The Play Element of and in Huizinga’s Correspondence with the Warburg, November 1935 – January 1937.

During 1937 the Warburg Institute held a series of lectures on the subject of play. The Warburg Institute Archive holds the original programme, invitation and correspondences between the Institute and some of the speakers.

In this blog post, Andrew Murray, an associate lecturer at the Open University, explores the correspondence between the Warburg and Johan Huizinga and the resulting confusion over the title of the lecture given by the esteemed Dutch professor. Andrew’s discussion shows how current debates and events in London concerning the concept of play have a pedigree in the discussion Huizinga raised in this city over eighty years ago.

This concept of play may seem familiar, but it is notoriously difficult to define. Ask yourself, what is common to activities as diverse as backgammon, cricket, jazz, gladiatorial combat, kids playing ‘dress-up’, lindy-hop, Dungeons & Dragons, Fortnite, military wargames, or dogs chasing each other? Some games have mortal consequences, others are frivolous; some have clearly defined rules, others are entirely open; some include animals, others only humans and, perhaps some, only computers. 

“This concept of play may seem familiar, but it is notoriously difficult to define.”

Discussion on the nature of play is currently in vogue. Alison Stenning (Newcastle University) has recently pointed out a series of prominent publications, exhibitions, and conferences dealing with play (notably the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Play Well and the Victoria and Albert’s Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt).[1] Such a list could also include a symposium I and colleagues from the Open University and University College London organised at the Institute of Advanced Studies, and which took place in September.[2] As Professor Stenning points out, a recurring claim across such recent events is that play is not simply an essential component of our lives, but one which has a generative and even transformative influence upon it. 

Fig. 1. Warburg Institute Archive (WIA), section I. ‘Lecture, Courses and Classes’, January-July 1937 (front cover). Photo: The Warburg Institute.

Such debates over the agency of play within and on society are nothing new. Indeed, they have a much longer history in London. In 1937, when it was resident at Millbank, the Warburg Institute hosted a lecture series on the subject of play (fig. 1). This theme was decided by the Institute after Johan Huizinga had proposed a lecture on it to Fritz Saxl, the director of the Warburg. Indeed, Huizinga’s seminal work on play, Homo Ludens would be published the next year. In the foreword to this book, he mentions the Warburg lecture that had only taken place a year earlier:

I took [play] as the theme for my annual address as Rector of Leyden University in 1933, and afterwards for lectures in Zurich, Vienna and London, in the last instance under the title: “The Play Element of Culture”. Each time my hosts wanted to correct it to “in” Culture, and each time I protested and clung to the genitive, because it was not my object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play.[3]

Fig. 2. WIA, section I. ‘Lecture, Courses and Classes’, January-July 1937 (inside pages). Photo: The Warburg Institute.

If one looks at the schedule from the Warburg (figs. 1, 2 and 3), one can see that they indeed advertised his lecture as one concerning ‘The Play Element in Culture’ rather than ‘of culture’. Huizinga’s position, that play is not a set of activities within culture (games, dances, songs, sports), but rather an aspect of culture on a much more fundamental, conceptual and indeterminate level, seemed to be an odd one for the Warburg.

Fig. 3. WIA, section I. ‘Lecture, Courses and Classes’, January-July 1937 (detail of inside page). Photo: The Warburg Institute.

Fortunately, the Warburg still holds the correspondence with Huizinga leading up to his lecture. Ernst Gombrich drew from these letters in his own account of the event, and recalls the confusion over the precise formulation of Huizinga’s title.[4] A more detailed reading of this correspondence reveals that it has its own playful element, a slightly confused to-and-fro between the German and English languages, one which demonstrates the unsettling but also exciting effect of Huizinga’s ideas on his correspondents.[5]

Fritz Saxl, the director of the Warburg Institute, had a deep admiration for Huizinga. In a 1933 letter to the esteemed Dutch historian in which he reported the Warburg’s successful transfer from Hamburg to London, Saxl invites Huizinga to London and states that he would have also liked the library to move to Leiden, where Huizinga was professor.[6] Saxl again invited Huizinga to London in November 1935 to give a lecture, and after he agreed to Huizinga’s subsequent request to lecture in the English language and not on Burgundian history, the Dutch historian suggested as a subject ‘das Spielelement der Kultur’, the play-element of culture.[7] Although Saxl is enthusiastic about the proposal, he is concerned about how to translate it. In a letter from the fifth of December, he wrote ‘As for the exact English title, I would suggest that you write to me soon on what you roughly intend to speak, and so that we can correspond on this subject to choose an English title that we believe will attract an English audience.’[8]

Saxl’s concern is not just over language, but the ambiguities Huizinga finds in the concept of play. Indeed, in a letter to Huizinga from January 1936, after reading Huizinga’s In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1935), he states ‘When you write about the blurring of the boundaries between seriousness and play, one realizes very clearly how this subject lies close to your heart.’[9] But despite this stated admiration for Huizinga’s investigation into blurred boundaries, he also desires clearer boundaries for Huizinga’s lecture. He continues ‘Personally, I am particularly pleased that you will speak to us about the idea to which this section points – the play element in culture’ (das Spielelement in der Kultur).[10]  

If Huizinga noticed Saxl’s subtle alteration to his title, he was at this point too polite to point it out. Nevertheless, he remained firm. In a letter from August 1936, Huizinga’s states ‘dass die Thema bleibt: the play element of culture’ giving the English title.[11] But confusion continued. Saxl responded with two separate letters asking for the exact version of the title before Huizinga confirmed on the 10th of November: ‘Der Titel wird sein: The Play Element of Culture.’[12] So how disappointed do you think Huizinga felt when he finally received through the post the final programme with the title ‘The Play Element in Culture’, sent to him from the Warburg on the 23rd of December (fig. 3)?[13] In correspondence with Saxl’s colleague, Gertrud Bing, he asked for a correction in the introduction to his speech.[14] Although Bing responded that ‘the play element in culture’ is more familiar to the English language than the ‘play element of culture’,[15] Huizinga replied that he knows the latter sounds strange (‘Ich weiss, dass es etwas fremd anmutet’), but it is exactly how his project should be described.[16] The Warburg relented, using Huizinga’s desired title for their invitations to the lecture even though it did not correspond to the title in their published programme (fig. 4).[17]

Fig. 4. WIA, ‘Invitation to Huizinga’s Lecture’, 1937. Photo: The Warburg Institute.

