Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Tragedy, Pathosformeln and Politics of Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages



[1] Although Johan Huizinga and Aby Warburg shared interests in symbol, art, emotions, anthropology and the Renaissance, Huizinga engaged little with Warburg’s ideas (Strupp 2000: 95; Krumm 2010: 193-194). Huizinga was familiar enough with Warburg’s work by 1903 to receive a letter from André Jolles that mentions the German-Jewish art historian in passing (Huizinga 1989-1991: vol. 1, 58; Strupp 2000: 95). However, Huizinga only wrote about Warburg thirty years later, when he published a review of Warburg’s posthumously published collected works. While this review praises Warburg, it also articulates Huizinga’s reservations. He claimed ‘there remains something tragic, something of unachieved development, about the figure of Warburg [er aan Warburg’s figuur iets tragisch, iets van niet bereikte ontplooiing]’ (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 4, 559).[1] Huizinga defines this tragic quality by stating that: ‘In short, Warburg has no style [Kortom Warburg heeft geen stijl]’ (ibid.). While Warburg’s vision of cultural history is replete with detail, it lacked style in that it never generates an overall image or form: a ‘Gestalt’ (ibid.).

[2] Huizinga’s critique of Warburg resulted from a key difference in their respective analyses of form. Warburg used the term Pathosformeln for visual formulae for expressing emotion that originated in antiquity and that have been transmitted across periods and cultures (Warburg 2009: 280-281). Similar to the dyadic structure of the concept ‘Pathosformel’, Huizinga regularly compounded the idea of ‘forms’ [vormen] with an idea expressing inner principle, thought or life: the subtitle of Autumntide stating that it is a study of ‘levens- en gedachtenvormen [life- and thought-forms]’. However, whereas Warburg used Pathosformel to trace the movement of images across cultures, Huizinga’s ‘forms’ constructed a synchronic portrait of a period, what he calls a ‘Gestalt’ or ‘style’ in his review of Warburg’s work. Just a few years before this review, he argued that:

The great cultural historians, without any conscious agenda, have always been historical morphologists: seekers of the forms of life, thought, custom, knowledge, art. The more firmly they have determined those forms, the more successful they are.

[De groote cultuurhistorici zijn steeds, buiten elk bewust program om, historische morphologen geweest: zoekers naar de vormen van leven, gedachte, gebruik, weten, kunst. Naarmate zij die vormen stelliger hebben bepaald, zijn zij beter geslaagd]

(Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 7, 77)

Huizinga then uses Burckhardt as an example of such a ‘historical morphologist’, precisely the figure he later compared to Warburg in his review. Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance was ‘a great pictorial and form-giving whole [een groot beeldend en vormgevend geheel]’; in contrast to Warburg who, despite having ‘seen great forms and connections [hij heeft de groote vormen en samenhangen gezien]’, when it came to producing an overall image, ‘he hardly even tries [hij poogt het ook nauwelijks]’ (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 4, 559).

[3] It was in a book Huizinga wrote as a counterpoint to Burckhardt’s work that he first articulated his misgivings about cultural perspectives that, like Warburg’s, he believed failed to produce a coherent ‘style’ or ‘form’. Huizinga’s Autumntide of the Middle Ages (1919) argued that the Franco-Burgundian north of the fifteenth century, in contrast to Burckhardt’s vision of Renaissance Italy, witnessed not the emergence of the modern period but rather the dying stages of medieval culture (Rydin 2021: 732-733). Considering that Burckhardt’s view on the Renaissance acts, for Huizinga, not only as a counterpoint to Autumntide but also to his reading of Warburg, it should not be surprising that Huizinga’s description of outmoded forms in Autumntide also prefigures his reading of Warburg’s supposed lack of style. For instance, courtly and chivalric ceremony was so profuse with pomp that ‘the style broke down [Hier nu brak de stijl]’ (Huizinga 2020: 378-379 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 316]). Similarly, he describes late medieval thought as ‘the overfilling of the mind with an infinite system of formal representations [de overvulling van den geest met een oneindig systeem van formeele verbeeldingen]’ and adds ‘this, too, is the essence of the art of that age. It strives to leave nothing unformed, nothing undepicted or unembellished [dat is ook het wezen der kunst van dien tijd. Ook zij streeft ernaar, niets ongevormd, niets onverbeeld of onversierd te laten]’ (Huizinga 2020: 370 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 312]). While, for Warburg, some Pathosformeln could become clichéd and ineffective (Port 1999: 9), in Autumntide such obsolescence characterised late medieval levens- and gedachtenvormen as a whole.

[4] Huizinga’s description of Warburg as a ‘slightly tragic figure’ in that he ‘has no style’ results from his broader belief that to pay attention to detail to the detriment of the whole is a sign of spiritual and cultural decline. In what follows, I will demonstrate that this description of Warburg’s research as lacking style was symptomatic of how Huizinga was influenced by the history of tragic philosophy in the German Enlightenment, and such tragic philosophy also informs his analysis of the late medieval and Renaissance north. Notably, Huizinga’s description of the ‘hollow and superficial character [holheid en oppervlakkigheid]’ of late medieval ‘formalism’ bears strong parallels with Hegel’s conception of the unhappy consciousness as hollow, devoid of content, and consequently superficial and unserious (Huizinga 2020: 349 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 293]). I will show that Hegel developed these ideas in his account of Greek tragedy and late antiquity, that there are strong parallels between Hegel’s descriptions of this culture and Huizinga’s account of the late Middle Ages, and that Huizinga expressed admiration for Hegel’s theory of tragedy.  

[5] Ironically, despite the shortcomings Huizinga perceived in Warburg’s research, this analysis of Huizinga is a Warburgian one in that it reads his concepts of ‘forms’ and ‘play’ as ‘literary Pathosformeln’ (Port 1999: 39). Ulrich Port coined this term to redefine Warburg’s concept of Pathosformel as a literary category, because its juxtaposition of concepts denoting inner emotion (Pathos) and its expression (formula) was adapted from the ‘philosophy of tragedy’, that is, the reception of ancient tragic literature and rhetoric in the German Enlightenment (Port 1999: 8, 29, 41). While Huizinga has also been studied in relation to his reception of German scholarship (Krumm 2010: 99-100, 115-155; Wilm 2012: 149-153; Krul 1990: 226-228), there has been no focused analysis of how his ideas relate to the tragic tradition in German philosophy (for instance, Huizinga is not mentioned in Billings 2014; Young 2013; or Krell 2005). However, such an analysis demonstrates that Huizinga concepts of ‘forms’ and ‘play’ are literary Pathosformeln: these concepts are derived from the German Enlightenment’s engagement with ancient tragedy, and Huizinga’s use of them prefigures his tragic reading of fifteenth-century Franco-Burgundian culture.

