Huizinga, Johan

views updated May 23 2018

Huizinga, Johan



Johan Huizinga (1872–1945), the Dutch cultural historian, was born in Groningen and died at De Steeg, a village outside Arnhem. His family combined the deep piety of a long line of Baptist ministers with a scientific devotion to factual truth, exemplified by Huizinga’s father, a doctor and professor of physiology at Groningen. Although in his mature years Huizinga subscribed to no religious confession, he was a lifelong believer; his nonconformist background was partly responsible for his toleration, his respect for the privacy of others, his strong ethical stoicism, and his moderation in political (even in historical) issues. His respect for factual integrity is everywhere apparent in his work and became the basis for his attack upon totalitarianism.

After studying Dutch language and literature at Groningen and taking his degree in 1896 in comparative philology (on a Sanskrit subject), Huizinga began teaching history to high school students in Haarlem. Here he did the research for his first—o and only archival—historical work, a study of the rise of Haarlem (1905–1906). Through his mentor, the historian Petrus Johannes Blok, Huizinga was appointed professor of history at Groningen in 1905: his inaugural lecture, “Het aesthetische bestanddeel van geschiedkundige voorstellingen” (1905; “The Aesthetic Element in Historical Pres entation“), gave promise of his use of literature and the visual arts to interpret history. Until his appointment as professor of history at Leiden, how ever, the harvest of this approach remained only a promise.

It was in his Leiden years, from 1915 until his death, that Huizinga’s special talents were revealed. His youthful interest in fin-de-siecle literature (French, English, and Dutch) and his knowledge of Flemish “primitive” and modern painting provided him with a fresh view of the social significance of aesthetic forms. The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), his masterpiece, is a study of the forms of life of fifteenth-century France and Burgundy, based upon his critical reading of aesthetic and philological sources normally overlooked by the working historian. Huizinga attempted to do for the late medieval North what his acknowledged master, Jacob Burckhardt, had done for the Italian Renaissance.

In 1918 Huizinga published “Mensch enmenigte in Amerika” (”Man and Mass in America“), an extrapolation from American materials worked up to introduce his Leiden students to American history—itself an event of considerable cultural importance. After several studies of Renaissance history (1920; 1924), he published “De taak der cultuurgeschiedenis” (”The Task of Cultural History“) in 1929. It was a description and prescription for his students and other historians, in which he plainly advocated subsuming to history other “philological” disciplines—the law, philosophy, his tories of music, literature, and the fine arts—as well as pillaging from the social sciences conceptualizations to facilitate both the setting of historical questions and the organization of historical answers.

Except for his study of Haarlem, Huizinga made no great contributions to political or economic history; unlike Burckhardt, he did not seem to regard even the state as a work of art. Huizinga was primarily interested in “intellectual” history, the history of the literate classes; but he was fur ther interested in every aspect of “social” history, the forms through which men in the past conducted their lives. From texts normally regarded as nonhistorical, Huizinga produced evidence for forms of collective and private life of past periods and places. Like an archeologist, he excavated life “as it really was.” His methodological writings from this period emphasize the usefulness to historians of the insights and methods of sociology and an thropology.

Although Huizinga never collected quantitative data for his own research, he nonetheless respected conclusions about social and cultural habits based on quantitative analysis. His own preference for the work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, among sociologists, and for Marcel Mauss, among anthropologists, was the result of his admiration of the hypotheses they framed and their use of hypotheses in the analysis of various data. His own comparable work is his study of seventeenth-century Dutch culture (1932), the best epitome of that complex period ever written; there he advanced the thesis that Dutch Calvinism was not of primary importance in the formation of Golden Ageculture. The Waning of the Middle Ages and Homoludens (1938) extrapolate cultural manifestations from surrounding historical data in order to draw up, more schematically than is usual in historical writing, the structure of, in the first instance, northern European society in the fifteenth century and, in the second, the functions and variations of play, playing, and games in human culture as a whole. Huizinga was much interested in the historical work of the group headed by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, to be found in the periodical Annales d’histoire economique et sociale, with its self-conscious use of social materials and sociological method. However, despite this sociological emphasis, Huizinga reacted unfavorably to the work of Freud and seems to have made almost no use of Marxian ideas throughout his work.

