan mijn vader by Leonhard Huizinga (1963); Visions of Culture: Voltaire, Guizot, Burckhardt, Lamprecht, Huizinga, Ortega y Gasset by K.J. Weintraub (1966); The Waning Middle Ages by J.L. Schrader and B. Waller (1969); Johan Huiginza 1872-1972, ed. by W.R.H. Koops et al. (1973); '"This, Here, and Soon": Johan Huizinga's Esquisse of American Culture,' in Selvages & Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture by Michael Kammen (1987); Historicus tegen de tijd by Wessel E. Krul (1990); Johan Huizinga: Leven en werk in beelden en documenten by Anton van der Lem (1993); Huizinga en de troost van de geschiedenis: Verbeelding en rede by Léon Hanssen (1996); Het Eeuwige verbeeld in een afgehaald bed: Huizinga en de Nederlandse beschaving by Anton van der Lem (1997); 'The Autumns of Johan Huizinga', by James C. Kennedy, in Mediavealism and the Academy, eds. David Metzger, Kathleen Verduin, & Leslie J. Workman (1997); 'Play in Culture and the Jargon of Primordiality: A Critique of Homo Ludens' by Mechthild Nagel in Play & Culture Studies: Volume 1, ed. by Margaret Carlisle Duncan, Garry Chick & Alan Aycock (1998); 'When the World was Half a Thousand Years Younger: Color and Concept in Johan Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages' by David Pickus, in Fifteenth Century Studies:Volume 25 (2000); Johan Huizinga: Geschichtswissenschaft als Kulturgeschichte by Christoph Strupp (2000); Reading Huizinga by Willem Otterspeer; translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson (2010); 'Traces of Huizinga: His Relation with N.W. Posthumus, Based on Unpublished Letters and a Text' by Huub Sanders, in A Usable Collection: Essays in Honour of Jaap Kloosterman on Collecting Social History, edited by Aad Blok, Jan Lucassen and Huub Sanders (2014); In Praise of Ambiguity: Erasmus, Huizinga and the Seriousness of Play by Willem Otterspeer, translatated by Vivien Collingwood (2018)

Selected works:

  • De Vidusaka in het Indisch toneel, 1897
  • Van den vogel Charadrius, 1903
  • Mensch en menigte in America, 1918 (Man and the Crowd in America, included in America: A Dutch Historian Vision, from Afars and Near, 1972)
  • Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen: Studie over levens - en gedachtenvormen der veertiende en vijftiende eeuw in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden, 1919
    - The Waning of the Middle Ages (translated by F. Hopman, 1924) / The Autumn of the Middle Ages (translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch, 1996)
    - Keskiajan syksy: elämän- ja hengenmuotoja Ranskassa ja Alankomaissa 14. ja 15. vuosisadalla (suom. J. A. Hollo, 1951)
  • Erasmus, 1924
    - Erasmus (translated by F. Hopman, 1924; repr. as Erasmus of Rotterdam, translated by F. Hopman and B. Flower, 1952; repr. as Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, 1957)
    - Erasmus (suom. Eino E. Suolahti, 1953)
  • Amerika Levend en Denkend, 1926
    - America: A Dutch Historian's Vision, from Afar and Near (translated by H.H. Rowen, 1972)
  • Tien studien, 1926
  • Leven en werk van Jan Veth, 1927
  • Cultuurhistorische verkenningen, 1929
  • Wege der Kulturgeschichte, 1930
  • Holländische Kultur des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts, 1932 (Nederlands beschaving in de zeventiende eeuw: Een schets, 1941)
    - Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays (translated by A.J. Pomerans, 1968)
  • Die Mittlerstellung der Niederlande zwischen West- und Mitteleuropa, 1932
  • Nederland’s geestesmerk, 1935
  • In de schaduwen van morgen: Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onzend tijd, 1935 (Im Schatten von morgen. Eine Diagnose des kulturellen Leidens unserer Zeit)
    - In the Shadow of Tomorrow (translated by J.H. Huizinga, 1936)
  • 'Philosophy and History,' 1936 (in Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, edited by Raymond Klibansky, Herbert James Paton, 1936)
  • De wetenschap der geschiedenis, 1937
  • Homo ludens. Proeve eener bepaling van het spelelement der cultuur, 1938 (Homo Ludens. Versuch einer Bestimmung des Spielelements der Kultur)
    - Homo Ludens: A Study in the Play-Elements in Culture (translated by R.F.C. Hull, 1949)
    - Leikkivä ihminen: yritys kulttuurin leikkiaineksen määrittelemiseen (suom. Sirkka Salomaa, 1947)
  • Patriotisme en nationalisme, 1940
  • Nederland's beschaving in de zeventiende eeuw, 1941
  • Im Bann der Geschichte: Betrachtung und Darstellung, 1942
    - Historian olemus: Esseitä ja tutkielmia (suom. Kai Kaila, 1967)
  • Geschonden wereld: Een beschouwing over de kanses op herstel von onze beschaving, 1945
  • Parerga, 1945 (edited by Werner Kaegi)
  • Mein Weg zur Geschichte, 1947
  • J. Huizinga, Verzamelde Werken, 1948-1953 (9 vols., edited by Tjeenk Willink)
  • Men and Ideas: Histoiry, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance: Essays, 1959 (translated by J.S. Holmes and H. van Merle)
  • Der Nederlandse natie: Viif opstellen, 1960
  • Briefwisseling, 1989-1991 (3 vols., edited by Léon Hanssen, W. E. Krul, A. van der Lem)
  • De taak der cultuurgeschiedenis, 1995 (edited by Wessel E. Krul)
  • De Hand van Huizinga, 2009 (edited by Willem Otterspeer)
  • Mijn weg tot de historie & Gebeden, 2016 (bezorgd door Anton van der Lem)
  • Nederlands geestesmerk, 2019 (in hedendaagse spelling en met een inleiding van Gerry van der List)

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