The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

There is full many a man that crieth “Werre! Werre!”
That wot full litel what werre amounteth.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, captured in France on campaign with Edward III in 1359 and ransomed – with a contribution of £16 from the king)

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

The Hundred Years War did not last a hundred years, it was really a sucession of conflicts between successive kings of France and England which are generally agreed to have started in 1337 and trundled on until a final peace treaty in 1453 (same year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks).

It see-sawed between prolonged periods of war, and long periods of truce

The ‘war’ was periodic, blowing hot and cold, with long periods of peace or truce – for example, there was peace between the Treaty of Brétigny of October 1360 and a new outbreak of hostilities in June 1369, and an even longer lull between 1389 – when Richard II signed a peace treaty with Charles VI of France – and the renewal of hostilities by Henry V and continued by his successors from 1415 until the final collapse of English possessions in 1453. Modern accounts divide the war into three distinct periods of conflict:

  1. Edwardian phase (named for English King Edward III) 1337-1360
  2. Caroline phase (named for French King Charles V) 1369-89
  3. Lancastrian phase (named for the House of Lancaster which came to the throne with Henry IV, and renewed the war at the wish of his son Henry V) 1415-53

What gives the long sequence of battles and campaigns a conceptual unity is that between 1337 and 1453 the King of England made a formal, legal claim to the crown of France. For much of that period successive English kings styled themselves King of England and of France. 

Historical origins of the war

The deep background to the war is of course the fact that William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, and his successors ruled not only England but Normandy and an ever-changing constellation of states, duchies and princedoms scattered round northern France.

It was Henry II who, by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, expanded the northern realm by bringing this huge area of south-west France under ‘English’ rule, thus expanding the so-called Plantagenet Empire to its fullest extent. In this map everything in pink was controlled by the Plantagenet king and amounted to just over half the nominal territory of France.

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

Alas, Henry’s second son, King John, managed to throw away almost all this territory, through mismanagement, bad alliances and military defeats, and his successors – notably Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), and Edward II (1307-27) – lived in the shadow of the loss of the empire’s once-huge extent in France, and made spasmodic attempts to revive it.

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

It was King Edward III, who ascended the throne as a boy in 1327 but then seized power from his guardians in 1330, who took the bull by the horns.

When the French king Charles IV died in 1328 without a son and heir the nobles of France had to decide who to succeed him. Edward’s claim was that he was the son of Isabella, sister to Charles IV. However, the French nobles, understandably, did not want to hand the crown to the English and chose to emphasise that the French crown could not be handed down through the female line – so they chose instead Philip VI, a cousin of the recently dead Charles IV.

Philip’s father had been a younger brother of a previous king, Philip IV, and had had the title Charles of Valois. Thus the throne of France passed to the House of Valois (having previously been the House of Capet).

Edward, only 16 when all this happened, was under the complete control of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who were allies with the French crown, who had indeed needed the support of the French king to overthrow Edward’s ill-fated father, Edward II, and so who made no protest and didn’t promote boy Edward’s claim.

It was only once he had himself overthrown Mortimer and banished his mother, and securely taken the reins of power, only in the 1330s, that Edward III got his lawyers to brush up his claim to the French throne and make a formal appeal for it. But it was, of course, too late by then.

Relations between the two kings deteriorated, and the road to war was marked by numerous provocations, not least when Edward happily greeted the French noble Robert of Artois who had, at one point been a trusted adviser of Philip VI, but then was involved in forgeries to secure the duchy of Artois, and forced to flee for his life.

This offensive gesture led King Philip to declare that Guyenne (another name for Aquitaine, which the English had held on and off ever since Henry II married Eleanor) was now forfeit to Edward i.e. no longer his. This triggered a formal letter from Edward III objecting to the forfeiture of Guyenne, and in which Edward  formally lay claim to the throne of France.

A maze of powers and alliances

Almost any summary of the war is likely to be too simplistic for two reasons. One, it went on for a very long time with hundreds of battles, sieges, campaigns, on land and sea, each of which deserves a detailed account.

