A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or A history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell. Written for a popular audience, then.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neighbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. Three sequels were released, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known mainly for light comic roles, was widely opposed by comicbook fans, who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were widely seen as a triumph, and made stacks of money ($411 million and $266 million, respectively).

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies during the 1980s and 90s, which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, the steadying presence of two top-class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune ($296 million)
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) and led to a number of successful television spin-off series

The X-Men movies played an important role in creating the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit.

This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then.

The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of expanding popular culture, twentieth century history, and the evolving media of radio, TV and film – all told in a light, accessible prose style with a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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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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