[6] This analysis not only addresses how Huizinga conceptualised life and emotion during the fifteenth century, but also his reaction to his own time. In 1933, Huizinga incurred the ire of the University of Leiden’s governors and sparked a diplomatic confrontation between the Netherlands and Germany by dismissing a German delegate to an international student conference for having published an anti-Semitic pamphlet. Lionel Gossman has tried to understand Huizinga’s motivations for this action by looking to his theories on the relationships between ‘play’, politics and violence that he articulated in the years that followed the affair (Gossman 1997: 426-431). I will instead argue that Huizinga first articulated these political ideas in Autumntide in his analyses of chivalric violence and witch crazes. In this text, these arguments combine ideas from Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s ideas on tragedy. Whereas Hegel shows that tragedy can lead to insincerity, Nietzsche showed Huizinga how violence and barbarism can ensue from this insincere cultural condition. The combination of these ideas in Huizinga’s reading of fifteenth-century Burgundian culture not only gave him the conviction to act according to his conscience during the 1933 student conference, but also the hope that such actions are worthwhile. For Huizinga, the affirmation of morality could contribute to a renaissance in his own time, a collective ‘catharsis’, that would deliver society from the tragic present.   

1 Form and Play as Literary Pathosformeln

[7] Huizinga seems to have admired Hegel’s understanding of tragedy. In his 1924 book on Erasmus, Huizinga makes the following comment on Erasmus’s conflict with Luther: ‘Dr. Murray rightly reminds us of Hegel’s saying that tragedy is not the conflict between right and wrong, but the conflict between right and right [R.H. Murray herinnert hier terecht aan het woord van Hegel, dat de tragedie niet is het conflict tusschen recht en onrecht, maar dat tusschen recht en recht]’ (Huizinga 1984 [1924]: 164 [Huizinga 1948-1953, vol. 6, 156]; the quotation was adapted from Murray 1920: 226). While this contact with Hegel is thin, it being a secondary reference, clearly this idea appealed to Huizinga. Dropping the mention of Murray, he repeats the quote as Hegel’s directly the next year in a review of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan (Huizinga 1925: 111-112). Across his oeuvre and his correspondence, these are the only substantial mentions Huizinga gives to Hegel, indicating that the idea that tragedy was a conflict between recht en recht struck a chord with his own thought.

[8] Hegel’s theory of tragedy as the conflict between two valid imperatives would have appealed to Huizinga because, like the dual structure evident in the Dutch historian’s concepts of levens- en gedachtsvormen, it relied on a distinction between the life and thought of a community on the one hand and the manifest forms of such life and thought on the other. In The Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Right, Hegel argued that the narrative of Greek tragedy was a conflict between individual morality and the laws of the state (Hegel 2008: 148, 169; Hegel 1977, 445-446; see also Williams 2012: 121). Here, I will show that this conceptual division between the inner spirit and outer forms of culture led both Huizinga and Hegel to describe a condition whereby sadness and melancholy mixes with insincerity and superficiality. This condition, which for Huizinga is one whereby ‘play’ mixes with seriousness, will later be shown to be essential to his analysis of 1930s Europe.

[9] Both Huizinga and Hegel imagined the possibility of a society’s spiritual values and its external cultural forms becoming united. In Autumntide, such unity created what Huizinga’s called a ‘beautiful life [het schoone leven]’, one where ‘art is still absorbed by life [De kunst gaat in dien tijd nog op in het leven]’; where ‘life is set in strong forms [Het leven staat in sterke vormen bepaald]’; and a world in which ‘Life’s labours and joys all have their fixed forms: divine worship, knighthood and courtly love provide the most momentous forms of life [‘s Levens werken en vreugden hebben alle hun vasten vorm: godsdienst, ridderschap en hoofsche min leveren de gewichtigste vormen des levens]’ (Huizinga 2020: 364-365 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 307]). In this beautiful life, the cultural forms adequately and fully manifested the life internal to them, and is most typified by the Renaissance, where ‘art serves life and life serves art as never before [hier dient de kunst het leven en het leven de kunst als nooit te voren]’ (Huizinga 2020: 52 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 43]). Similarly, Hegel claims that ‘ethical life [die Sittlichkeit]’ becomes manifest when the moral behaviour and ideas of a community are fully identified with their formalised laws and customs (Rameil 1981). This occurred in classical Greece where, similar to Huizinga’s world in which ‘art serves life and life serves art’, ‘hallowed custom constitutes the substance of all [worin die Sitte die Substanz aller ausmacht]’ (Hegel 1977: 425 [Hegel 1970: 512-513]). Like Huizinga’s ‘beautiful life’, Hegel too develops the notion of a ‘beautiful soul [die schöne Seele]’, a being which, at least in the final stage of the Phenomenology of Spirit, is the absolute unity of spirit with its externalised forms, a completely non-alienated spirit at home in the world it has produced (Hegel 1977: 483 [Hegel 1970: 580]).

[10] If outer cultural forms and their inner life or ethos can be united, they can also be disunited. The unfortunate thing about Hegel’s beautiful soul is that it is achieved only at the point of divine salvation. In its actual historical moments this soul finds itself to be a contradictory figure, ‘an unhappy – so-called beautiful soul [eine unglückliche sogenannte schöne Seele]’ (Hegel 1977: 400 [Hegel 1970: 483]). This unhappy consciousness is a tragic figure. Hegel characterises it as the spirit of Greek tragedy, defined by the moment when Divine Law – inner spiritual content – has vacated from Human Law, i.e., external custom. The unhappy consciousness has the ‘knowledge of this total loss [das Wissen dieses ganzen Verlustes]’, so that:

Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb. The statues are now only corpses from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone

[das Vertrauen in die ewigen Gesetze der Götter, wie die Orakel, die das Besondere zu wissen taten, verstummt. Die Bildsäulen sind nun Leichname, denen die belebende Seele, so wie die Hymne Worte, deren Glauben entflohen ist]

(Hegel 1977: 455 [Hegel 1970: 457]), translation modified).

