Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten’s as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop. He wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. the director Walter Gropius had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. Wen it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time t ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147).

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

As in a novel, we sympathise with Gropius when we read quotes from the letters he sent colleagues explaining that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that he realised it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as an administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, specifically exploring  how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and a communist cells was formed among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich, after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

First and foremost, after being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

It influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house which Bauhaus architects and designers got to build, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche and built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

So far so worthy. But Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

But Whitworth also points out that the legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s jouranlists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this hadn’t actually been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


Related links

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919)

I always felt that I was a better bandit than a detective

Third and longest of the five Richard Hannay novels, set against the backdrop of the Great War as it entered its 4th and crucial year. Its length is its terrible weakness as, instead of depth or subtlety, Buchan just piles on incident after incident until the plot becomes completely untenable and almost incomprehensible. As just a sample, Hannay

  • goes undercover in a garden village of pacifists
  • goes undercover in working class Glasgow, gets involved in speeches and fistfights
  • goes undercover across Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye
  • is involved in spying and fighting in secret coves on Skye
  • adopts the identity of a travelling salesman of religious books
  • is chased by police around Edinburgh, jumps a train south, escapes from that into a troop train
  • flies south in a commandeered airplane and crashes
  • takes command of a film shoot re-enacting a scene from the War as he makes his escape through the set
  • returns to command of his brigade in France
  • breaks into a mysterious french chateau and discovers germ warfare
  • is trapped in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, escapes
  • disguises himself as a Swiss peasant
  • climbs an inaccessible Alpine pass
  • is involved in a life-or-death race to capture Germany’s leading spy
  • takes command of his brigade against the Germans’ 1918 Spring offensive

Buchan’s war work

At the outbreak of war Buchan – at that point editor of The Spectator and popular novelist, well-known for his pro-Empire views – had gone to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau. He worked for a bit as French correspondent for The Times. Early in 1915 he was commissioned to write an official history of the War in monthly instalments to be produced by the publishers he was a partner in, Thomas Nelson & Son, hence named Nelson’s History of the War. This started in February 1915 and was eventually published in 24 volumes. Buchan was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and given access to the official documents to write the work.

Around this time he was also commissioned to write speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig, Head of the British Army. In 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau was subsumed into the Foreign Office at which point Buchan can be said to have officially joined the FO’s Intelligence Department. As a result of his achievements in all these tasks, in February 1917 when the government established a Department of Information, Buchan was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of it – Buchan called it ‘the toughest job I ever took on’.

Propaganda

Given Buchan’s role at the heart of the Allied Propaganda effort you might expect the Hannay novels to be unmitigated propaganda, but they’re not. In this novel as in Greenmantle, he goes out of his way to be fair to his opponents, to respect their intelligence and to discriminate between good Germans and bad Germans.

In fact Buchan makes the first hundred pages of this novel a kind of tour of the opposition camp: he is told, on a rather flimsy pretext, to pretend to be a South African sceptical of the war and ingratiate himself with pacifists and conscientious objectors and all the domestic opponents of the war. The stated aim is that some fiendish mastermind is feeding information to the enemy via a network of spies and Hannay is tasked with establishing himself as an opponent of the war in order to sniff our the traitors. But it gives Buchan the opportunity to do systematic pen portraits of Bloomsbury pacifists and COs and very interesting it is. Apart from its other value, as insight into the period, it contains an acid portrait of a whiny novelist generally taken to be DH Lawrence.

DH Lawrence

Aronson, the novelist, proved on acquaintance the worst kind of blighter. He considered himself a genius whom it was the duty of the country to support, and he sponged on his wretched relatives and anyone who would lend him money. He was always babbling about his sins, and pretty squalid they were. I should like to have flung him among a few good old-fashioned full-blooded sinners of my acquaintance; they would have scared him considerably. He told me that he sought ‘reality’ and ‘life’ and ‘truth’, but it was hard to see how he could know much about them, for he spent half the day in bed smoking cheap cigarettes, and the rest sunning himself in the admiration of half-witted girls. The creature was tuberculous in mind and body, and the only novel of his I read, pretty well turned my stomach. Mr Aronson’s strong point was jokes about the war. If he heard of any acquaintance who had joined up or was even doing war work his merriment knew no bounds. My fingers used to itch to box the little wretch’s ears. (Chapter 2)

England, my England

I read the book as I was walking the North Downs Way in Kent, and I was struck by Hannay’s descriptions of rural England; repeatedly the hero goes for walks or comes to places in the Cotswolds so beautiful that he is enraptured. I enjoyed these descriptions so much that I read the first 50 or 60 pages several times:

The small Ford car… carried me away from the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree…

… Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.

In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days…

… Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniature lake. By the water’s edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.

It was singing the old song ‘Cherry Ripe’, a common enough thing which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowed countryside…

…For the rest I used to spend my mornings reading in the garden, and I discovered for the first time what a pleasure was to be got from old books. They recalled and amplified that vision I had seen from the Cotswold ridge, the revelation of the priceless heritage which is England. I imbibed a mighty quantity of history, but especially I liked the writers, like Walton, who got at the very heart of the English countryside…

In the afternoons I took my exercise in long tramps along the good dusty English roads. The country fell away from Biggleswick into a plain of wood and pasture-land, with low hills on the horizon. The Place was sown with villages, each with its green and pond and ancient church. Most, too, had inns, and there I had many a draught of cool nutty ale, for the inn at Biggleswick was a reformed place which sold nothing but washy cider. Often, tramping home in the dusk, I was so much in love with the land that I could have sung with the pure joy of it…

Sweet and kind

There’s a sweetness and kindness to Buchan’s spirit, he is good at countryside and good at quick pen portraits of the strangers he meets.

Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office…. I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves. (Ch 5)

 For complicated reasons Hannay has gone undercover to try and figure out how secrets are being smuggled to the Germans and this brings him to the Highlands and, eventually, to the Isle of Skye. But not before his enemies get the police to put out an alert for him and he is hunted across the Highland countryside rather as in the Thirty-Nine Steps. He is picked up by well-meaning local gentry with whom he suddenly returns to his full military bearing and in this mode meets the son, who has been invalided out of the war.

The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards. (Ch 5)

The last battle

The book is in two parts, which adds to the sense of bittiness, of numerous hair-raising escapades strung together on very slender threads and coming pell-mell. Once again there’s a volta or switch of emphasis, when the German spy ring which had been the focus of the first 200 pages, which had seemed so dangerous and all-encompassing – is suddenly swept up with no problems, including its dastardly ringleader, who had metamorphosed into all the Bad Men who started this beastly war.

All the previous shenanigans are completely overshadowed by the last 30 pages or so of the book which are a genuinely riveting account of the German Spring offensive, Germany’s last throw of the dice which almost penetrated the thin Allied lines and opened the way to Paris. I can’t discover how accurate Buchan’s account is of Hannay’s fictional division holding the line outside Amiens, but the stress and anxiety and the detail of reinforcements and the terrible casualties and the high stakes make for a genuinely gripping climax to an otherwise chaotic and exhausting novel.

Related links

Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

%d bloggers like this: