Johan Huizinga, the Waning of the Middle Ages, and the Writing of History

By Moran, Sean Farrell | Michigan Academician, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Johan Huizinga, the Waning of the Middle Ages, and the Writing of History


Moran, Sean Farrell, Michigan Academician


ABSTRACT

Contemporary professional history does not train its practitioners to write works of genuine innovation. The commitment to archive-driven research and the need to establish a niche for one's research discourages originality. It also denies the validity of history which reveals the emotional engagement of the writer or appeals beyond the narrow confines of the professional historian. Johann Huizinga's work, especially his magnum opus The Waning of the Middle Ages, serves to remind us of how breathtaking and bold history can be. In print for eight decades, Huizinga's great book is loved outside of the halls of academe despite its inadequacies and stands as one of the most influential works of the past century.

INTRODUCTION

In the nineteenth century, the writing of history began its Germanic move away from the hands of educated dilettantes and into the hands of academic historians. History became a professional discipline replete with standards and rituals that were intended to distinguish it from other disciplines within the academy. Critical to this discipline was the rise graduate education whereby apprenticed historians would learn from their masters the proper practice of history. These novices would then produce a thesis as a capstone to their studies. It would be based on primary source materials buried in archives, and the analysis of those materials would demonstrate, that with degree in hand, the new historians would be accepted into the profession. But this is not truly the end, for there remains one more stage: the conversion of that thesis into a book, almost always a monograph, preferably to be published by a press with academic credentials.

The problem with this scenario is that it produces only a certain kind of history, yielding works aimed at and usually read by other specialists in the field. The very nature of their training tends to yield historians who find it difficult or undesirable to move beyond the narrow confines of the subject which defined them, to reach out and engage a larger audience. The result is that in the end, there are few works, approved of by academic historians that endure and speak to the educated public.

Ian Mortimer has commented recently upon the current state of historical practice and its disconnection with the general audience. He contends that the effect of academic history has been to limit history to a set of facts uncovered in archival research, and it encourages an indulgence in methodological innovation. Mortimer believes that the practice of academic history has served to disrupt the idea that history is, as R. G. Collingwood would have had it be, a dialogue between historians and the past. (1) One of the effects of this practice is the ruthless expectation that the historian be personally disengaged from the subject at hand. But, Mortimer points out that certain subjects are "hot" and politically charged and the discovery of "new facts" within those subjects invariably results in charges that the work is rooted in the author's biases. (2) More damning still is the suspicion that it plays to some constituency or another. Despite the long-standing criticism which holds that all historians create inherently subjective narratives, the overseers of the discipline expect something like objectivity. (3) Doing otherwise violates a central tenet of graduate training in history: one is to root out and deny oneself any kind of personal involvement with one's subject. All historians are expected to be non-engage.

Mortimer maintains that there exists a very different kind of historical dialogue, a "philosophical or conceptual one" where the writer engages in a subject because of something in his or her own experience, and the result is work that meets scholarly requirements and at the same time engages a wider audience. (4) It is not the kind of history that is encouraged in graduate study, nor does it lead to tenure. …

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