Erasmus and the Age of Reformation book by Johan Huizinga reviewed by Susannah Rutherglen

Johan Huizinga, the great historian of late medieval culture, was one of those rare figures in the study of ideas whose own stature and sensibility easily matched those of his scholarly subjects. Like Erasmus, his biography of whom has recently been reissued by Phoenix Press, Huizinga was a perpetually discomfited Dutchman, both blessed and tormented by an acute skepticism about the follies of his world, who took refuge in the forms of a beautiful past. Like Jean Froissart, the keen chronicler of French royal intrigue during the fourteenth century, Huizinga was foremost a storyteller and a poet, who allowed his own temperament and feelings to percolate through his historical narratives; and like Froissart’s employers, the kings and dukes of the Burgundian courts, he saw all of life as a form of play, a sublime game acted out according to the rules of tournament and pageant. Most of all, though, Huizinga resembled the artists who populated his stories: the lachrymose Claus Sluter and the sly Pieter Brueghel, the fantastical brothers van Eyck, the bitter poets Deschamps and Villon. Like them, he became a kind of prism of his moment, managing, in an oeuvre comprising narrative, biography, and philosophy, to conjure a single honest vision of two parallel worlds: France and the Netherlands at five centuries’ remove, and his own troubled milieu, that of Continental Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. He saw history, indeed, as the modern world’s only surviving possibility for redemption, “the spiritual form in which civilization might render account of its past.”

Huizinga’s most famous book, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen), did not appear until he was forty-seven years old; he had only lately turned to medieval studies, having spent his youth as a high school teacher and wandering scholar of Indo-Germanic languages. The book came as a surprise, and was poorly received at first. In it, Huizinga took issue with the prevailing view of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries as a time of enthusiastic preparation for the coming Renaissance epoch. “How eagerly the Middle Ages have been scrutinized for evidence of the first sprouts of modern culture, so eagerly that it sometimes must appear as if the intellectual history of the Middle Ages was nothing but the advent of the Renaissance,” he wrote. “In our search for newly arising life it is easily forgotten that in history, as in nature, the processes of death and birth are eternally in step with each other.”

In Huizinga’s view, the late Middle Ages, far from being a time of fervent preparation, as for an upcoming wedding or coronation, were marked by overripeness and imminent decay: a culture in its death throes. The medieval scheme of concepts had lost its vigor, and a profusion of rituals and displays had calcified over it. People passed through life as through a play, adorning their existence with tottering processions, ceremonies, and displays of courtly love. Even the sincere quality of friendship had been elaborated into an immense, wobbling architecture of affected courtesy, which frequently collapsed into “crass rudeness.” This same artifice extended to the painting and architecture of the period, which were pervaded by horror vacui, the fear of leaving a single space unadorned with minutely picked-out designs. Art, like life itself, had become an “endless organ postlude”: an overwrought system of embellishments obscuring finished and expired forms of thought.

Beneath the artifice, Huizinga wrote, life was consumed by sadness, apocalyptic fear, and anxiety about the future. As the poet Eustace Deschamps wrote, the world is “decaying, pitiful, weak, old, covetous, libelous; the end is truly near, all is rotting.” There was no such thing as optimism, or a notion of improving one’s world; the only equipment for dealing with suffering was an apparatus of dreams.

The dimensions of late-medieval despair were, Huizinga admitted, difficult to perceive in the paintings of Jan and Hubert van Eyck—sober, crystalline scenes of an almost uncanny clarity and calm. But he argued that these works presented a falsely rosy view of the life of the time, that they participated in its desire to embellish an inwardly decaying world. Indeed, Huizinga went on to argue, visual art always misleads us in this way: it skews our imagination toward the pastoral and the sumptuous, away from the poor, the painful, and the depressing. “Outside the sphere of art, darkness rules,” he wrote. “In the dire warnings of the preachers, in the tired sighs of the greatest literature, in the monotonous reports of the chronicles and sources, we hear only the cries of motley sins and the lamentations of misery.” The art of the late Middle Ages, far from offering a lens into the true character of the age, describes instead its own aspirations: its attempt “to soften reality in the ecstasy of the ideal,” to make difficult lives bearable by decking them out in fine colors and shades.

In making this extraordinary claim—that the beautiful forms of Burgundian culture were like masks over a moribund civilization—Huizinga betrayed more than his own deep melancholy, his pessimism about the condition of Europe after the First World War. (Writing the book, he said, his eye had been “trained on the depth of the evening sky, a sky steeped in blood red, desolate with threatening leaden clouds, full of the false glow of copper.”) He also, more profoundly, refocused scholarly attention on the form of life as a register of historical change. Purposefully neglecting the basic material facts of existence, Huizinga concentrated instead on the manner in which these facts acquired shape in people’s lives: in their clothes, habits, poetry, meals, travels, and moods. More importantly even, he called attention to the contours of thought, to scholarship and the world of art and letters, not as simple reflections but rather as determining factors of the life of a given moment.

