… but the clouds… by Samuel Beckett (1977)

but the clouds… is a short play by Samuel Beckett written expressly for television. It was written in English from October to November 1976, first televised on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977, and published by Faber and Faber later the same year.

By this stage in his career, Beckett’s stage directions for his plays had become super-schematic, so much so that they beg the question whether the works can really be referred to as plays at all, in any conventional sense. This one consists of about a page and a half of detailed stage instructions followed by barely three and a half of action and dialogue, of which the actual dialogue takes up less than half the space. It is a play – if it is a play at app – overwhelmingly, of silent movements.

The stage instructions list six elements to the piece and it is symptomatic that the one and only human in the piece is placed on the same level as camera setups and a disembodied voice:

  1. M – Near shot from behind of man sitting on invisible stool bowed over invisible table. Light grey robe and skullcap. Dark ground. Same shot throughout.
  2. M1 – M in set. Hat and greatcoat dark, robe and skullcap light.
  3. W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.
  4. S – Long shot of set empty or with M1. Same shot throughout.
  5. V – M’s voice.

The directions go on to describe the set.

Set: circular, about 5 m. diameter, surrounded by deep shadow.

And, typically for Beckett, he provides a simple but very precise diagram.

Diagram of the camera angle and stage positions for ‘…but the clouds…’

The four cardinal points of the circle are numbered and given names, thus:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

With number 5 indicating the position of the camera.

The play stipulates four ‘changes’ which require the performer to turn or walk into the shadow in each direction, or emerge from the shadow. And the lighting? As so often with Beckett, it plays with the bare minimum effect you can achieve on a stage, which is the spectrum from black to light via gloom and shadow. No colours.

Lighting: a gradual lightening from dark periphery to maximum light at centre.

This focus on the minimalist use of light and shadow echoes the lighting in Footfall, which was brightest at feet level, emphasising the pacing feet, and then tapered off so the body and face were in shadow or darkness.

And the obsessive precision doesn’t let up with the end of the initial stage set-up. The three and a half pages of the actual shooting script consist of precisely 60 detailed instructions for changes of lighting or shot. Less than half the text is actual speech. Over half of these directions are one-line shot directions. Here’s the first eight. Note how actual speech – V, the voice of the bowed man, M – are only 3 of the 8 lines:

  1. Dark. 5 seconds.
  2. Fade up to M. 5 seconds.
  3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in –
  4. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in at and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 2 seconds.
  5. V: No
  6. Dissolve to M. 2 seconds.
  7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in –
  8. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in hat and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 5 seconds.

28 words of speech to 64 of directions. Most of the speech is this minimal, although, as mentioned above, the sequence of relatively short, one-sentence directions is interspersed at intervals with longer descriptions of the four ‘changes’. Here’s the first ‘change’, direction number 25:

  1. Dissolve to S. empty. 2 seconds. M 1 in robe and skullcap emerges from north shadow, advances five steps and stands facing camera. 2 seconds. He turns left and advances five steps to disappear in east shadow. 2 seconds. He emerges in hat and greatcoat from east shadow, advances five steps and stands facing West shadow. 2 seconds. He advances five steps to disappear in west shadow. 2 seconds.

In fact, I counted the whole thing and if we include the 60 numbers and various other numbers (the ‘2’ in ‘2 seconds’ etc) as words, then the entire piece contains 1,093 words, of which 448 (40%) are spoken and 645 (60%) stage directions.

The spoken text

Going a step further, we can extract all the spoken words, thus, to see what kind of sense they make when extracted from the carapace of stage directions. Doing this makes it easier to spot the repeated phrases, the dogged repetition of certain key words or phrases being Beckett’s central technique.

3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in
5. V: No
7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in
9. V: Right. Came in, having walked the roads since break of day, brought night home, stood listening, finally went to closet
11. V: Shed my hat and greatcoat, assumed robe and skull, reappeared
13. V: Reappeared and stood as before, only facing the other way, exhibiting the other outline, finally turned and vanished
15. V: Vanished within my little sanctum and crouched, where none could see me, in the dark.
17. V: Let us now make sure we have got it right.
19. V: Right.
21. V: Then crouching there, in my little sanctum, in the dark, where none could see me, I began to beg, of her, to appear, to me. Such had long been my use and wont. No sound, a begging of the mind, to her, to appear, to me. Deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased. Or of course until –
24. V: For had she never once appeared, all that time, would I have, could I have, gone on begging, all that time ? Not just vanished within my little sanctum and busied myself with something else, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing? Until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads.
26. V: Right.
28. V: Let us now distinguish three cases. One: she appeared and –
31. V: In the same breath was gone…. Two: she appeared and –
33. V: Lingered… With those unseeing eyes I so begged when alive to look at me.
35. V: Three: she appeared and –
37. V: After a moment
38. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.
47. V: Look at me.
49. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…‘  V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
50. V: Speak to me.
52. V: Right. There was of course a fourth case, or case nought, as I pleased to call it, by far the commonest, in the proportion say of nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two, when I begged in vain, deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased, and busied myself with something else, more … rewarding, such as … such as … cube roots, for example, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing, that MINE, until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, void my little sanctum, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads… The back roads.
54. V: Right.
57. V: ‘…but the clouds of the sky…when the horizon fades…or a bird’s sleepy cry…among the deepening shades…’