Similarly, in Autumntide Huizinga describes the late Middle Ages as:

a hollow renaissance and an idle convention. The surfeit of ceremony and etiquette was intended to cover the inner decay of the life-form. The chivalric idea of the fifteenth century revels in a romanticism that is thoroughly hollow and hackneyed

[een vooze renaissance en een ijdele conventie. De overlading met staatsie en etikette moest het innerlijk verval van den levensvorm bedekken. De ridderlijke gedachte der vijftiende eeuw zwelgt in een romantiek, die door en door hol en versleten is]

(Huizinga 2020: 378-379 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 316]).

Like Huizinga’s ‘hollow renaissance’ comprised of a vacuous chivalric ritual, the unhappy consciousness experiences itself as empty: ‘the hollow object which it has produced for itself now fills therefore with a sense of emptiness [Der hohle Gegenstand, den es sich erzeugt, erfüllt es daher nun mit dem Bewußtsein der Leerheit] (Hegel 1977: 400 [Hegel 1970: 483]). The cultural artefacts of periods in decline for both Hegel and Huizinga are dead elements, hollow forms evacuated of the spiritual life that once breathed through them.

[11] The influence of Hegel on Huizinga might be further evident in how both use seasonal imagery to describe their respective periods of despair. Huizinga describes the mind of the Middle Ages as:

a tree with overripe fruit, fully developed and mature. The rampant growth of old, compelling forms of thought over the living core of the idea, the withering and stiffening of a rich civilisation

[een boom met overrijpe vruchten, algeheel ontplooid en ontwikkeld. Het woekeren van oude, dwingende denkvormen over de levende kern der gedachte, het verdorren en verstijven van een rijke beschaving]

(Huizinga 2020: 3 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 3).

Hegel describes how the classical world becomes, for the unhappy consciousness:

beautiful fruit already picked from the tree…It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, nor the tree that bore them, nor the earth and the elements which constituted their substance….it gives not the spring and summer of the ethical life in which they blossomed and ripened, but only the veiled recollection of that actual world

[vom Baume gebrochene schöne Früchte … es gibt nicht das wirkliche Leben ihres Daseins, nicht den Baum, der sie trug, nicht die Erde und die Elemente, die ihre Substanz … nicht den Frühling und Sommer des sittlichen Lebens, worin sie blühten und reiften, sondern allein die eingehüllte Erinnerung dieser Wirklichkeit]

(Hegel 1977: 455 [Hegel 1970: 548]).

[12] A final parallel between Huizinga and Hegel is how their respective melancholic spirits slide into insincerity. If actual life is removed from the forms and conventions it has inherited, then there could not even be an adequate expression of unhappiness, for such expressions would themselves become meaningless and devoid of feeling. For Hegel, Greek tragedy is superseded by Attic comedy in which the sincerity of lived experienced can only be recouped through ‘irony [Ironie]’, one whereby the actor ‘drops the mask just because it wants to be something genuine [läßt die Maske fallen, eben indem es etwas Rechtes sein will]’, or else appearing ludicrous in attempting to act out roles that no longer have relevance (Hegel 1977: 450-451 [Hegel 1970: 541]). In his later book, Homo Ludens, Huizinga would mirror Hegel’s ideas on tragedy, as here he also describes Greek drama as combining seriousness with play (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 145). But the same condition is also evident in Autumntide when Huizinga describes the movement from the tragic to irony in what he describes as the knightly levensspel:

The later Middles Ages is one of those end periods in which the cultural life of the life of the higher circles has become almost entirely a parlour game. Real life is violent, hard and cruel; one reduces it to the beautiful dream of the chivalric ideal and builds on this the game of life [levensspel]. It is acted out behind the mask of Lancelot; it is a colossal self-deception, but the harrowing falseness of it can be borne, because a hint of irony betrays the home-spun lie. In the whole of knightly culture of the fifteenth century, there is a precarious balance between sentimental earnestness and light-hearted mockery. All of the chivalric concepts of honour and loyalty and noble love are treated with complete seriousness, but now and again straight faces dissolve into laughter.

[De latere Middeleeuwen zijn een van die eindperioden, waarin het cultuurleven der hoogere kringen bijna geheel tot gezelschapsspel is geworden. De werkelijkheid is hevig, hard en wreed; men herleidt haar tot den schoonen droom van het ridderideaal en bouwt daarop het levensspel. Men speelt met het masker van Lancelot voor; het is een reusachtig zelfbedrog, maar de schrijnende onwaarheid ervan kan gedragen worden, doordat een vleug van spot de eigen leugen verzaakt. In de geheele ridderlijke cultuur der vijftiende eeuw is een labiel evenwicht tusschen sentimenteelen ernst en luchtigen spot. Al de ridderlijke begrippen van eer en trouw en edele min worden vol komen ernstig behandeld, doch af en toe ontspant de strakke plooi zich even in een lach.]

(Huizinga 2020: 111 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 91-92])

Similar to how Hegel characterises the movement from tragedy to irony with the image of a ‘dropping of the mask’, so does the ‘mask of Lancelot’ drop in Huizinga’s account of chivalric culture in the fifteenth century as ‘straight faces dissolve into laughter’. Huizinga’s logical movement from the tragic to the insincere is elsewhere evident in his use of the concept of ‘formalism’ to describe the cultural condition whereby manifest forms of culture such as law, knowledge, etiquette, and art expand to the detriment of the spirit or ideas that should inform them. He writes, ‘Stemming directly from the general formalism are those qualities that so often lend a hollow and superficial character to the spirit of the later Middle Ages [Onmiddellijk uit het algemeene formalisme vloeien voort die eigenschappen, die aan den geest der latere Middeleeuwen zoo dikwijls een karakter van holheid en oppervlakkigheid geven]’ (Huizinga 2020: 349 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 292-293]). Not only is formalism hollow, like his ‘hollow Renaissance’ or Hegel’s ‘unhappy consciousness’, but superficial too, and we saw Huizinga use same pairing of ‘hollow’ and ‘hackneyed’ to describe chivalric culture, ‘die door en door hol en versleten is’ (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 316). Like Hegel’s shift from the tragic to the comic, this is history first as tragedy, then as farce. Contra Marx (Marx 2000: 31), Hegel therefore did not forget to mention this double movement of history; neither did Huizinga.   