Indeed, the most revolutionary of Huizinga’s arguments—which continues to resonate in current historical studies—was that the vast political and social changes of the past five hundred years had hinged on the status of art. The modern age, he believed, had commenced at the moment when life transformed itself from a work of art into a work of political action. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw human existence as a work of art, a fixed object to be veiled by the dream of beauty. Instead of changing the circumstances of their lives, people adorned them: even the slightest gesture, the shortest speech, the smallest dish or shred of clothing aspired to the refinement of great paintings. By the eighteenth century, he believed, life had metamorphosed into a work of politics: existence had become uncertain and fluid, an aggregate of endlessly varying circumstances which could be affected by the mechanisms of government, education, and individual effort. The birth of political progress in its contemporary sense—the notion of transforming the conditions of reality, rather than robing them in plush colors and textures—corresponded, for Huizinga, to the advent of modernity.

Desiderius Erasmus, the great Reformation scholar and theologian, and the subject of Huizinga’s pendant volume to The Autumn of the Middle Ages, lies poised on the divide between these two ways of life, and embodies the best of each. Although he lived long before the change Huizinga described, he prophesied its arrival, writing again and again of a coming “golden age” in which men would be able to help themselves out of the mire of their theological and worldly desperation. Amidst the tempest of the Protestant Reformation, which he somehow called up in the act of observing, Erasmus saw the germ of a new kind of scholarly thought and action which had the potential to shape the very conditions of life. Rejecting the heroic ideals of the Middle Ages in favor of a pragmatic sensitivity to the facts of experience, he voiced “a heartfelt aversion to everything unreasonable, insipid, purely formal, with which the undisturbed growth of medieval culture had overburdened and overcrowded the world of thought.” In this reaction against the phenomenon chronicled in The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Erasmus belied an uncanny insight into the possibilities of his time. More than any other figure in history, he seems to have perceived and half-created the tidal changes of his own epoch.

Huizinga’s biography, which remains one of the standard works on Erasmus, traces its subject’s life and imagination as they illuminate this vast change in Western culture. But the book is remarkable as much for its air of smallness and familiarity as for its sweep. Huizinga sometimes speaks in the voice of a weary personal assistant, expressing irritation with Erasmus’s personality quirks and bad habits. He was “never a man to make the most of his situation”: he never liked the food or the hardness of the beds, he never had enough time to read, his colleagues were stupid, he hated to travel. And his mind, Huizinga constantly reminds us, was a flawed instrument, which, “in spite of all its breadth and acuteness, did not tend to penetrate deeply into philosophical or dogmatic speculations.” Through all his years of writing and travel, he remained above all “a humanist of aesthetic bias,” whose scholarly inclinations overlay and sometimes completely obscured his religious and moral imagination.

Erasmus was born illegitimately in 1466, in Rotterdam; his parents promptly orphaned him, and he was left to the whim of three distasteful guardians, who disposed of him by forcing him to take monastic vows. In the cloister, he was educated according to the purified tenets of the emerging monastic reform movement, the devotio moderna, but also managed to read extensively in the Latin classics, to paint, and to maintain ardent friendships (whose flames burn in the appended selection of letters). Like Saint Jerome, his hero, Erasmus was always more a philologist than a clergyman. In 1495, he escaped to the University of Paris, an institution poisoned not only with “addled eggs and squalid bedrooms”, but also, equally ominously, with the outdated inquiries of the scholastics. Irritated by the fierce and irrelevant debates of the Thomists and Terminists, Erasmus soon rejected their very terms of conversation. “Those studies can make a man opinionated and contentious; can they make him wise?” he demanded. “They exhaust the mind by a certain jejune and barren subtlety, without fertilizing or inspiring it.”

Against these desiccated forms of thought, Erasmus posited his own, lively, common-sensical but aesthetically informed works of scholarship and rhetoric. His first books, published after a brief but revealing journey to England, were essentially manuals of style: Latin treatises on letter-writing, conversation, and the art of speech. The Adagia, an anthology of ancient allusions, metaphors, and poetic and scriptural allegories to be dipped into at will, transformed Latin from an elitist and irrelevant academic cant into a useful and colorful tool available to any educated man. With it, Huizinga wrote, “the language of the learned approached the natural manner of expression of daily life.” Erasmus rejected the standard works of academic publishers—hastily produced, third-rate tomes meant to be plundered for useful content—and showed that academic books could be palatable experiences in and of themselves. Indeed, he argued, books would acquire life and vigor within the broader contemporary conversation only if they were pleasant to read.

