Johan Huizinga

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) is known for his books on cultural history and essays on the philosophy of history.

Johan Huizinga was born on Dec. 7, 1872, in Groningen. Trained as a linguist and a specialist in Sanskrit at the universities of Groningen and Leipzig, he received his doctorate in 1897 and went on to become a high school teacher in Haarlem and a teacher of Indic studies in Amsterdam. His interests soon turned to the history of his own country, however, and in 1905 he published The Origins of Haarlem. The same year he was appointed professor at Groningen University; in 1915 he was named professor at Leiden University.

Like Swiss historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt, Huizinga was a cultural conservative, strongly elitist, and in later years deeply despondent over the future of European civilization. Like Burckhardt, he took as his professional task the description of periods of cultural history. Whereas the Swiss historian had conceived of culture as the spontaneous creation of free individuals, Huizinga defined culture as the state of a community "when the domination of nature in the material, moral, and spiritual realms permits a state of existence which is higher and better than the given natural conditions," a state of "harmonious balance of material and social values."

Huizinga's first major work, and his greatest, was The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), in which he portrayed "the forms of life, thought, and art" in the Burgundian state of the 14th and 15th centuries. He saw it as a period of violence, terrified by the image of death, from which men escaped by creating a "dream of life," coloring life with fancy. By their idealized style of knighthood, their conventions of love, their images of religious sensibility, they transformed or hid the real world in which they lived. Huizinga recaptured these colors of late medieval life with great vividness of style.

To Huizinga several aspects of this late medieval culture were essentially forms of play. In Homo Ludens (1938) he addressed the problem directly: to what extent does human culture result from play and to what extent does it express itself in the forms of play? His concern was not with games but with the play element of law, war, poetry, philosophy, science, and art, the sportive qualities of serious concerns. Along with the earnest, he argued, play is necessary to true culture.

Huizinga also wrote Men and Mass in America (1918), a biography Erasmus of Rotterdam (1924), Holland's Culture in the Seventeenth Century (1932), and numerous essays on historiography and the contemporary scene. When Leiden University was closed by the Germans in 1940, Huizinga was interned as a hostage. Released for reasons of ill health, he died in the village of De Steeg on Feb. 1, 1945.

Further Reading on Johan Huizinga

A brief analysis of Huizinga's conception of culture is presented by Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture (1966). Pieter Geyl gives a critical view of Huizinga's work in Encounters in History (1961).