The Gontarski production

So what do all these detailed instructions look like in practice? This is a production directed by Stanley E. Gontarski, the noted Beckett scholar.

Several points arise.

1. One is that the Gontarski production uses music, quite prominent modern music and musical sound affects such as the single penetrating note when the image of the woman appears. None of this is justified by the directions.

2. The second is that the precision of the circular set and the precise imagining of the man moving from one cardinal point to another are completely lost in a TV or film production, because we are all used to basic movie or TV technique, namely the camera’s point of view jumping all over the place, from one angle to another, from long shot, aerial shot, slow-mo, close-ups and what-have-you. So we have little or no sense of the man moving carefully from one point of the compass to another as indicated in the stage directions. He just seems to be moving in and out of darkness.

In this respect, the directions are very much conceived as stage directions, based on the notion of a fixed and unmoving audience point of view – and do not translate very well into the much more flexible medium of television/film.

3. Another is that the meanings Beckett attributes to the four points of the compass in his stage directions:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

Only come out with great subtlety if at all. Nobody watching the piece would know that when the main figure goes to the shadowy position off to the left of the set, this is ‘1. West, roads’. The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett suggests that these later plays are ‘post-literary’ in the sense that simply reading them is not enough, you have to see them in production to grasp the meaning. But I think this is incorrect in two respects. One, anyone who’s ever made any film or TV can tell you that a shooting script is just as ‘post-literary’, in the same sense, that it’s just a set of instructions for creating a final programme or movie.

But, secondly, these late playlets do in fact demand to be read, precisely so that you can enjoy the precision and mathematical numeration of their layout. Rather than being ‘post-literary’, they are in fact a new kind of literary, a new genre, a super-precise, over-enumerated, computer readout style of playwriting, which Beckett took to an extreme, and which has a mechanistic flavour and pleasure distinct to itself.

4. Lastly, an actual visualisation like this brings out what is easy to overlook when reading the text, which is the sudden appearance of those images of the woman:

W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.

When you read the text, the importance of the woman is easy to overlook because she has no physical presence and doesn’t do anything or say anything. But in the produced film – well, in this one at any rate – the woman has a striking, almost dominating, presence and really brings out the male narrator’s abject submission to her, or the memory of her.

5. And her visual dominance rises to a climax at the two times when we see her face mouthing the words and the male voice speaking them:

‘ …clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…but the clouds…’

These are genuinely spooky. The superimposition of one person’s mouth mouthing words while another person’s voice actually articulates then is genuinely creepy, like a sci fi nightmare, a tale of possession and dispossession.

Themes and interpretations

W.B. Yeats

The title of the piece and those short phrases which the woman mouths and the narrator speaks, are all from the end of a poem, The Tower, by the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come –
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath –
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

The poem expresses an attitude of detachment associated with Eastern philosophy. The poet will deliberately mould his soul in such a way as to be a tower amid the human chaos, so utterly schooled in a philosophy of detachment that every aspect of human life, all its trials and tribulations, will seem but the clouds in the sky, faraway and transient.

With this in mind we can see how the play enacts a dynamic tension, between a man who is trying to attain this level of detachment, to rise above himself and his own petty concerns – but who is quite clearly still in thrall to the image and memory of the woman who, we deduce, he has loved and lost. He is trying to escape from the world – but repeatedly dragged down into it by his own passions and longing.

It is, therefore, despite all the alienating and mechanical modernist trappings, a love story; or a story of lost love, of a man haunted by his lost love and making up all manner of mechanical and mathematical protocols to try and smother and control his hurt.

Endlessly trying to complete a narrative

In countless plays and prose texts since The Unnamable Beckett protagonists have struggled to complete a narrative – in order to achieve completion and closure, in order to get it right, so as to define and understand something, so as to be able to move on.

