A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

Johan Huizinga, the Great Historian

In the previous blog post I talked about Justus Lipsius and how the University building in the centre of Leiden came to be named after him. Now, I would like to talk about Johan Huizinga, to whom the University of Leiden dedicated the building housing the faculty of History and many of our professors’ offices.

One of the first things I spotted when I was about to enter the Lipsius building at the beginning of my one-year master at Leiden University was a big banner on a side building with the name Johan Huizinga and the logo of the institution. Curious about that name I had no idea how to pronounce, the next day I consulted the University library to find some information.


Johan Huizinga is considered one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century. He was born in Groningen in 1872; in academia he first focused on Indo-European languages and comparative linguistics and then, in 1902, turned to the renaissance period and medieval history.

In 1905 he became professor of General and Dutch History at the University of Groningen, but he would spend most of his academic life at the University of Leiden. Indeed, he became professor of General History at our institution in 1905; in 1942, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, he spoke against the Nazi regime and was forced to leave his position. After his release he was denied residence in Leiden and moved to his colleague Rudolf Cleveringa’s house, where he died a few years later.

His most famous publication is The Autumn of the Middle Ages. In this book, Huizinga makes use of a peculiar perspective which made him known as one of the founders of cultural history. Cultural historians focus on rituals, arts and popular culture in general, distancing from the past approaches which mainly studied single characters, events or the élites of a particular period or population to extract historical data.

In the book, Huizinga describes the profound changes in the Dutch and French societies of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. The motifs that characterized the paintings of that period had turned darker and often had death as their central theme; these signs denoted intense mutations that reflected the way society was shifting from being generally optimist to pessimist and nostalgic of a positive past. The central theory of Huizinga was that these centuries marked the ripest period of Middle Age rather than the birth of Renaissance.

Ultimately, it is important for us students to know more about those men who left an important mark on our University in the past and contributed to its greatness and reputation around the world.

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2019 by in Bruno, Leiden, Student City and tagged , , , , .

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