[13] Huizinga’s concepts of ‘form’ and ‘play’ are literary Pathosformeln, in Port’s terms, not simply because their use has been shaped by Huizinga’s reception of German tragic philosophy, but also because they carry their own emotional charge. Huizinga does not use form simply to demarcate different aspects of Franco-Burgundian culture, but rather to shape them emotionally, describing them as formalised, or as empty form, a condition that conveys both existential dismay, a feeling of having no clear purpose or essence (hol, holheid), as well as superficiality, being form without content (versleten, oppervlakkigheid). Similarly, Huizinga’s concept of play is not simply used in Autumntide as a category for certain forms of human activity, but rather the activity of such nihilistic and insincere formalism, one whereby the distinction between seriousness and playfulness becomes blurred as actual life can no longer be taken seriously.

2 The Heksenwaan

[14] By reading Autumntide as a tragic text, one can better understand Huizinga’s behaviour when he too, like a tragic protagonist, was caught between the law of morality and that of the state. In 1933, Huizinga dismissed a Nazi official from an international student conference. While the motivations for his actions remain unclear, Lionel Gossman has interpreted them in relation to his later writings which articulate an anti-fascist position by arguing that violence and barbarism emerge from cultures that mix seriousness with play. Here, I will show that Huizinga already articulated this position in Autumntide, and as this book was written before the 1933 incident, it provides a better context for understanding Huizinga’s motivations than the texts Gossman draws on, which were written after it.

[15] The International Student Service (ISS) scheduled their twelfth international congress at Leiden University, between the 7th and 12th April 1933. It comprised contingents from England, France, Germany and the Netherlands, and it aimed to develop mutual understanding of the perspectives between these delegates. Johan Huizinga, as the Rector Magnificus of Leiden for that year, acted as the Honorary Chairman. A day before the conference ended, Huizinga had discovered that Dr. Johann von Leers, who was the head of the German contingent and an official of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, authored a pamphlet entitled ‘Forderung der Stunde: Juden raus!’ [‘The call of the hour: out with the Jews’], reprinted the previous month. A section of the pamphlet claimed that Jews were widely reported to abduct children to bleed them to death in murderous rituals (Von Leers 1933: 18-19). In agreement with the Senate, Huizinga, in the presence of another professor, met with von Leers. Von Leers admitted authoring the pamphlet with the proviso that the blood libel claim might be a quote (it wasn’t), and that this belief was also held by the Reich Chancellor and other prominent German officials (Otterspeer 1997: 397). Huizinga expressed the Senate’s ‘deep revulsion and deep contempt [tiefen Abscheu und tiefe Verachtung]’ (Otterspeer 1997: 396-397). He requested that Dr von Leers should leave the university and the student congress was ended a day early.

[16] Willem Otterspeer and Lionel Gossman have noted that Huizinga’s actions cannot simply be attributed to a hard-line position against anti-Semitism and fascism, even if this is how Huizinga’s supporters interpreted them (Otterspeer 1997: 412-417, 435, note 43; Gossman 1997: 425-426). If Huizinga intended to take a principled stand against anti-Semitism, he could have done so before he discovered von Leer’s pamphlet (Otterspeer 1997: 394, 409). On the first day of the conference, the opening Germany position paper claimed that Bolshevism was ‘an alliance between the bestial in men and international Jewry’ (quoted in Otterspeer 1997: 392), and on the third day of the conference von Leers gave a presentation that divided humanity into superior and inferior races, the ‘Nordic race’ being among the superior, and Jews being among the inferior (Otterspeer 1997: 394). Huizinga never objected to these anti-Semitic statements made during the conference; indeed, one reason why the University of Leiden Board of Governors reproached Huizinga for dismissing von Leers was that they believed the latter ‘never uttered an untoward word at the conference’ because this event ‘had been called, among other things, for the purpose of discussing the racial question’ (quoted in Otterspeer 1997: 398). Furthermore, even after the von Leers affair, Huizinga remained open to discussing ideas with Nazis. Only a month after the affair, Huizinga expressed in a letter to Werner Kaegi that he looked forward to corresponding with a young historian who was an active member within the Nazi party (Gossman 1997: 425-426). Finally, a year after the von Leers affair, Huizinga flatly rejected an invitation from his cousin, Menno Ter Braak, to help form a group of anti-fascist intellectuals (Otterspeer 1997: 416). Such refusal confirmed to Ter Braak and others that Huizinga evaded politics in favour of arcane, historical research (Otterspeer 1997: 388, 416). This characterisation of Huizinga has persisted throughout the secondary literature on his work (Lambrow 2021: 821; Anchor 1978: 84-86).

[17] Speculating on Huizinga’s motivations for dismissing von Leers, Otterspeer refers to Huizinga’s ‘professorial ethics’ (Otterspeer 1997: 417), i.e., his duty to defend the academic integrity and dignity of the university. In other words, Huizinga found von Leers objectionable not solely on his anti-Semitism, but also that he would not engage in a good faith discussion on the validity of his ideas (Otterspeer 1997: 414-417). One can extend this analysis by pointing to how, for Huizinga, these ideals could lead to a tragic conflict with those of the state. When defending his actions to the university governors against the accusation that they caused a diplomatic confrontation, Huizinga did so by claiming that a university:

has different standards for matters of honour and dignity than a Government. Even in cases where the latter might be prevented by reasons of state interest or diplomatic manners, the University retains not only the right, but also the duty, to stand up for truth and justice to the best of its ability

[heeft ten opzichte van kwesties van eer en waardigheid andere maatstaven aan te leggen dan een Regeering. Ook in gevallen, waar deze laatste zieh wellicht door redenen van staatsbelang of diplomatieke zede zou laten weerhouden, behoudt de Universiteit niet alleen het recht, maar ook de plicht, om voor waarheid en gerechtigheid naar haar beste weten op te komen]

(Huizinga 1989-1991: vol. 2, 450).

