How history can inform spending cuts

Image caption, Physical suffering and violent death was a constant threat to 15th Century Europeans

Looking past the big picture and focusing on people is useful in government, as well as history, says Lisa Jardine in her A Point of View column.

The new academic year has begun, and I am preparing my graduate classes. So I have been reading again one of the great, lasting works of history-writing, Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages.

Some listeners will have had their first introduction to the beginnings of the European Renaissance, at school or university, in the shape of Huizinga's book - published in Dutch in 1919 and in English translation in 1924. It is widely regarded as a classic both for its argument and for the manner in which that argument is made.

Huizinga is a master story-teller whose material is drawn from the everyday detail, literature and poetry of the late Middle Ages, and who weaves documented incident and event into a richly varied tapestry of the forms of "life, art and thought" of ordinary people in France and Holland in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Here is how he captures the way in which, in the 15th Century, the "cruel reality" of inevitable physical suffering and violent death was compensated for by the use of elaborate rituals and exaggerated displays of public grief. These, according to Huizinga, "made life an art", transforming grim experience to make it tolerable.

"The cultural value of ritualised mourning is that it gives grief its form and rhythm. It transfers actual life to the sphere of the drama. Mourning at the court of France or of Burgundy dramatised the effects of grief," he writes.

Huizinga argues that the richly realistic, over-decorated art and literature of the late medieval period were not the result of a flowering or flourishing, nor were they an affirmation of cultural confidence.

'Spiritually cowed'

Rather, they were the distraught activities of a community which lived in fear, in a state of constant anticipation of violence, spiritually cowed and politically coerced. In that world, individual experience was so bleak and fraught that the artistically gifted could only concentrate on drowning out the din of dark and dangerous day-to-day life. The pleasure their art gives us is that of a society on the brink of collapse and a culture on the wane.

"Between the absolute denial of all worldly joys," he writes, "and a frantic yearning for wealth and pleasure, between dark hatred and merry conviviality, they lived in extremes."

Huizinga is unapologetic about the emotional way in which he writes history. Indeed, he insists that it is only by paying attention to the intense feelings which saturate his period that it can be properly understood. That is why his is the perfect introduction to the historical period that immediately follows his own, and which I teach - the Renaissance - when, in his terms, an altogether more reasonable and optimistic temperament marked the beginnings of modernity.

Usually I would stop my preparation on Huizinga once I had re-read The Waning of the Middle Ages. But this year I happened to read for the first time an article that Huizinga wrote much later in his life, in his 70s, in the shadow of his experience during World War II.

In 1940 the University of Leiden, where Huizinga had been a professor of history for 25 years, closed its doors in protest against the dismissal of its Jewish professors by the occupying German forces. In the spring of 1942 Huizinga was arrested and imprisoned, along with other prominent Dutch intellectuals, in the internment camp of St. Michielgestel at Brabant.

Moral bearings

Shortly afterwards he was removed from the camp to hospital because of ill-health. For the remainder of the war he lived in exile and under surveillance, with his second wife and small daughter in the village of De Steeg, near Arnhem, on the Rhine. Deprived of his books, and in failing health, Huizinga spent his last years trying to come to terms with the world of which he was now a part. He died just months before Dutch liberation, in February 1945.

Image caption, Personal accounts of England's glorious revolution contradict the traditional view of seamless change

In 1943, Huizinga had published a short essay entitled History Changing Form. It reflects his increasing pessimism about what he sees as the impending dismantling and destruction of European values and culture. Bluntly put, his argument is that you can tell a great deal about an age by looking at the way in which it writes its history - the form and imaginative style in which it is produced. Looking at history-writing in the 1940s, he does not like what he sees.

The main purpose of history, Huizinga wrote, is to shed light on and make sense of the present. "History," he says, "is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past."

In any period, a community decides what it regards as the values central to it, identifies those features in its past, and imaginatively crafts them into a story which gives sense and meaning to the here and now. In a humane society, says Huizinga, the story of its past can be told with verve and enthusiasm as one which connects us directly with ordinary men and women of earlier times.

In 1943, Huizinga felt that the discipline of history was changing for the worse. It was increasingly concerned with economics, quantitative assessments, mass movements, and trends based on numerical analysis. History had got less colourful, less easy to follow, less accessible to the general reader, Huizinga argued, all of which indicated that his own society too had lost its moral bearings.

Violence and intimidation

He wrote: "Now in Europe men of science, technologists and statisticians, have driven almost all thought [about humanity] into the corner of purely quantitative valuation. Only the number counts, only the number expresses thought. This shift in the mode of thinking is full of grave dangers for civilisation, and for that civilising product of the mind called history. Once numbers reign supreme in our society, there will be no stories left to tell, no images for history to evoke."

Here is an example of what I think Huizinga meant, when he insisted that it was the detail of ordinary lives that told the historian what had really happened. Historians have traditionally described England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9 as without bloodshed. Regime change was seamless and with general consent, they have maintained.

In a recent book, however, American historian Steve Pincus pieces together previously unstudied, detailed evidence, to produce a richer, more nuanced version of what it felt like to live through the winter of 1688, after William III's Dutch army had landed at Torbay. Using everyday accounts, he recovers a widespread sense of insecurity, anxiety and intimidation among ordinary people:

"Violence erupted in town after town in late 1688. Popular uprisings in York, Hull, and Carlisle achieved quick victories. Chester was seething with discontent. The dragoons quartered there were so frequently reviled and attacked by the townsmen that the men 'wish[ed] themselves at home'. Portsmouth was even more of a flashpoint." There was widespread, gratuitous violence against Catholics. For many who were there, Pincus concludes, the revolution of 1688-9 was terrifying and brutal.

The point is one we might wish to reflect on today. Under the broad sweep of history lie the lives of ordinary individuals - those who never experience the comfort of the "big picture".

Since 2009, political discussion in Britain has been dominated by massive deficits and deep cuts to be made in public spending. The October Comprehensive Spending Review - announced by George Osborne at the time of his Budget in June - is almost upon us. In the public sector, prospects look grim. Preparations are being made for reductions in government funding of somewhere between 25% and 40%. More than once I have heard it said that we are entering, for a period, "the valley of the shadow of death". There is a prevailing sense of inevitability about the across-the-board austerity that will follow.

But what Huizinga reminds us is that beneath the big sweep of history lie myriad individual stories which can be retrieved and articulated by those in a position to give them a voice. In Huizinga's terms, there will be a period, once the figures, the pie-charts, graphs and budgets are released, when there is room for further intensive deliberations to determine what their consequences will be on the ground.

It will, surely, be the responsibility of ministers and civil servants to do so in the kind of vivid, imaginative language narrative history uses, to capture and dramatise the human costs of the cuts. By articulating the impact of the spending review on groups largely hidden from view in the big picture - the vulnerable and the elderly - there will be some chance of ensuring that Britain's longer-term prosperity does not come at their expense.