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All That: Burgundy

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
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hat do the following have in common: England, France, Lombardy, Andalusia, and Burgundy? The answer is in the names: all these places are named for the Germanic tribe that settled there during the collapse of Rome - the Angles, Franks, Lombards, Vandals, and Burgundians. That last one always used to puzzle me: Burgundy was a great and powerful French duchy of the High Middle Ages, a shining center of art and culture. What was the connection with a wandering tribe of barbarians? Let's start at the beginning.

It begins with a Germanic tribe called the Burgundii by the Romans, one tribe out of many that stormed across the frozen Rhine on December 31, 406. The Burgundii didn't storm very far: they staked out their turf on the west bank of the Rhine, and settled down and established a kingdom. In 437 they were attacked by Huns; King Gundahar and several thousand warriors were killed, and the little kingdom was wiped out. Six years later, in 443, the remnants of the Burgundii were settled in Savoy as Roman foederati, guarding the Alpine passes from Gaul into Italy.

They prospered in this new setting, becoming power-brokers in the rapid turnover in Roman emperors in the 470's and extending their authority further west into Gaul; by the end of the century they had become a kingdom again under King Gundobad. Called the regnum Burgundionem, the realm at its height occupied the entire valley of the Rhone and most of modern Switzerland; then in 534 it was conquered by the sons of Clovis and absorbed into the growing kingdom of the Franks. That part of the Frankish kingdom, and later the Carolingian empire, kept the name "Burgundia," but only as a geographic term: it had no separate administrative or cultural identity, and all connection with the original tribe of the Burgundii was lost.

s the Carolingian empire broke up in the 9th century, Burgundia was right on the fault lines: some of it went to the western kingdom (the future kingdom of France), some to the east (the future Holy Roman Empire), but the major part became a new Kingdom of Burgundy. This kingdom had no strong identity or cohesiveness: over the next century and a half, it sometimes split in two, sometimes reunited, sometimes lost territory to France or the Empire; finally, in 1032, Rudolf III, the last ruler of an independent Burgundy, died heirless and the kingdom became a county of the Empire. In the 12th century, having defied one emperor and gained special status from his successor (the great Frederick Barbarossa), the county became known as the "Free County" (whence "Franche-Comte" when it later became part of France).

Meanwhile, in the part of old Burgundia that went to France, a local magnate Richard le Justicier absorbed the holdings of neighboring counts in the early 900's; he took the title of duke, and his domain was called the Duchy of Burgundy. The duchy proved to be central to western Europe in the worst way: between 886 and 924 the monastery of Luxeuil was sacked by all three of the "Second Wave" invaders - Vikings from the North Sea coming up the Seine, Saracens from the Mediterranean, and Magyars from the east. But it survived.

1032, the king of France bestowed the duchy on his younger brother, and his descendants ruled Burgundy for over 300 years. This period (called the Capetian duchy, because the dukes were descended from the royal family of Hugh Capet) was the most stable and enduring state of Burgundy during all our period, although (or maybe, because) it stayed out of international politics and didn't make much history. The Cistercian monastic order was founded in Burgundy during the Capetian tenure.

[Digression: One of the great literary works of the High Middle Ages, the Nibelungenlied, was written in this period, specifically in the early 1200's, based on heroic poetry vaguely recalling the earliest Burgundian history, the destruction of the little kingdom on the Rhine by the Huns. Most of the details had been completely forgotten over 800 years, of course - like the fact that the Huns in 437 had not been led by Attila, but were mercenaries fighting for the Roman general Aetius - and the scope of the story had changed from national and political to personal and romantic; but still Gunther is King Gundahar, and Etzel is Attila.]

Philip, the young duke of Burgundy, died in 1361 (of the Black Death) without an heir, and the duchy reverted to the crown; King Jean the Good bestowed it on his fourth son, coincidentally also named Philip. (Another example of Mark Twain's aphorism "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme," since the Capetian royal line of France had died out in 1328 and been succeeded by the Valois line, and now the Capetian ducal line was being succeeded by a Valois line.) And here, with the proud, talented, and immensely charismatic Valois dukes, we finally get to the era of Burgundian fame and power.

irst of the line was Philip the Bold (duke 1363-1404), a statesman and patron of the arts. Philip married the heiress Margaret of Flanders in 1369, adding some significant territories to Burgundy including the Franche-Comte (uniting the "Two Burgundies"), Flanders, and Artois (most of modern Belgium and parts of the Netherlands). The cities of Flanders brought Philip much wealth, but he spent so lavishly on the arts and on public spectacle that he was chronically short of cash; nevertheless, he succeeded in creating a strong, organized state out of his scattered possessions.

he second duke was John the Fearless (1404-1419), a believer in unabashed brute-force power politics. With the wealth and the independent power base created by his father, John fought for control of the kingdom (his cousin, King Charles VI, was a weak ruler and subject to bouts of insanity), going so far as to order the back-alley murder of his principal rival, the Duke of Orleans. When Henry V of England took advantage of this virtual civil war to invade, John secretly allied with him. He was assassinated in 1419, at a meeting with the Dauphin on the bridge at Montereau.