I should not be too judgmental on Saxl, Bing or the Warburg. One of the speakers attending the symposium I convened emailed me two days before the event to correct my correction of her title (I changed a comma to a colon!). I just want to point out that at its publication Huizinga’s work was unsettling, and it continued to be strange. Indeed, in 1963, in a handwritten note that the Warburg Institute still holds, the art historian Konrad Hoffmann wrote of Homo Ludens that ‘the Dutch of the Institute’s edition has too strong an alienating effect for me.’[18] Evidently, Huizinga’s use of language was still considered strange in the Warburg twenty-six years after his lecture there. Now over eighty years since, and at a moment when the concept of play is experiencing a renewed interest in London, we might again discover that Huizinga’s thought maintains the same potency to unsettle us now as it did for Hoffmann as well as Saxl and Bing before him. 

Andrew Murray is an associate lecturer at the Open University.


[1] Alison Stenning, ‘Play’s the Thing, or why is play getting so much attention at the moment?’, researchingrelationships, October 21, 2019 [Blog](Accessed 27/11/2019); Wellcome Collection, Play Well, 24 October 2019–8 March 2020, n.d., (Accessed 27/11/2019); Victoria & Albert Museum, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, 8 September 2018–24 February 2019, n.d., (Accessed 27/11/2019).

[2] Play and its Potential Publics, 14 September 2019,  n.d., (Accessed 27/11/2019).

[3] Johan Huizinga, A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: 1949), p. ix.

[4] Ernst Gombrich, ‘Huizinga’s Homo ludensBMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 88/2 (1973): 275–296, pp. 275–276.

[5] I do not reference all of the correspondence between the Saxl and Warburg. Notably, Huizinga wrote a letter to Fritz Saxl recounting the Von Leers affair, an incident whereby he expelled a German contingent from an international student conference due to the circulation of an anti-Semitic pamphlet. See Johan Huizinga, Briefwisseling, Léon Hanssen, W. E. Krul and Anton van der Lem (eds), 3 vols. (Utrecht and Antwerp: 1990), vol. 3, p. 100 [1170].

[6] ‘Ich brauche nicht zu sagen, wie sehr ich mich freuen würde, wenn Sie Ihr Weg bald nach London führte und hoffe, dass die geografische Nähe nun auch bald zu einer wissenschaftlichen Zusammenarbeit führen wird. Sie wissen, wie sehr  ich es begrüsst hätte, wenn die äusseren Umstände es ermöglicht hätten, dass die Bibliothek nach Leiden gekommen wäre.’ WIA, GC [General Correspondence], F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 26 December 1933 (Huizinga, Briefwisseling, vol. 2, p. 493 [1066]).

[7] WIA, GC, J. Huizinga to F. Saxl, 15 November 1935; F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 19 November 1935; J. Huizinga to F. Saxl, 21 November 1935.

[8] ‘Was nun den genauen englischen Titel betrifft, so würde ich Ihnen vorschlagen, dass Sie mir kurz schreiben, was Sie ungefähr zu sagen beabsichtigen und dass wir dann diesem Inhalt entsprechen einen englischen Titel wählen von dem wir glauben, dass er auf sass englische Publikum anziehend wirken wird.’ WIA, GC, F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 5 December 1935.

[9] ‘Wo sie über die Verwischung der Grenzen zwischen Ernst und Spiel schreiben, merkt man sehr deutlich, wie sehr Ihnen dieses Problem am Herzen liegt.’ WIA, GC, F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 20 January 1936.

[10] ‘Mir persönlich ist es eine besondere Freude, dass Sie über den Gedanken, auf den dieser Abschnitt hinausweist, – das Spielelement in der Kultur – bei uns sprechen werden.’ Ibid.

[11] WIA, GC, J. Huizinga to F. Saxl, 30 August 1936.

[12] WIA, GC, F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 3 November 1936 (Huizinga, Briefwisseling, vol. 3, p. 154 [1235]); F. Saxl to J. Huizinga, 9 November 1936; J. Huizinga to F. Saxl, 10 November 1936.

[13] WIA, GC, Gertrud Bing to J. Huizinga 23 December 1936.

[14] WIA, GC, J. Huizinga to the Warburg, 5 January 1937 (Huizinga, Briefwisseling, vol. 3, p. 159 [1241]).

[15] WIA, GC, Gertrud Bing to J. Huizinga 7 January 1937.

[16] WIA, GC [General Correspondence],   J. Huizinga to the Warburg, 9 January 1937.

[17] WIA, ‘Invitation to Huizinga’s Lecture’, 1937.

[18] ‘Das Holländische der Institutsausgabe hat für mich zu stark verfremdende Wirkung’ WIA (part of the Heimann bequest), Konrad Hoffman to Adelheid Heimann, 23/02/1963.

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