This division between the imperatives of academia and government did not only divide these institutions, but also the ‘life’ of a university from the ‘letter’ of its law. Huizinga adds: 

The law recognises the Rector Magnificus only as President of the Senate. However, it is a secret to no-one that our academic legislation from 1815 has consistently been characterised by an extraordinary lack of recognition and understanding of the element of tradition which is indissolubly linked with the life of a university. Fortunately, that life is not governed solely by the letter of the law. The dignity of the Rector is partly determined by the very old and international traditions associated with that title

[De wet kent den Rector Magnificus enkel als voorzitter van den Senaat. Het is echter voor niemand een ge-heim, dat onze universitaire wetgeving van 1815 af zieh altijd heeft geken-merkt door een buitengewoon gemis aan erkenning of begrip van het ele-ment traditie, dat aan het leven eener Universiteit onverbrekelijk verbonden is. Gelukkig wordt dat leven niet uitsluitend beheerscht door de letter der wet. De waardigheid van den Rector wordt mede bepaald door de zeer oude en internationale traditien aan dien titel verbonden]

(Huizinga 1989-1991: vol. 2, 451).

In sum, Huizinga argued that he was upholding the ‘life’ of the university against the ‘letter of the law’, just as, in Autumntide, he would argue that the life of a culture should be more authoritative than the external cultural forms that can actualise them. Indeed, Huizinga argues that the precedence given to law over life was part of the cultural decline of the late Middle Ages. He notes that, despite the increasing tendency for the intention of written trade agreements to be considered by law courts, ‘traces of far-reaching formalism in lawsuits still abound in the late Middle Ages [De sporen van verregaand formalisme in rechtzaken zijn ook in de latere Middeleeuwen nog voor ‘t grijpen]’, one whereby the written law was considered above its spirit (Huizinga 2020: 348 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 290]).

[18] Gossman develops on Otterspeer’s argument by analysing Huizinga’s theories on play. For Gossman, Huizinga was offended by von Leers ‘not playing by the basic rules of the scholarly or academic game’ (Gossman 1997: 424-425). Such disrespect for ‘basic rules’ had political consequences for Huizinga. In In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1935) as well as in his 1938 book, Homo Ludens, Huizinga criticises the 1932 essay, Der Begriff des Politischen, by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, for construing the ‘foe’ in warfare not as a recognised opponent within a context of mutually recognised rules on how to fight, but rather as a problem to be eradicated (Huizinga 2019 [1935]: 77-79; Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 209). In Homo Ludens, Huizinga articulates this criticism as one whereby Schmitt mistakenly associates war with seriousness rather than with play, thereby eliminating all rules and constraints on warfare (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 209). Gossman argues that similar concerns may have informed Huizinga’s reaction to von Leers. Von Leers could encourage the persecution of Jews by ignoring all rules of academic play, and so Huizinga, in banishing von Leers, stopped the game (Gossman 1997: 426-431).

[19] Gossman admits his argument relies on reading ideas Huizinga formulated in books published after the von Leers affair back onto this incident (Gossman 1997: 426). However, I have shown that Huizinga’s concern for the mixture of play and seriousness is found in Autumntide, first published in 1919. Indeed, in Homo Ludens Huizinga cites the analysis of medieval and early modern tournaments in Autumntide to make the assessment that ‘Fighting, as a cultural function, always presupposes limiting rules, and it requires, to a certain extent anyway, the recognition of its play-quality’ (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 89; see Huizinga 2020: 152-154). The argument Huizinga deploys against Schmitt in Homo Ludens is also developed in Autumntide (see also Lambrow 2021: 825). In this earlier book, Huizinga argues that the play element of warfare breaks down when opponents do not recognise each other as equals. He writes:

It is surprising how chivalry immediately falls short as soon as chivalrousness should be shown to someone who is not one’s equal. As soon as it concerns those of lower standing, there is no longer any need for knightly dignity

[Het is verbazend, zooals de ridderlijkheid onmiddellijk in gebreke blijft, waar zij zou moeten gelden jegens niet-gelijkwaardigen. Zoodra het lageren in stand betreft, ontbreekt elke behoefte aan ridderlijke hoogheid]

(Huizinga 2020: 156 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 123]).

For evidence, Huizinga gives examples of violence the second estate meted out upon commoners, such as how the nobility returned forty grain shippers to the city of Ghent with their eyes removed (Huizinga 2020: 156). Similarly, after his description of tournaments in Homo Ludens, Huizinga argues that the ‘play-quality’ of war is not possible if one side is not recognised as human, but rather ‘devils, heathens, heretics and “lesser breeds without the law”’ (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 90). While he does not mention Schmitt by name in these passages, undoubtedly, he had Schmitt in mind, for he refers to how ‘it remained for the theory of “total war” to banish war’s cultural function and extinguish the last vestige of the play element’ (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 90). This section also anticipates the later part of Homo Ludens, discussed above, where Huizinga attacks Schmitt for justifying barbarity by defining warfare in terms of seriousness rather than play: ‘Schmitt’s brand of “seriousness”’, he writes, ‘merely takes us back to the savage level’ (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 209; De Vugt 2017: 51-53).

[20] In a later part of Autumntide, Huizinga elaborates on his analysis of chivalric conduct in a way that is relevant to his engagement with von Leers: in eliminating play from warfare, chivalry becomes a form of intellectual dishonesty. Because chivalry becomes irrelevant to real warfare, it:

retreats more and more into the sphere of literature, celebration and play; there and only there could the illusion of fine chivalric life be maintained; only there was one among kindred spirits in the only caste where all these sentiments have validity

[Vandaar dat het steeds meer zich terugtrekt in de sfeer van litteratuur, feest en spel; daar alleen was de illusie van het schoone ridderlijke leven te handhaven; daar is men onder elkaar in de kaste, waarbinnen al die sentimenten enkel gelding hebben]

(Huizinga 2020: 156 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 123]).

