For the late medieval period, “Burgundian” history is a niche in itself, a field comparable to other “national” historiographies of the Middle Ages, though the existence of a “Burgundian state” is a matter of debate. Many historians of the U.S., art historians, and literary scholars will first associate “Burgundy” with Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages (first English translation, as The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1924), “northern Renaissance” panel painting, or late medieval Western European court splendor and refined cultural production in general. However, The Century of Burgundy, the original title Huizinga imagined for his masterpiece, was also a period during which Dukes Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold were major political players in the geopolitics of the Hundred Years’ War. Their territories, ranging from the duchy and county of Burgundy in the south to the counties of Flanders and Holland and the duchy of Brabant in the north, formed what is usually considered a distinct and powerful political entity different in character from France and England. This debate on the nature of “the Burgundian state” is more than a century old. In 1909, Henri Pirenne, the other classic scholar, along with Huizinga, of Burgundian history, published the article “The Formation and Constitution of the Burgundian State (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)” in the columns of this journal (AHR 14, no. 3 : 477–502). Pirenne’s focus was not only on dynastic politics but also on the position of the cities and the nobility in that process, the relationship between “political centralization” (495) and “social and economic forces” (480), and the dukes’ development of central institutions and the creation of a standing army. Defending a similar position on the medieval state in general, Joseph Strayer later made a case for comparative analysis of legal and administrative governmental institutions and state fiscal power in order to lay bare the growth of state power. In recent decades, historians such as Jean-Philippe Genet and especially Walter Prevenier and Wim Blockmans for Burgundian space built upon sociological theories of Max Weber and Charles Tilly about state formation to advance an ideal type of the “modern state” constructed from the late thirteenth century onward within a dialectical interplay between war and taxes. Subsequently, even in France, that most centralist of all modern Western nation-states, historians acknowledge that there were late medieval “regional states,” and now speak of the “Breton state,” the “Bourbon state,” and certainly L’État bourguignon (the title of another fairly recent book on the question  by Bertrand Schnerb). Although Élodie Lecuppre-Desjardin recognizes the value of Genet’s model and structural analysis of institutions and social power, Le Royaume inachevé takes quite a different approach. From the outset, Lecuppre-Desjardin rejects the concept of “state” itself, as it carries too many modern (Weberian) connotations, such as neutrality, rationality, and the monopoly on legitimate violence. To make this point, rather than providing a chronological narrative of state formation, wars, rebellions, taxation, state officials, nobles, burghers, and institutions—although the book features all these classic ingredients—the author presents a more fragmented and anthropological analysis. Lecuppre-Desjardin is primarily a cultural historian, most notably of political culture, which informs her perspective on medieval state building, and her approach should surely be welcomed, as it adds originality and innovation to the debate on late medieval states. Inspired by Foucault, Lecuppre-Desjardin does not want to privilege a Burgundian history read around the key concept of the state, but rather to highlight the diverse, eclectic, and random practices and ideas that brought about a specific form of government in its own cultural context. In practice, Lecuppre-Desjardin primarily seeks to investigate how the historical actors themselves thought about the developments they experienced. She notes, for example, that almost no chronicler or contemporary politician ever used any concept comparable to “state” in reference to the Burgundian polity (12–13). In the end, she draws on the work of Otto Brunner by emphasizing the importance of personal ties of loyalty between rulers and subjects in a type of contractual government, the composite character of premodern political formations, and the legal pluralism of local and regional custom. Lecuppre-Desjardin also argues that the so-called integration of the nobility was not successful, because after Charles the Bold was killed in battle at Nancy in 1477, many nobles betrayed the dynasty to side with the French king. Or did they really “betray” anyone? In the end, their feudal loyalty was to their sovereign, the king. If Burgundy was not a “state,” it also cannot be reduced to a mere personal union of seigneuries. Lecuppre-Desjardin tries to take an intermediate position, opting for the term “Great Seigniory” of Burgundy, to echo the contemporary perception of Duke Philip the Good as the “Grand Duc de l’Occident” (14). However, the book in fact does not often employ the term “Great Seigniory,” nor will it likely be convincing to other historians. Nevertheless, the author points out that the Burgundian lands did not have a common language, or even a fixed capital city (299, 323). There was no unified territory that could be spatially delimited. A possible criticism is that in this period such a close equation of state and nation is not actually necessary. Because the kingdoms of France and England have those features, the author seems to imply that these realms were more like “nations” than was the Burgundian polity. The author is certainly right in her conclusion that there was never a unified “Burgundian” political communication by the state with the potential to integrate the different regions and their elites. The much-acclaimed Burgundian court propaganda did not actually disseminate a coherent state ideology, but instead promoted chivalrous honor and Christian (often crusading) values. Through the elaborate forms of political communication put forward by the Burgundian court, often in a dialogue with the great cities of the northern Dutch-speaking territories, the dukes of Burgundy were propagating their dynastic interests rather than a state. They never had a coherent ideological program but acted opportunistically vis-à-vis the various interest groups in their principalities, whether they were nobles from the duchy of Burgundy proper or Flemish merchant elites. This book will certainly provoke more conceptual discussion, and even those who do not agree with its main arguments will highly recommend it to students of late medieval political history. Written in elegant French prose, it will please not only scholars but also the large popular audience for this type of work in France and the French-speaking part of Belgium, even though the typically lengthy phrases and refined rhetoric still cherished by French medievalists might prove difficult for many non-native speakers. Most of all, in the author’s reconstruction of the biographies and networks of the sometimes opportunistic state officials who were the true core of the Burgundian polity, her vivid style truly brings to life the historical figures as it offers a fresh view on the “century of Burgundy.” © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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