Willem Otterspeer

Order and Loyalty

Over Johan Huizinga

On Johan Huizinga

Johan Huizinga is the most important historian The Netherlands has ever produced, author of the enormously influential The Waning of the Middle Ages, and a great writer. In this stimulating study Willem Otterspeer concentrates on Huizinga’s literary style and the role it plays in his historical work.

Huizinga was an extraordinarily evocative writer, his work characterised by a ceaseless interplay of opposition and rapprochement. This working with contrasts, Otterspeer claims, belonged to ‘the DNA of his thinking’. He believed that out of antitheses – old versus new, death versus life, exaltation versus contemplation – new forms were created, and a new style. Huizinga regarded Aristo and Rabelais as opposite poles of the Renaissance, the former representing ‘harmony, serenity and sonority, joyous clarity’, while the latter stood for ‘the churning, fermenting chaos out of which one day a new science would arise’. He often introduced a third figure as well, one who bridged the chasm between the two poles, in this case Michelangelo.

Every innovation ends in rigidity, however; every form degenerates into formalism, giving rise to new opposing forces. In this way history, for Huizinga, became a ‘heaving ocean’, absorbing all historical epochs. Highpoints in the history of human civilization were those periods in which content and form were one and the same, in which life and art were in balance.

Huizinga was not only a historian, he was also a cultural critic. To him, history was ‘morality in action’. He therefore saw the great crisis in civilization of his own time as having its origins in the nineteenth century, when the advent of the natural and human sciences produced a thoroughly two-dimensional image of mankind that no longer took any account of the battle between our good and evil passions.

Human beings became the passive product of all kinds of factors beyond their control and there was no room left for ‘historical ideals of human conduct’, the permanent forms that Huizinga regarded as of essential importance. This made the twentieth century a period lacking in both form and style.

In 1935 Huizinga’s In the Shadow of Tomorrow was published, with the subtitle ‘A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Time’. Such ‘form’ as still existed was meaningless formalism, he said, an empty shell that no longer had anything to do with real life. Otterspeer’s book makes it clear that Huizinga’s literary style has lost none of its appeal and that his view of our culture is as relevant today as ever.

Otterspeer teaches us how to read Huizinga, analyses his writing, opens up unexpected dimensions, and displays before us the majesty of his language.


In a truly admirable manner, Otterspeer has written Huizinga into literature and thereby raised him above all controversy.

De Volkskrant

Willem Otterspeer

Willem Otterspeer is Professor of History at the University of Leiden. He is the author of Bolland, the highly praised biography of Professor G.J.P.J. Bolland, for which he was awarded the Eureka Prize and the Biography Prize. He is currently working on a biography of Willem Frederik Hermans.…

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Orde en trouw. Over Johan Huizinga (2006). Non-fiction, 254 pages.
Words: 67,000

With notes and references


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