But Erasmus was not concerned with style alone; in fact, he deployed his concise, crystalline expressions as weapons against the very stylization and excess pervading the world around him. Works such as the Colloquies, the Enchiridon, and his ironic masterpiece, The Praise of Folly, expressed sharp dissatisfaction with the empty forms of life and religious observance then current. As Erasmus voiced his distaste for the spiritual vacancy underlying the Church’s armature of rituals, he developed his own, aesthetically motivated concept of theological purity and order: “that passionately desired, purified Christian society of good morals, fervent faith, simplicity and moderation, kindliness, toleration and peace”—a renovated theology which inevitably echoed the classical forms of the Ancients.

Erasmus’s call for an end to the ills pervading contemporary religion resonated widely; he was, indeed, the first modern public intellectual, whose thoughts had tangible effects on the existing political and social order. “There really was a time,” Huizinga writes, “when it must have seemed to him that the world hinged on him.” During his prime, Erasmus seems to have travelled a perpetual award circuit, skirting the boundaries of Europe to advise kings, princes, and popes; his books were among the most widely read and distributed on the continent. In large part, of course, this influence was due to his astute manipulation of the printing industry. But it also arose from his conviction that the measure of thought was its relevance to universal concerns, its capacity for elucidating and improving the condition of the world. In this revolutionary belief lay the seeds of “life as politics”: the notion that thinkers had the power not only to reflect upon but also to change the circumstances of existence.

But in a sense, according to Huizinga, Erasmus’s efforts in this direction worked too well. His scholarly works resonated in the world beyond, but not in ways which the thinker himself would have predicted or wanted. Erasmus persistently failed to see the true dimensions of the Reformation, perceiving it as an uncontroversial scholarly movement rather than an upheaval of grand historical dimensions. How, he wanted to know, could the Church fathers possibly oppose purifying corrupt texts? Who wouldn’t want to get back to the pure roots of Christian theology? In seeing the Reformation as purely a philological issue—a problem for the scriptorium and the study, not the door of Wittenberg cathedral—Erasmus erred tragically. It is illuminating and painful to read the story of his friendship and subsequent painful break with Martin Luther, a gifted political thinker who desperately and vainly tried to convey to Erasmus the import of his own scholarship.

In the end, then, Erasmus was one of those great minds who failed to learn the lessons of his own achievement: he was, always, “never a man to make the most of his situation.” Instead, he left the task of elaborating the new way of thought he had invented to the age that surrounded and followed him. His influence was extensive rather than intensive; he was “a precursor and preparer of the modern mind,” who, in his criticism of and cynicism about the world in which he lived, saw the very means for its renewal. To him we owe, more than anything, the simultaneous thrill and curse of self-consciousness about the problems of culture.

What did Huizinga, himself such a profound thinker about culture, make of Erasmus’s achievement in relation to his own? “Regarding my biography of Erasmus, many people have expressed the view that here was a man after my own heart,” he wrote. “As far as I can tell, nothing could be farther from the truth for, much though I admire Erasmus, he inspires me with little sympathy and, as soon as the work was done, I did my best to put him out of my mind.” This disavowal, however convincing, is also tantalizing: Erasmus would have said exactly the same of his intellectual hero, Saint Jerome. In the end, it is hard to see Huizinga’s beautiful book as anything less than a paean to the very spirit of Erasmus’s inquiry and aims.

Indeed, the trajectory of Huizinga’s own thought parallels that of his predecessor. In 1936, a few years before the Nazis closed the University of Leiden and took him prisoner, Huizinga wrote a long book about the plight and impending doom of the contemporary world. In the Shadow of Tomorrow, which began with the words, “We are living in a demented world,” paralleled Erasmus’s dark satires of the folly of his age; like them, it diagnosed and prophesied contemporary forms of moral, religious, and aesthetic deterioration with dark precision. In a conscious echo of his forerunner, Huizinga described the book as “a diagnosis of the spiritual distemper of our time.” Perhaps more overtly than any of his other works, In the Shadow of Tomorrow positioned Huizinga in the great tradition of cultural thinkers, Erasmus foremost, whose deep melancholy about the state of the world in which they lived was tempered by the historian’s spirit: a mysterious and unbreakable belief in a coming “golden age,” studded with the promises of the past. Huizinga himself, in the book’s preface, gave us reason to see such a future. “It is possible that these pages will lead many to think of me as a pessimist,” he wrote, less than a decade before his death in internment. “I have but this to answer: I am an optimist.”