From 1935 on, Huizinga’s principal work was not historical, although it was certainly cultural, or moral-sociological. In that year, only two years after Hitler’s coup, he published In the Shadow ofTomorrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Time, a highly polemical study of contemporary mass culture. Although his critics attacked his disgust with the cheapness of the radio and of yellow journalism as reactionary, Huizinga regarded these as signs of a general loss of value far more seriously manifest in the political, social, and moral behavior of contemporary totalitarianism. Ten years later, his posthumous Geschonden wereld: Een beschouwing over de kansen op herstel van onze beschaving (1945; “World in Ruins: A Consideration of the Chances of Rebuilding Our Civilization“) was published, both a sequel and a corrective to In the Shadow of Tomorrow. Like de Tocqueville (really, even more than Burckhardt, Huizinga’s model) in Democracy in America, Huizinga was conservative in his insistence upon conscientious individual responsibility and optimistic in his conviction that by individual recom mitment a collective responsible world could be reconstructed.

Homoludens, Huizinga’s most extraordinary and original book, is a study of the “play-element” in culture—occidental, oriental, primitive, ancient, and modern. He considered all sorts of playing, from children’s games to the dialectic of philosophy and of the law courts. By no means a history book—its lesson is psychosociological or even meta-social rather than historical—Homoludens is nonetheless the book of a historian who relates each specific form of such an activity as play to the temporal and local culture of which it is a part.

A generation earlier, Huizinga might have become a literary and artistic critic; a generation later, he might have become a sociologist. As it was, he practiced cultural history as if “high” culture and “sociological” or “anthropological” culture were mutually dependent. Although he preferred the man to the mass, the individual to the crowd, he saw the task of the cultural historian to be the interpretation of societies, or groups made up of individuals. Huizinga’s work has made it difficult for historians to ignore the signs of nonpolitical social forms within which human beings have always lived their lives.

Rosalie L. Colie

[For the historical context of Huizinga’s work, seehistory, articles onintellectual historyandsocial history; and the biographies ofBurckhardt; Mauss; Tocqueville; Troeltsch; Weber, Max.]


(1905) 1952 Het aesthetische bestanddeel van geschiedkundlge voorstelllngen. Volume 7, pages 3-28 in Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde werhen. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

(1905–1906) 1948 De opkomst van Haarlem. Volume 1, pages 203-364 in Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde wer-ken. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

(1918) 1950 Mensch enmenigte in Amerika: Vier essays over moderne beschavingsgeschiedenis. Volume 5, pages 249-417 in Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde werken. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

(1919) 1924 The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study in the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the 14th and 15th Centuries. London: Arnolds. → First published in Dutch. A paper back edition was published in 1954 by Doubleday.

(1920) 1949 Renaissancestudien I: Het probleem. Volume 4, pages 231-275 in Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde werken. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

(1924) 1952 Erasmus of Rotterdam. 3d ed. London: Phaidon. → First published in Dutch.

(1929) 1952 De taak der cultuurgeschiedenis. Volume 7, pages 35-94 in Johan Huizinga, Verzamelde werken. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

1932 Hollandische Kultur des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts: Ihre sozialen Grundlagen und nationale Eigenart. Jena (Germany): Diedrichs.

(1935) 1936 In the Shadow of Tomorrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Time. London: Heinemann; New York: Norton.→ First published in Dutch.

(1938) 1949 Homoludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. London: Routledge. → First published in Dutch. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Beacon.

1942 lm Bann der Geschichte: Betrachtungen und Dar-stellungen. Basel and Amsterdam: Pantheon.

1945 Geschonden wereld: Een beschouwing over de kansen op herstel van onze beschaving. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.

