Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages
Johan Huizinga (p. 1) introduces his portrait of life, thought, and art in fourteenth and fifteenth century France and the Netherlands by stating that 500 years ago, "all events had much shaper outlines than now." Throughout his text, Huizinga explores the nature of the passion that shaped and informed virtually every aspect of life in what turned out to be the final years of the Medieval period. As Europe stood poised on the brink of a great humanistic Renaissance, the quality of Medieval life was firmly directed toward Huizinga (p. 37) calls "the path of the positive improvement of the world." Permeating the discussion in the text is the belief that for the vast majority of people in the Middle Ages, it was the belief in God that centered all dreams and aspirations, shaped all human interactions, and created a lens through which the good and the bad of the world could be filtered.
A new spirit began to stir at the end of the Medieval period, says Huizinga (p. 41), but there remained "in principle, still only the old choice between God and the world: the total rejection of all the splendor and beauty of earthly life or a daring acceptance of it that ran the risk of harming the soul." A central theme addressed throughout the entire text is that of religion, which Huizinga clearly identifies as running powerfully throughout all threads of human existence and enterprise.
In the Middle Ages, religion was not something that one did on Sunday. Rather, it encompassed virtually every aspect of daily life, shaping art and the ambitions of artists, establishing the patterns of social interaction, defining what could and could not be written about, and also creating a system in which human beings understood themselves as God's creatures and not as fully autonomous actors. In both France and the Netherlands, the connections of the people of the Middle Ages with God were taken a...