But – two – I was also struck by how many kingdoms, dukes and princes and whatnot got involved. Just in the early stages in the 1330s and 1340s, you need to know that Edward sought alliances with the Count of Flanders up in the north-east of France, and also tried to ally with the dukes of Burgundy on the eastern border. He also tried to get on his side the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope. Early on (1341) there was a civil war in Brittany between two claims to the title of Duke of Brittany, one backed by Edward, one by the French, and this degenerated into a civil war which went on for decades. Normandy – once the base of the Plantagenet empire – was, and then was not, allied with Edward.

In other words, France was far more fragmented an entity than the England of the day, and this made for a very complex kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. It’s broadly correct to speak of the king of England trying to secure the crown of France but that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the situation.

And that’s without Scotland. The king of England was always worried about what the Scots were doing behind his back which was, basically, to invade the north of England whenever the king of England was busy in France. It didn’t take much brains for the French to renew a sequence of pacts and alliances with Scotland to provide men and munitions to encourage their repeated invasions, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ which had first been made during the time of the aggressive ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I, in 1295.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Wales and Ireland, which periodically rebelled against English rule, and which required armed expeditions, for example the large army which Richard II led in person to put down Irish rebellion and force Irish chieftains to submit to English overlordship in 1394.

And Spain. Spain also was divided into warring kingdoms and these, too, got drawn into the complex alliances north of the Pyrenees, which explains why, at various moments, the kingdoms of Castile or Navarre became involved in the fighting. Castile, in particular, allied with the French king and provided ships to the French fleets which repeatedly harried and raided ports on the south coast and attacked English merchant shipping going back and forth from Flanders (wool) or Guyenne (wine).

Famous highpoints

For the English the high points are the early, Edwardian phase of the war, featuring the two great battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Poitiers (19 September 1356) where we heartily defeated the French, plus the sea battle of Sluys (24 June 1340) where we destroyed an invasion fleet anchored off modern-day Holland, and the Battle of Winchelsea (29 August 1350) where a British fleet just about defeated a Castilian fleet commanded by Charles de La Cerda.

The Caroline phase 1369-89 marked the slow disintegration of the English position in France, latterly under the unpopular King Richard who, in 1389, signed a long-term peace.

Then, after a very long lull, Englishmen like to remember the Battle of Agincourt in 25 October 1415, fought as part of a prolonged raid of northern France undertaken by King Henry V, but this was just part of Henry V’s sustained campaign to conquer France, which was continued after his early death in 1422 by his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and others, until England had complete control of all Normandy and even Paris.

But this is, of course, is to forget the various achievements of successive French kings during this period, and to underestimate the importance of the fact that France descended into civil war (the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War) from 1407 to 1435, partly because it was ruled by a completely ineffectual king, Charles VI, also known as ‘the Mad’ (1388-1422). It was only because France was completely divided and that we allied with the powerful Burgundians, that we managed to seize and control so much of northern France.

As soon as Philip of Burgundy defected from the English cause by signing the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII and recognising him (and not the English Henry VI) as king of France, the rot set in and the period from 1435 to 1450 marks to steady decline of English landholdings and influence in France, ‘a protracted rearguard action by the English in France’ (p.235).

Famous characters

The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colourful in European history: King Edward III who inaugurated the Order of the Garter, his son the swashbuckling Black Prince, and Henry V, who was later immortalized in the play by Shakespeare. In the later, Lancastrian phase, I was impressed by Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, who took over control of the war and acted as regent to the baby Henry VI, and to the great commander of the day, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, known as ‘Old Talbot’, ‘the English Achilles’ and ‘the Terror of the French’.

On the French side there were the splendid but inept King John II who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; Charles VI who went spectacularly mad; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out – not to mention Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who died aged just 19 but whose legend was to grow enormous.

The war also features walk-on parts from King David II of Scotland, who was captured when the Scots army was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on 17 October 1346, and spent the next 11 years in captivity in England. And Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 who lived up to his nickname, and whose daughter married Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, who thus became heir to the crown of Castile.

And Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, who proved a thorn in the side of the French crown because of ancestral lands he owned near Paris. The deeper you read, the more complex the web of personalities and players becomes.

Seward’s account

Seward’s book is a good, popular account, which includes family trees explaining the complex genealogical aspects of the war and is dotted with black and white reproductions of paintings, tomb effigies and brass rubbings of the main protagonists.