John having been killed by the royalist Armagnac party, his son Philip the Good (1419-1467) now allied openly with England; for example, when his troops captured Joan of Arc, he handed her over to the English for trial. Finally he made his peace with King Charles; with the Treaty of Arras (1435), Philip achieved an autonomous position within France in exchange for repudiating his alliance with the English. His long reign represented the apogee of Burgundian wealth, power, and culture. The revenues from the Netherlands made Philip the richest prince in Western Europe, and he used this wealth to enhance his prestige: he was a patron of arts and letters, and founded his own chivalric order (the Golden Fleece), rivalling the Garter in international prestige.

he last of the Valois dukes was Charles the Bold, or the Rash (le Hardi or le Temeraire, respectively, depending on how one felt about him) (1467-1477). Charles' ambition was to build Burgundy into an independent kingdom, and he came close to succeeding. By war and purchase he gained enough territory to connect his lands in the Low Countries with Burgundy proper; but he then became embroiled with the Swiss, and was killed at the Battle of Nancy in the most decisive defeat of cavalry by infantry in the Middle Ages.

In the scramble to fill the ensuing power vacuum, Charles' daughter and only heir Mary married Maximilian of Hapsburg (later Holy Roman Emperor, 1493-1519), and that is how the territories of Flanders, the Netherlands, and Franche-Comte, the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the name of Burgundy passed into the Hapsburg line - but the name of Burgundy only, because Louis XI, the Spider King, reclaimed all Burgundian lands within France for the crown.

So, what's in a name? Sometimes, the name can last much longer than the thing named, enduring through change from barbarian tribe, to Germanic kingdom, to Frankish successor kingdom, to French duchy, to Hapsburg title.

In the Current Middle Ages
In the old days, we liked to compare Carolingia with Burgundy, as a large, rich, and cultured - and therefore somewhat independent-minded and autonomous - province within the kingdom. But also like Burgundy, the barony has changed over time; Carolingia today is a different kind of place from the Carolingia of AS single-digits. The barony has grown by several orders of magnitude, as have the kingdom and the Society at large, and this has made for very real changes in our institutions. There's been talk off and on (for years) of Carolingia becoming a principality - as an organizational unit more standard in the SCA than a super-barony - and if this ever did come to pass, the comparison with Burgundy would be all the more apt.

Let me bring up one other comparison, Carolingia with the wines of Burgundy. Wine writer P. Morton Shand said of the rich and complex wines of Burgundy that they are "...generous, brave, and pithy as the temper of her people, subtle as their grace and courtly as their fine irony," which certainly sounds like Carolingia to me!

Further Reading
or one thing, do read the Nibelungenlied, if not as Burgundian history (which it isn't) then as one of the great medieval epics (which it is). I recommend the Penguin Classics edition (trans. A.T. Hatto), but there are plenty of other good ones out there.

For the earliest history, the book Romans and Barbarians: the decline of the Western Empire, by E.A. Thompson (1982), has a chapter on the barbarian settlements in Gaul: the Visigoths in Aquitaine and the Burgundians in Savoy. Thompson emphasizes the degree to which these settlements were Roman policy, not Germanic conquest.

Richard Vaughan has written excellent biographies of the four Valois dukes: Philip the Bold (1962), John the Fearless (1966), Philip the Good (1970), and Charles the Bold (1973). These are very analytical books, going into scrupulous detail about administration and finance, government and economics. If you'd prefer something more at the general-interest level, he then wrote the one-volume Valois Burgundy (1975), which makes a much better introductory read.

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text copyright 2000 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
Links to Books
book cover Hatto. A.T. [translator]
(papberback reprint, 1965, $11.20 at Amazon.com)
book cover Thompson, E.A.
Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire
(hardcover, 1982, $29.95 at Amazon.com)
book cover Vaughan, Richard
Philip the bold: the formation of the Burgundian state
(out-of-print, search at Amazon.com)
book cover Vaughan, Richard
John the Fearless: The Growth of Burgundian Power
(paperback, 1979, $11.95 at Amazon.com)
book cover Vaughan, Richard
Philip the Good: the apogee of Burgundy
(out-of-print, search at Amazon.com)
book cover Vaughan, Richard
Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy
(hardcover, 1973, out-of-print, search at Amazon.com)
book cover Vaughan, Richard
Valois Burgundy
(out-of-print, search at Amazon.com)

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