Tag Archives: French Revolution

Twilight Time

Pardon me, I’ve got to engage in some historiography. The history of historical interpretation can be a deadly topic in the context of precise historical events or periods, but is nevertheless essential engagement for comprehensive historical understanding. I feel like I’ve been swimming on the surface with all the Salem stuff this summer, so took advantage of a rainy cleaning-out-my-study afternoon to re-engage with two classic books that have been part of my life and work since graduate school, if not before: Johan Huizing’s Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge (1972). I remember my first reading of both books very vividly: their ability to capture a mood and a time using a variety of sources and expressions and to illustrate the peak of their respective eras and civilizations in such captivating ways that you could feel the decline that followed. Both are “decline and fall” books that focus on the before, thus articulating the transition to after in such a way that you really don’t want to get there but you certainly appreciate the change. I think both books really set the standard for cultural history, and also for a succession of histories that focus on the late summer/autumn of civilizations, the waning, the twilight.

Late Summer and the onset of harvesting invokes feelings of seasonal change in general, but this particular summer has seemed almost apocalyptic to me in an environmental sense, so these books seemed to call to me when I was culling my library the other day—they will always be on my bookshelf but I don’t look at them every year. Huizinga’s period is my period so he’s always relevant for me, but even Before the Deluge felt timely when I opened it up the other day. The title is metaphorical, but it can apply literally now. Après moi le déluge, the famous phrase attributed alternatively to either Louis XV or his favorite, Madame de Pompadour, had a more specific meaning when it was uttered in the mid-18th century, but the overwhelming tide of change brought about by the French Revolution transformed it into both a prescient and universal statement by Marx in the 19th century and Great War survivors of the twentieth. I think both Huizinga and Friedrich have had a global impact in terms of imitators and successors, but I’m only familiar with European historiography so that’s going to be my focus in this post. The majority of “waning” books seem to dwell on the same eras as Huizinga and Friedrich, as well as that of the Revolution: they are seeking to explain and illustrate the great transitions from medieval to early modern and from modern to contemporary in classic European chronology. Not all are successful, as you will see from my comments below! 

Bouwsma’s book is inspired by two classical late medieval historiographical trends, that of Huizinga and his predecessor Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy articulated a definitive Renaissance break and the beginnings of modernity. Unlike Burkhardt, Bouwsma sees the Renaissance as ending, and not just evolving into the early modern era. I really like this book, but it’s narrower in focus than most books focusing on transitions, maybe because it’s not. Norman Cantor was a great medieval historian, but in his later years I think he veered away from his expertise a bit too much: I really did not like In the Wake of the Plague, and I wanted to like The Last Knight, but I think many of his assertions about John of Gaunt were speculative: but just look at the subtitle!

This book by the intellectual historian Michael Sonenscher comes closest to my original understanding of the Après moi quote, and really conveys social perceptions of the coming financial deluge in the later 18th century. It’s more about the “coming” than the “waning” but still belongs in my subgenre. The medieval and early modern “twilight texts” are definitely academic and thus hard going in places, but the interpretations become a bit more accessible with the Friedrich-inspired texts below.

Before the Deluge is about the 1920s and there are several books about the Weimar Republic which mirror its approach in places (I like Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy by Eric Weitz) but books which attempt to recreate the pre-World War I mentality seem to me a bit more Friedrich-inspired. Frederic Morton and Juliet Nicolson both have family history to draw on for their social histories of Venice and England before the Great War, and while their works don’t quite approach the dazzling depths of Friedrich’s book, they are both very readable and often poignant. Nicolson’s book is very atmospheric: as I’m not really a fiction reader, for me, The Perfect Summer is the perfect summer read.

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