He describes all the military campaigns and diplomatic manoeuvrings behind them. The book includes interesting sections about the arms and ammunition of the day (English longbows versus French crossbows) and brings out the uniqueness of the English tactics which lay behind our early victories, namely the tactic of having mounted archers who were able to ride into position, dismount, and then release volleys of arrows at such a rate (ten per minute!) that the sky turned dark and the attacking French was slaughtered.

But I just happen to have read Dan Jones’s account of the Plantagenet kings and, although Jones’s book is also popular in intent, I felt it gave me a much clearer sense of the machinations going on in English politics at the time. Take the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Once you start looking into this 22 year period, it reveals a wealth of issues which lay behind the two big political crises of 1386–88 and 1397–99. Only by reading the 40 or so pages that Jones devotes to it did I develop a feel not only for why Richard was against war with France and signed the peace treaty of 1389 and married his child bride (Isabella of Valois, aged just seven when she married Richard), but why there continued to be a powerful War Party among the top aristocracy, which continued to promote raids and attacks on France.

Seward conveys some of this, but his account of Richard’s period of the war lacks the depth and detail of Jones’s account – he skims over the first crisis in Richard’s rule without even mentioning the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’, which seized control from the king and oversaw the systematic arraignment for treason and execution of most of his council.

This, I suppose, is reasonable enough if we grant that Seward’s account is focused on the war and deliberately gives no more about the domestic situation of the English (or French) kings than is strictly necessary. But comparison with the Jones brought out the way that it is not a full or adequate account of the period as a whole, and begs the question: how much of the domestic political, economic and social situations in England, France (and the numerous other countries involved, from Scotland and Burgundy to Castile) do you need to understand, to fully understand the Hundred Years War?

What is a full understanding of a historical event or era? Is such a thing even possible?

From what I can see, the fullest possible account of not only the war but all the domestic politics behind it in both England and France and further afield, is Jonathan Sumption’s epic, multi-volume account:

The chevauchée – death and destruction

Instead the main thing that came over for me was the scale of the destruction involved in the war.

Obviously war is destructive but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which the English pursued a deliberate scorched earth policy, a conscious policy of systematically devastating all the land they passed through, as their main military strategy, sustained for over one hundred years.

Some campaigns the English launched had little or no strategic value, their purpose was solely to destroy as many French towns and villages as possible, to loots and burn, to rape and pillage, to steal everything worth stealing and to murder all the inhabitants over really significant areas of France – from Gascony and Aquitaine in the south-west, up through the Loire valley, in Brittany, in Normandy and right up to the walls of Paris itself.

What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during this campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of cattle and of any other goods.’ Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians – men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants – were killed while thousands fled to fortified towns. The English king saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war… (p.38)

Thus:

  • in autumn 1339 English ships raided Boulogne burning thirty French ships, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames
  • in September 1339 Edward invaded into France from the Low Countries, ‘he advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai’
  • in 1339 the pope was so appalled by the ruin the English were inflicting that he sent money to Paris for the relief of the poor, and the envoy who distributed it wrote back a report describing the 8,000 utterly destitute peasants forced to flee their land, and of 174 parishes which had been utterly laid waste, including their parish churches
  • in 1340 Philip’s army invaded Aquitaine and ‘laid waste the vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion’

In 1346 Edward landed with a huge force in Normandy and proceeded to rampage through the countryside.

The following day the king launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards. haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cottages of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants – the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum‘ –  the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy king through his subjects. (p.58)

On this campaign the English burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and Caen. In Caen, after the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill. The desperate townsfolk retaliated by taking to the rooves throwing down bricks and tiles onto the English soldiers, killing several hundred at which Edward went into a rage and ordered the massacre of the entire population, men, women and children. Later persuaded to rescind the order, but the sack lasted three days and some 3,000 townsfolk were murdered. Nuns were raped, religious houses looted, the priory of Gerin was burned to the ground, and so on.

This chevauchée took the army right to the walls of Paris where they burnt the suburbs of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain before retreating northwards and burning the town of Mareuil, along with its fortress and priory.

After the famous victory at Crécy, the English went on to besiege the port of Calais for over a year, which involved the systematic destruction of the entire countryside for thirty miles around.

In 1355 the Black Prince rode out of Bordeaux with a force of 2,600 and carried out a 600-mile chevauchée across Languedoc to Montpelier and almost to the Mediterranean burning as many villages and hemlet as they could, burning mills, chateaux and churches. His forces took by storm and then burned to the ground Narbonne, Carcassone, Castlenaudry, Limousin and many other settlements large and small.