This illusory and literary quality that chivalry adopts is also a consequence of it mixing seriousness and play. After a lengthy analysis of chivalric rituals, Huizinga considers late medieval credulity, finally asking: ‘did the princes and nobles really take seriously all the bizarre fantasy and spectacle with which they arranged their knightly vows and war plans? [hebben de vorsten en edelen waarlijk ernst gezien in al de bizarre fantazie en vertooning, waarmee zij hun ridderlijke krijgsplannen en geloften aankleedden?]’ (Huizinga 2020: 353 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 296]). Huizinga then puts this question into another framework, questioning whether the knights and nobility could distinguish between seriousness and play: ‘It is extremely difficult, with respect to medieval thought, to distinguish clearly between seriousness and play, between sincere conviction and that attitude of mind which the English call “pretending”’ [Het is uiterst moeilijk, ten opzichte van de middeleeuwsche gedachte de zuivere scheiding te maken tusschen ernst en spel, tusschen oprechte overtuiging en die houding van den geest, welke de Engelschen ‘pretending’ noemen]’ (Huizinga 2020: 353-354 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 296-297]). Both the illusory nature and the brutality of chivalry result from it being a mixture of seriousness and play. These passages from Autumntide are further evidence for Otterspeer’s and Gossman’s thesis that Huizinga objected to von Leers’s academic dishonesty. Gossman in particular points out that Huizinga does not shake von Leers’s hand after their meeting with the Senate, despite doing so before it, because their conversation revealed that von Leers did not necessarily believe the claims in his anti-Semitic pamphlet, its value to him being propaganda rather than historical record (Gossman 1997: 424-425). It is by constructing a fantasy that von Leers could persecute Jewish people.   

[21] These links between Huizinga’s thoughts on play in Autumntide and his response to von Leers becomes stronger when one considers another instance in fifteenth-century culture in which it is difficult ‘to distinguish clearly between seriousness and play’. This example is ‘the dark sphere of belief in devils and witches [de sombere sfeer van het duivelen en heksengeloof]’ (Huizinga 2020: 354 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 297]). There are four aspects of Huizinga’s analysis of this subject that are relevant to the von Leers’s case. First, belief in witchcraft is contrary to critical reasoning, the same charge Huizinga levelled against von Leers’s pamphlet (Huizinga 2020: 354-355). Secondly, just as von Leers’s pamphlet associated Jews with an evil blood ritual, Huizinga claims that the spread of the witch craze was exacerbated because it conflated religious non-conformity with sorcery: ‘the concepts of sorcery and heresy had intermingled [de begrippen tooverij en ketterij vermengd hadden’] (Huizinga 2020: 356 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 300]). Huizinga points out that the word vauderie, which was used for sorcery in fifteenth-century France and Burgundy, had as its origins a term for the beliefs and practices of the Waldensians, the Vaudois, a Christian group that would be persecuted as heretical (Huizinga 2020: 356). Thirdly, just as von Leers intended with Jews, belief in witchcraft, as outlined in Autumntide, led to the punishment and persecution of innocent people, notably in the city of Arras where many of the accused were burned (Huizinga 2002: 356). Finally, comparable with Huizinga’s discovery that von Leers did not necessarily believe the lies he was spreading, in Autumntide Huizinga claims that witch hunters did not need sincere adherents to cause widespread oppression. Huizinga noted that merchants from Arras were widely shunned, even though ‘not one in a thousand’ believed in the accusations made in the city. And within Arras, most people also doubted the accusations: ‘when the victims are forced, at their execution, to recant their evil deeds, the people of Arras themselves are in doubt [Als de slachtoffers bij hun terechtstelling hun euvele daden herroepen moeten, twijfelt het volk van Atrecht zelf]’ (Huizinga 2020: 356 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 300]). 

[22] It is likely that Huizinga communicated to von Leers the Senate’s ‘deep revulsion and deep contempt’ with these ideas about witch hunts in mind. Huizinga would not have forgotten his ideas about witchcraft when he confronted von Leers in 1933. Autumntide was first published in 1919. But between then and the von Leers affair two more editions were published in Dutch (1921 and 1928), three in German (1924, 1928, 1931), two in English (1924 and 1927), one in French (1932), one in Swedish (1927) and one in Spanish (1930) (Small 2020: 570-571). Huizinga helped produce the French, English and German translations, and he also reviewed and revised the text with each successive German and Dutch editions (Huizinga 2020: 5; Small 2020: 568-569). That Huizinga’s analysis of witch crazes informed his reading of Naziism is also evident in a letter he wrote to Ter Braak in 1936. With this letter, Huizinga shared his ideas on fascism with the Committee of Vigilance of Anti-National Socialist Intellectuals, of which Ter Braak was the secretary. Huizinga wrote:

If this Western culture yet rises from the pool into which it threatens to sink, or if, after centuries of decline, a new genuine culture succeeds it, then the extreme nationalism of today will probably be known as one of the strangest and the most deplorable errors of the human spirit, until better named and qualified, an error, in folly and wickedness, to be compared with the witch craze [heksenwaan] which had plagued the Christian world for several centuries

[Indien deze Westersche cultuur zich nog opheft uit den poel, waarin zij dreigt onder te gaan, of wel indien, na eeuwen van verval, een nieuwe echte cultuur haar opvolgt, dan zal het extreme nationalisme van heden waarschijnlijk te boek staan als een der zonderlingste en betreurenswaardigste afdwalingen van den menschelijken geest, die tot beter geroepen en bekwaam was, een afdwaling, in dwaasheid en in boosheid te vergelijken met den heksenwaan, die eenige eeuwen lang de christelijke wereld geteisterd heeft]

(Huizinga 1936).

The word ‘heksenwaan’ used here is the one Huizinga used in Autumntide (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 297, 299, 301). Just as Huizinga drew on his analysis of chivalry in Homo Ludens to formulate his critique of Schmitt, he drew on his knowledge of the witch craze he developed in Autumntide to frame his understanding of fascism in the 1930s. Considering that both chivalry and witch hunts, in Huizinga’s analysis, blurred the distinction between seriousness and play, it seems likely he had his ideas on the heksenwaan in mind when confronting von Leers’s own attempt to instigate a witch hunt.  

3 Huizinga’s Optimism: Hegel contra Nietzsche

[23] There is an aspect of Huizinga’s analysis of medieval chivalry and witch-hunts that cannot have been derived from Hegel. Unlike Huizinga, Hegel did not associate the condition of mixed seriousness and play with unconstrained brutality and violence. In this final section, I will instead argue that Huizinga developed this idea through his reception of a different tragic philosopher, Nietzsche. Huizinga refers to Nietzsche in Autumntide to describe chivalric violence and, in the 1930s, argues that he was a major influence on Carl Schmitt. Furthermore, by opposing Hegel’s ideas on spirit to Nietzsche’s Lebensphilosophie, Huizinga developed an optimistic historical perspective, one whereby the tragic present could be overcome by an emerging period of spiritual renewal.