1947 Mein Weg zur Geschichte. Basel: Benno Schwabe.

Verzamelde werken. 9 vols. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1948–1953. → Volume 1: Oud-lndie; Nederland, 1948. Volume 2: Nederland, 1948. Volumes 3-5: Cultuurge schiedenis, 1949–1950. Volume 6: Biografie, 1951. Volume 7: Geschiedwetenschap; Hedendaagsche cul-tuur, 1952. Volume 8: Universiteit: Wetenschap enkunst, 1952. Volume 9: Bibliographic en registers, 1953.


Colie, R. L. 1964 Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History. American Historical Review 63:607–630.

Geyl, Pieter (1946) 1962 De betekenis van Huizinga. Pages 122-127 in Pieter Geyl, Nederlandse figuren I. Amsterdam: Wereld-Bibliotheek.

Geyl, Pieter 1961 Huizinga als aanklager van zijn tijd. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing.

Kaegi, Werner 1946 Johan Huizinga zum Gedachtnis. Volume 2, pages 7-42 in Werner Kaegi, Historische Meditationen. Zurich: Fretz & Wasmuth.

Kamerbeek, J. 1954 Huizinga en de beweging van tachtig. Tijdschrift voor geschiedenis 67:145–164.

Romein, Jan M. 1950 Huizinga als historicus. Pages 212-253 in Jan Romein, Tussen vrees en vrijheid: vijftien historische verhandelingen. Amsterdam: Que-rido.

Valkenburg, Christiaan T. van 1946 J. Huizinga: Zijn leven en zijn persoonlijkheid. Amsterdam: Pan theon.

Johan Huizinga

views updated May 18 2018

Johan Huizinga

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) is known for his books on cultural history and essays on the philosophy of history.

Johan Huizinga was born on Dec. 7, 1872, in Groningen. Trained as a linguist and a specialist in Sanskrit at the universities of Groningen and Leipzig, he received his doctorate in 1897 and went on to become a high school teacher in Haarlem and a teacher of Indic studies in Amsterdam. His interests soon turned to the history of his own country, however, and in 1905 he published The Origins of Haarlem. The same year he was appointed professor at Groningen University; in 1915 he was named professor at Leiden University.

Like Swiss historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, Huizinga was a cultural conservative, strongly elitist, and in later years deeply despondent over the future of European civilization. Like Burckhardt, he took as his professional task the description of periods of cultural history. Whereas the Swiss historian had conceived of culture as the spontaneous creation of free individuals, Huizinga defined culture as the state of a community "when the domination of nature in the material, moral, and spiritual realms permits a state of existence which is higher and better than the given natural conditions," a state of "harmonious balance of material and social values."

Huizinga's first major work, and his greatest, was The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), in which he portrayed "the forms of life, thought, and art" in the Burgundian state of the 14th and 15th centuries. He saw it as a period of violence, terrified by the image of death, from which men escaped by creating a "dream of life," coloring life with fancy. By their idealized style of knighthood, their conventions of love, their images of religious sensibility, they transformed or hid the real world in which they lived. Huizinga recaptured these colors of late medieval life with great vividness of style.

To Huizinga several aspects of this late medieval culture were essentially forms of play. In Homo Ludens (1938) he addressed the problem directly: to what extent does human culture result from play and to what extent does it express itself in the forms of play? His concern was not with games but with the play element of law, war, poetry, philosophy, science, and art, the sportive qualities of serious concerns. Along with the earnest, he argued, play is necessary to true culture.

Huizinga also wrote Men and Mass in America (1918), a biography Erasmus of Rotterdam (1924), Holland's Culture in the Seventeenth Century (1932), and numerous essays on historiography and the contemporary scene. When Leiden University was closed by the Germans in 1940, Huizinga was interned as a hostage. Released for reasons of ill health, he died in the village of De Steeg on Feb. 1, 1945.

Further Reading

A brief analysis of Huizinga's conception of culture is presented by Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (1966). Pieter Geyl gives a critical view of Huizinga's work in Encounters in History (1961). □