But they never can. The circle is never complete, the story is never told. My favourite example is the radio play Cascando in which the Voice endlessly restarts and tries to complete one single anecdote about a man who wakes, goes down to the sea, and launches a dinghy… but the Voice can never quite complete the tale or get it right, despite trying, over and over.

Presumably this is easily enough identified as an allegory on ‘the human condition’ – permanently trying to complete, finish and understand our lives and what we’ve done, forever condemned not to be able to.

And so this short play appears to be another iteration of the same basic idea, with the man saying:

39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.

Unaware or not acknowledging that he’s going to have to keep ‘running through it again’, forever.

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett makes the canny point that the narrator is split in two, into M and M1, because he is directing himself. It is M who is directing his puppet self, ‘M in set’, to try and achieve the ‘right’ result.

This insight sheds light on many of Beckett’s texts, which are routinely divided between a kind of doing protagonist and a consciousness protagonist, between the self doing and the self commenting on the self doing. This insight suggests that all these texts are, in a sense, plays, in which the observing commenting self is endlessly directing the actor self, rehearsing the scene or sequence over and over again till he gets it right. But he can never get it right, only fail again, fail better.

The meaning of numbers

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, reading the obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, was a revelation because in it Beckett writes about the boy protagonist that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble…Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview, and explains the deeper meaning of his mechanical way of conceiving of the human body, human nature and, above all, the mechanical, rote movements of human bodies, as described in his numerous prose texts, plays and mimes.

Yes, they fall in with the avant-garde tradition dating from Dada of viewing human beings as robots, automata, and this aspect of his work has a strong anti-humanist intention.

But Heard In The Dark 2 reveals that the obsession with numbers also has a very personal psychological meaning for Beckett. It is comforting. It is reassuring. It was a help in times of trouble to the boy and young man, and it is a similar ‘help’ in all his adult fictions.

This piece is no exception and it comes as no surprise when the narrating Man says that, when his desperate pleas to the woman meet with failure – then he busies himself with other things, with something:

more…rewarding, such as…such as…cube roots, for example…

It is no surprise that he categorises the woman’s appearances into four types. It is no surprise that he has worked out the relative proportions in which these cases arise.

This obsession with numbers (and also with enumerating every possible permutation of basic human movements such as infest the experimental novel Watt), this obsession underpins everything Beckett wrote, and especially the plays, which, as we pointed out at the start of this review, became by the mid-1970s, increasingly obsessed with numbers in their apparatus (the stage directions) and in their onstage actions (the actor’s precisely specified movements) and in the text, the actual words spoken. Three levels. Thus:

  1. The superprecise description of the set and the precise numbering of the 60 stage directions.
  2. The superprecise description of the four pieces of onstage activity, the so-called ‘changes’ between one part and the next
  3. The numerical content of what M actually says, namely the enumeration of the four ‘cases’ and then his assessment of the proportion of these ‘cases’, nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two…’, the cube roots and so on

What is the consoling nature of numbers? Well, numbers give the appearance of meaning, even when there is none. They belong to a world of reassuringly objective truth and consistency. In this short piece the psychological reassurance they provide is linked to the voice’s repeated description of himself seeking out his ‘inner sanctum’, ‘where none can see him”, where he crouches and hides away, busying himself with…the consoling power of numbers.

Let’s look at those four cases more closely. M enumerates four possibilities:

  1. the woman appears and instantly leaves
  2. she appears and lingers
  3. she appears and speaks Yeats’s words
  4. she does not appear at all whereupon the narrator busies himself with consolatory activities such as cube roots

In this respect, numbers are like a replacement for religion, which Beckett appears to have long since abandoned. They are a lucid, rational, objective system which can be used to give logic, order and meaning to what are, otherwise, the utterly meaningless actions and the hopelessly unfulfillable hopes of the human animal.

Trudging

Beckett characters walk a lot. Well, trudge might be a better word. Trudge endlessly across bleak landscapes as in Fizzle 8, or as with Pozzo and Lucky endlessly circling round their little world in Godot, or the 120 lost souls traipsing around inside their rubber cylinder in The Lost Ones.

Walking is a basic element of the profoundest, deepest allegorical fictions in literature, from Dante walking through hell and purgatory to Pilgrim walking through the allegorical landscape of Pilgrim‘s Progress.

In Beckett, however, walking is deliberately reduced, humiliated, to trudging, round in a circle, or shuffling forward bent painfully over like the old man in Enough.

Here the male figure, when all else fails, has no other recourse except to take his hat and coat, issue forth again and take to the roads, a phrase repeated four times, to walk the roads, the back roads, trudging and traipsing without hope or consolation…


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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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