[24] Nietzsche had a conception of the tragic that was, like Huizinga’s, the result of the merger between seriousness and play. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he describes tragedy as a process whereby the hero is destroyed by the mixture of Dionysian of Apollonian impulses, the former being a primordial force of excess, intoxication and undifferentiated unity, the latter representing rationality, harmony and individualisation. In witnessing the cruelty of the hero being destroyed, the audience of the tragedy have their lives affirmed, encouraged to surpass their own individual constraints by disencumbering themselves of reason (Nietzsche 2007: 51-52, 76-80).

[25] Nietzsche’s position, that a show of strength often requires overcoming rationality, influenced Huizinga’s analysis of late medieval chivalry. In the section of Autumntide I analysed above concerning chivalric violence and witch crazes (Huizinga 2020: 345-355), Huizinga writes:

If, following Nietzsche, we are to assume that “refraining from false judgements would make life impossible”, then it is precisely to such false judgements that the turbulent life, which strikes us in earlier times, can be partly attributed

[Indien men met Nietzsche moet aannemen, dat “der Verzicht auf falsche Urteile” das Leben unmöglich machen würde’, dan kan juist daaraan voor een deel het krachtige leven, dat ons in vroeger tijden treft, worden toegeschreven]’

(Huizinga 2020: 351 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 293-294]).

Huizinga’s adapts this quotation from the fourth aphorism of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: ‘that a renunciation of false judgements would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life [dass Verzichtleisten auf falsche Urtheile ein Verzichtleisten auf Leben, eine Verneinung des Lebens wäre]’ (Nietzsche 2002: 7 [Nietzsche 1999: 18]). Nietzsche’s claim is that the value of a judgement depends not on whether it is true or false, but on the extent to which it extends and strengthens life. Huizinga sees false judgement serving life in Autumntide, adding ‘[i]n every era that demands extraordinary effort from all forces, the false judgement is all the more necessary to steel the nerves [In elken tijd, die een buitengewone spanning van alle krachten vraagt, moet het valsche oordeel in versterkte mate de zenuwen te hulp komen]’, and that the people of the Middle Ages ‘could not do without false judgements of the coarsest kin, which, under the influence of partisanship, reach an unparalleled degree of malice [zij konden geen oogenblik buiten de grofste valsche oordeelen, die onder den invloed van partijgevoel een ongeëvenaarden graad van boosaardigheid bereiken]’ (Huizinga 2020: 351 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 293-294]). Enmity and warfare were a strong cause of such ‘false judgements’. Huizinga’s first example is how the Burgundians exaggerated their military victories over the house of Orléans during the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War.

[26] By associating Nietzsche’s philosophy with warfare and enmity, Huizinga laid the intellectual groundwork for his later confrontation with Schmitt and von Leers. He first considered the belligerent potential of Nietzsche’s thought in 1912, a period when he was still writing Autumntide, when he reviewed the work of the Norwegian historian Christen Collin, and the latter’s claim that German imperialists had appropriated Nietzsche’s notion of a ‘master morality’ to characterise warfare as a normal state of political life (Huizinga 1912: 516-518). In In the Shadow of Tomorrow, Huizinga argued that Nietzsche’s characterisation of war as a normal condition was an influence on Schmitt (Huizinga 2019 [1935]: 80-81). It is therefore unsurprising that Huizinga’s later engagement with Nietzsche in Homo Ludens parallels his critique of Schmitt. Huizinga asserts that, by taking philosophy to a pre-Socratic state, Nietzsche replaced the agonistics of philosophy, whereby debate between adversaries has the aim of achieving a higher truth, to the goal of achieving victory above anything else (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 152). This parallels how he castigates Schmitt for constructing the foe not as a recognised opponent with whom one battles to establish a higher goal (peace rather than truth, in this case), but rather an obstacle to be destroyed by any means (Huizinga 1949 [1938]: 209; Huizinga 2019: 77-80). 

[27] Huizinga used Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy to describe a culture descending into irrationality and warfare. His own political and historical philosophy was closer to Hegel’s which, in its imagination of an unhappy consciousness, posits the potential for a beautiful one. Huizinga even opposed Hegel’s philosophy to Nietzsche’s. In In the Shadow of Tomorrow, he cites Theodor Litt’s Philosophie und Zeitgeist to state that the Lebensphilosophie characteristic of Nietzsche and his followers was contrary to Hegel’s philosophy, in that it is for ‘the will to worldly power, for “existence”, for “blood and soil” instead of “understanding” and “spirit”’ (Huizinga 2019 [1935]: 66). However, while Litt claimed that Hegel’s work reveals limitations in Lebensphilosophie, he did not compare the politics of Hegel and Nietzsche (Litt, 1935: 18-19, 24, 39). Rather than being derived from Litt, Huizinga’s claim that Hegelian ‘spirit’ is contrary to the bare will to human power is an extension of his own perspective: that ceremonies and laws, indeed all forms of play with rules and protocols, should be imbued with, and thus constrained by, sincerely held spiritual content.

[28] This does not entail that Huizinga’s political and historical ideals are identical to Hegel’s. There are differences, a point that was noted by Werner Kaegi, who was Huizinga’s friend and translator. On 7 May 1933, Kaegi wrote to Huizinga to update him on a newspaper article he was writing on the then recent von Leers affair. In the second paragraph of his letter, he wrote:

I believe that Hegel must be seen as the real church father of the Third Reich. If you read a few pages of his Philosophy of Right and still have your article on Burgundy in mind, the contrast is downright provocative and you almost feel it as a symbol that this tiresome story had to happen to you. And the fact that you associated your article with Burckhardt’s name, also creates the direct historical relationship to Hegel and his opponent.

[Ich glaube übrigens den eigentlichen Kirchenvater des dritten Reiches in Hegel sehen zu müssen. Wenn man ein paar Seiten in seiner Rechtsphilosophie liest und noch Ihren Aufsatz über Burgund im Ohr hat, so wirkt der Kontrast geradezu provozierend und man empfindet es beinah als Sym-bol, dass gerade Ihnen diese leidige Geschichte passieren musste. Und dass Sie Ihren Aufsatz auf den Namen Burckhardts gestimmt haben, schafft ja auch die direkte historische Beziehung zu Hegel und seinem Widerpart.]