When war broke out in 1369 John of Gaunt led a chevauchée through Normandy, employing mercenaries and criminals. In 1370 the mercenary leader Sir Robert Knolly led a chevauchée through the Ile de Paris, burning and looting villages and towns right up to the walls of Paris, so that the king of France could look out over the burning and devastated landscape surrounding the capital.

In 1373 John of Gaunt led 11,000 men out of Calais on a chevauchée through Picardy, Champagne, Burguny, the Bourbonnais, the Auvergne and the Limousin, ‘cutting a hideous swathe of fire and destruction down central France’ (p.114).

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (p.85)

It is shocking to read that even the ‘great’ Henry V pursued exactly the same policy. The Agincourt campaign was in fact an attempt to take the walled city of Harfleur and then march up to the Seine to capture Paris. This completely failed because Harfleur held out for over a month during which a third of Henry’s expensively assembled army died of disease. Once the town was finally taken he decided to retreat north towards Calais, burning and laying waste to everything in sight, in the by-now traditional English way. Henry is quoted as saying that was without fire was like sausages without mustard.

Indeed Seward is at pains to deconstruct the image of the Shakespearian hero. Seward emphasises the ruthlessness of the young king – a man of ‘ruthless authority and cold cruelty’ (p.154) – and compares him, somewhat shockingly, to Napoleon and Hitler, in his single-minded self-belief, religious fanatacism and obsession with war and conquest. The account of his short reign is quite harrowing, involving the massacre of the entire population of Caen after it fell to an English siege in 1417, and the deliberate starving of the besieged population of Rouen later that year. All his sieges are marked by brutal treatment of the losers.

As late as 1435, when the English began to slowly lose control of their territory, an experienced soldier like Sir John Fastolf suggested that two small forces of 750 men be created who, twice a year, in June and November, would invade a different part of France and burn and destroy all the land they passed through, burning down all houses, corn fields, vineyards, all fruit and all livestock. The aim? To create famine. To starve the French unto submission.

Loot

Throughout this period the main motivation for ordinary soldiers to go and fight was loot. Everything of value in enemy territory was stolen. The English confiscated all the food and drink from every farm they despoiled and then burnt.

In the towns they stole gold, silver, jewels, fur coats. The king took possession of the best spoils and from each chevauchée sent convoys of carts bearing clothes, jewels, gold and silver plate and cutlery and much else lumbering back to the coast and to ships which bore it all back to England.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder (p.81)

In the countryside they took all the livestock and stole all the grain then burned everything else. Many areas took decades to recover. Seward quotes contemporary chroniclers describing mile upon mile of devastated landscape, every building, cottage, manor house and church gutted and burnt to the ground, with no survivors to prune the vines or plough and sow the land, the sheep and cattle all killed and eaten by the English, the roads empty in every direction.

No wonder the English came to be hated like the Devil, like the Nazis were 600 years later.

Mercenaries

A crucial aspect of the war was the employment of mercenaries. Warriors for hire had, of course, existed through the ages. In post-Conquest England they flourished during the Anarchy i.e. the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda from 1135-1153. Later, King John used mercenaries in his wars against the barons in the early 1200s, leading to the hiring of foreign mercenaries being specifically banned by Magna Carta.

But not abroad. The reappearance and flourishing of mercenaries was particularly associated with the Hundred Years War. By the 1340s the English king was finding it difficult to pay his own or foreign troops and license was given to soldiers to ‘live off the land’.

This opened the road to hell, for soldiers, English and foreign, quickly took advantage of the new liberty to a) take all the food and drink from every farm or village they passed b) terrorise and torture the natives to hand over not just foodstuffs but anything of value c) to create protection rackets: pay us a regular fee or the boys will come round and burn everything to the ground. This became known as the pâtis, or ‘ransoms of the country’.

For example, in 1346 the Earl of Lancaster captured Lusignan, a fortress near Poitier. When he moved on he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. One story among thousands.

It is easy, reading the countless examples of blackmail, threat, looting, ravaging, burning, stealing and extorting, to see the entire era as one in which the English and their mercenaries mercilessly terrorised, attacked and looted the French people for over a hundred years. The Hundred Years Extortion.

