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Document Details :

Title: Johan Huizinga and John of Ruusbroec
Subtitle: Huizinga's Esteem for a Medieval Mystic
Author(s): KORS, Mikel M.
Journal: Ons Geestelijk Erf
Volume: 92    Issue: 1   Date: 2022   
Pages: 88-107
DOI: 10.2143/OGE.92.1.3290345

Abstract :
Just over a century ago, in 1919, Johan Huizinga published his Autumntide of the Middle Ages. As Willem Otterspeer observed in Orde en trouw, Huizinga showed a special appreciation for the mystic John of Ruusbroec. This article explores the ways in which this esteem for Ruusbroec is expressed throughout Huizinga’s works, especially in Autumntide. Huizinga mentions or discusses Ruusbroec in several places, first in a lecture of 1913 and last in 1943, but a clear focus on Ruusbroec is apparent in Herfsttij and in two book reviews. In the Huizinga archives we find material from Ruusbroec’s works that he collected in preparation for Autumntide. The majority of Ruusbroec quotes were used in his book, some others in a review of a French translation of Ruusbroec. An unedited letter of December 1918 from Huizinga to the Ruusbroec scholar De Vreese asks for the identification of two larger quotes in a French translation of the mystic’s works. It is interesting to see that these were not only included in Autumntide but that Huizinga also added them to his manuscript shortly before it went into print, proving that he worked on the text until the last minute. Huizinga’s appreciation for Ruusbroec contains various elements. First of all he sees Ruusbroec as a great mystical writer, also for his literary merits. He further appreciates the manner in which Ruusbroec was still part of the medieval tradition of symbolism, that Huizinga considered already lost by the end of the fourteenth century. Huizinga was very critical about the excesses of mysticism – the ‘true, savage mysticism’, as he calls it –, that, apart from heresy, could also lead to a misinterpretation of the experience of the so-called ‘annihilation of the self’, and thus could make some people think they had already reached perfection and did not need to practice virtue anymore. Ruusbroec was indeed a representative of the savage mysticism but in his case it is always counterbalanced by his emphasis on good works, compassion and virtue. On several occasions Huizinga approvingly quoted William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. We find various similarities between the two scholars when it comes to their evaluation of mysticism. They considered mysticism as a universal phenomenon, without any significant differences between the major world religions. They both agreed that the most typical way to give words to the mystical experience is through negative mysticism, of which Huizinga gave some striking examples from Ruusbroec’s work.

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