(Huizinga 1989-1991: vol. 2, 447)

The article associated with Burckhardt that Kaegi refers to is ‘Burgund: Eine Krise des Romanisch-Germanischen Verhältnisses’ (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 2, 238-265). It was published shortly after the von Leers affair in the first issue of the 1933 volume of Historische Zeitschrift. The editors of this journal highlighted the connection between Huizinga’s article and the von Leers affair by stating at the end of the volume that they would not have published Huizinga’s work had they known of the incident before it went to print (Die Schriftleitung 1933: 228; see Otterspeer 1997: 407-409).

[29] Kaegi’s claim that Huizinga’s article bears similarities with the political philosophy of Jacob Burckhardt is invited by the article itself, as it opens with a discussion of Burckhardt’s outline for a potential book on Charles the Bold of Burgundy and the legacy of the Burgundian state (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 2, 238-239). Huizinga goes on to write that history himself, often conjecturing how different modern Europe may have been if Charles had the emotional control required to establish a lasting kingdom between France and Germany (Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 2, 252). As Kaegi claims, Huizinga’s emphasis on how an individual’s emotional life can change the history of states sets him in opposition to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1820). In this text, Hegel claims the opposite of Huizinga: that modern states shape the emotional and ethical life (die Sittlichkeit) of their citizens, rather than vice versa (Hegel 2008: 228-229). Burckhardt personally opposed Hegel’s definition of the individual in terms of their belonging to a state (Franklin Sigurdson 2004: 111-112), which is why Kaegi claims Huizinga’s article agrees with this historian’s politics.

[30] After Huizinga asked Kaegi to clarify his remarks on Hegel and the Third Reich (Huizinga 1989-1991: vol. 2, 456), this discussion was left at a loose end. But judging Kaegi’s comments in retrospect, they overlook a key part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that draws this philosopher’s thought away from the totalitarianism Kaegi accuses him of; essential to Hegel’s theory of tragedy is that an individual could defy the laws and customs of the state when they are called to do so by a higher moral imperative (Hegel 2008: 148, 157-158, 169). In the concluding chapter to In the Shadow of Tomorrow, Huizinga hopes that such an affirmation of eternal moral standards can provide a ‘catharsis’, i.e., the emotional relief and intellectual clarity that Aristotle identified as the result of witnessing tragedy. Just as he describes Hegel’s philosophy as one which is ‘for spirit’, Huizinga ends this book with the hope that a catharsis would lead young people ‘to permeate [the world] again with spirit!’ (Huizinga 2019 [1935]: 167). The concept of catharsis that closes In the Shadow of Tomorrow therefore explains a message that opens it: ‘It is possible that these pages will lead many to think of me as a pessimist. I have but this to answer: I am an optimist’ (Huizinga 2019 [1935]: 5). This optimism seems to draw on Huizinga’s studies of the Renaissance: the catharsis was felt to be ‘like a conversion, a rebirth, a regeneration’, which offers ‘the recognition or retrieval of eternal truths’ (Huizinga 2019: 165-166). In the Shadow of Tomorrow thereby mirrors Autumntide, a book which also concludes with a chapter on the emergent Renaissance, one which ‘comes as an external form, before it becomes a truly new spirit [dat het nieuwe komt als uiterlijke vorm, eer het waarlijk nieuwe geest wordt]’, that spirit being classicism (Huizinga 2020: 477 [Huizinga 1948-1953: vol. 3, 390]). While Autumntide is a tragic text, it is also an optimistic one, one not defined by pessimism (contra Hanssen 2016: 27, see also Krul 1990: 18-19).  

[31] Being one of Huizinga closest readers and strongest critics, Menno Ter Braak, claims that Autumntide had ‘expressive daring [beeldende durf]’, one that contradicted Huizinga normal academic character of ‘aversion to hasty conclusions and stormy impulses [afkeer van haastige conclusies en stormachtige impulsen]’ (Ter Braak 1949-1951: vol. 1, 335). He might have been right. When looking at Huizinga’s ‘stormy impulse and hasty conclusion’ against von Leers, one need not look ahead to his anti-fascist writings in the 1930s, but back to his Autumntide, and how its tragic but optimistic outlook revealed to him the conviction and hope to act according with his conscience when doing so would contravene the expectations of Leiden University and the Dutch state.


[32] Huizinga’s review of Warburg’s collected works was published in September 1933 in the monthly periodical De Gids, that is, six months after the von Leers affair (Huizinga, 1948-1953: vol. 4, 557). From the review itself, there is no indication that Huizinga had his recent confrontation with Naziism in mind when he described Aby Warburg, one of the great German-Jewish cultural historians, as a ‘somewhat tragic figure’. Huizinga read Warburg as ‘tragic’ because the latter’s research into Pathosformeln could not define an overall image of a given society, as this concept was used to study images diachronically rather than synchronically. In contrast to Warburg, Huizinga was invested in synchronic images of culture, that is, cultural forms that could either be empty or full of spirit, belonging to periods of despair or of renewal. But even if Huizinga’s reaction to von Leers did not impact his reception of Warburg, his understanding of tragedy did inform his respective responses to the Nazi and to the Jewish historian. A Warburgian examination of Huizinga’s concepts of ‘form’ and ‘play’ as literary Pathosformeln, that is, in Port’s terms, as ideas that the German Enlightenment inherited from its reception of Greek tragedy, have shown how Huizinga’s division of history into periods that were either full or empty of spirit was developed from his reading of Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s respective philosophies of tragedy. And a reading of the Autumntide within this tragic tradition also indicates how Huizinga’s political emotions and actions were shaped by his hope for a new period of spiritual renewal despite the evil of his time.


[1] Translations are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated.


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Andrew Murray, The Open University

Andrew Murray specialises in the art and ceremony of late medieval France and Valois Burgundy (c. 1350-1520). He researches how authority – cultural, legal and political – is manifested in visual culture, paying particular attention to the representation and performance of emotions and virtues. The historical aspect of this research has addressed the rhetoric of the common good and justice and how such rhetoric is evident in tomb sculpture, funerary ritual, ducal ordinances and courtly literature. His sociological research is in the history of emotions, and particularly the work of Johan Huizinga.


With thanks to Anna D’Alton, Bob Mills and Alison Wright.

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