After the Treaty of Brétigny, signed between England and France in October 1360, which brought the first phase of the war to an end, thousands of mercenaries and low-born vassals, serfs and miscellaneous crooks from  a number of nations, were left jobless. They didn’t want to go back to slaving on the land, so they set up their own mercenary groups.

In French these groups became known as routes and so the mercenaries acquired the general name of routiers (pronounced by the barbarian English ‘rutters’).

But in English they came to be referred to as the Free Companies, ‘free’ because they owed allegiance to no king. The Free Companies included all nationalities including Spaniards, Germans, Flemings, Gascons, Bretons and so on, but collectively the French chroniclers refer to them as ‘English’ because of the terrors the English chevauchées caused throughout the period (p.135).

Many of the routier groups were well organised, with administrative staff, quartermasters, and army discipline. They continued to be available for hire to the highest bidder. One scholar has identified 166 captains of mercenary groups during the period. The largest bands became notorious along with their leaders, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole. Some routier groups even defeated the national armies sent to suppress them.

Many of the leaders became very rich. In an intensely hierarchical society, one of the chief motivations for fighting, for joining up with an army, was the incentive to make money. Really successful mercs were extremely useful to the sovereigns who paid them, and quite a few were given knighthoods and ‘respectability’, allowing them to retire back to England where they built mansions and castles, many of which survive to this day.

For example, plain Edward Dalyngrigge enlisted in the Free Company of Sir Robert Knolles in 1367 and over the next ten years accumulated a fortune in loot and plunder, returning to Sussex in 1377, marrying an heiress and building the splendid Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which is today a peaceful National Trust property. Built with money looted and extorted abroad by a mercenary soldier. Possibly a fitting symbol of this nation, certainly a classic example of the money, power and rise in social status which was possible during the Hundred Years War.

Other examples include Ampthill Castle built by Sir John Cornwall with loot from Agincourt, and Bolton and Cooling castles, as well as Rye House near Ware, built with French money by the Danish mercenary Anders Pedersen, who rose through the ranks of the English army and found respectability as Sir Andrew Ogard MP.

This helps explain the unpopularity of Richard II’s policy of peace with France.

[The English] had been fighting France for over half a century; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from [the Duke of] Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income; if the war had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people… (p.141)

Why are there wars? At the top level, because of the strategic and territorial greed or nationalistic fervour, or simple mistakes, of dim leaders. But if you ask, why do men fight wars, this sociological explanation must be taken into account. It’s because wars are a way of escaping from poverty and being trapped in the lower levels of society and offer the opportunity of escape, foreign travel, adventure, testing yourself as a man, and 1. raising your social status and 2. making money – in the case of the Free Companies of the Hundred Years War, lots of money.

The war was long remembered as a time to rise in the world. The fifteenth-century herald, Nicholas Upton, wrote that ‘in those days we saw many poor men serving in the wars in France ennobled.’ (p.119)

Conclusion

Looking beyond the boys’ adventure aspects of the great military victories, and the supposedly dashing figures of the Black Prince or Henry V, the distraction of the girl saint Joan of Arc (who was burned to death by the English aged just 19), mad King Charles who thought he was made of glass, or the long rearguard action by John Duke of Bedford – it is, I think, difficult for a modern reader not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the deliberate wanton destruction the English visited across huge areas of rural France and the ultimate futility of all those lives wasted, all that treasure expended, all that land and buildings and carefully built farms, manors, churches, priories and so on burnt to the ground. Human folly.

By 1453 all the English had to show for over a century of oppressive taxation, countless deaths and the expenditure of vast fortunes paying for weapons and mercenaries, was to end up pathetically clinging on to tiny little Calais. Meanwhile, France had become unified as a nation and emerged as the strongest state in Europe. And a long legacy of mutual mistrust which, arguably, lasts right up to the present day, as Seward points out in the very last sentences of his book.

France suffered horribly when England escaped unharmed – every local historian in northern and western France will show the tourist a château or a church which was sacked by the English. There is a strong case for maintaining that the origin of the uneasy relationship between the two peoples can be found in the battles, sieges and the chevauchées, the ransoming and the looting, the pâtis, the burning and the killing by the English in France during the Hundred Years War. (p.265)


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Other medieval reviews

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.

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