Medieval Burgundy’s Abortive Project of State-Building

Today, the symbolic center of the Burgundian wine trade is the Hospice de Beaune, the beautiful medieval hospital building, which hosts the annual harvest festival of some of France’s most high-end wine-makers. It is also one of the best preserved examples of late-medieval architecture still extant. The charitable hospital that remained in use until the 1980s, was built in the 1440s by the great chancellor of medieval Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin. It is a reflection of the wealth and power of the Dukes of “Valois Burgundy”, who between 1361 and 1477 ruled a vast territory that stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

Image: The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin by Jan van Eyck c. 1435 (Louvre)

In the clear-headed intervals between mind-blowing immersions in fine French wine and food (working for Dana on another fantastic Conley and Silvers trip), I’ve been trying to get a handle on the political history of “Valois Burgundy”. Between glasses of chardonnay and pinot and convivial conversation, I’ve become convinced that Burgundy isn’t just beautiful and delicious. Its history is important.

There are various ways of dating the end of middle-ages and the transition to the early modern period: 1453 and the fall of Constantinople; 1492 and the discovery of the New World; the conjoined development of the renaissance and early capitalism in northern Italian city states in the 1400s; but if one thinks in geopolitical terms, a strong case can be made for 5 January 1477 as the dividing line between the middle ages and the early modern period. On that day, outside the gates of Nancy, the army of Charles the Bold of Burgundy went down to defeat, leaving the Duke dead and mutilated on the battlefield, stripped of all his feudal dignity, his ambition crushed by the relentless discipline of the Swiss pike phalanx. Burgundy ceased to exist as an independent power and with it went the medieval system of power in Western Europe.

Image: Eugene Delacroix, The Death of Charles the Reckless (1831)

To my surprise one can cite as an authority for this view none other than Michael Mann who devotes an illuminating section in Volume I of the Sources of Social Power to the rise and fall of the Burgundian state. As Mann puts it: “The final battle of Nancy in 1477 was a rout once the Burgundian knights failed to break up the pike phalanx. Duke Charles fled, perhaps already wounded. He attempted to gallop a stream and was unhorsed. Lumbering in his heavy armor, he was an easy target. His skull was crushed, probably by an ax. Two days later his naked corpse, stripped of fine clothes, armor, and jewels and partly eaten by wolves, was dragged out of a muddy stream. Identified by means of his long fingernails and old wounds, he was a ghastly image of the end of feudalism.” Mann, 440.

As this quote suggests, volume I of Sources of Social Power, like volume II on the 19th century, is far more lively and illuminating than Mann’s subsequent efforts on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Of course, this may reflect my relative level of expertise.

What is at stake in the Burgundy question of the 1300s and 1400s is the possibility of forming new kernels of economic and political power, aside from those that would actually emerge as the power states of the early-modern period – France, Spain, Austria, England, etc. Amongst those powers that might actually have fundamentally reshaped the map of Western Europe, the medieval dukedom of Burgundy is the most significant.

By contrast with the territorial states that were emerging all around it, Mann tries to depict Burgundy as a non-territorial state governed by an earlier, feudal logic of movement. In light of other more recent accounts of Burgundian state-building, most notably by Bertrand Schnerb, this is not entirely convincing. In his L’Etat Bourguignon (1999), Schnerb gives us a rich account of Burgundian state-building as an abortive power-political project of a conventional territorial type. What matters is not the peculiar form of the Burgundian state, but its scale and its position on the map. It was this, which made its rise and fall pivotal to the emergence of the modern map of Europe.


The era of Valois Burgundy began with a double succession crisis. The first was in France. In 1328 the French Capetian line ran out and the inheritance of kingdom of France passed to Philip VI of Valois, reviving the long-running rivalry with the English and their Angevine allies in France. The resulting war, what would become known as the hundred years war started badly for the French. The British (mainly Welsh) archery system devastated French chivalry at Crecy and Poitiers. At the same time, the plague was ravaging France and in 1361 it claimed the last of the Capetian Burgundian dukes. This created a difficult legal situation. It was not clear that the Valois who had claimed the French throne, had title to Burgundy. But dynastic marriage lines were labyrinthine and medieval lawyers worked their magic. Jean II of France took direct control of Burgundy, threatening to incorporate the independent dukedom into the French crown land. This was deeply unpopular with the Burgundian aristocracy. So in 1363, desperate to rally support to the French throne, Jean conferred the dukedom on his younger brother Philippe le Hardi who had distinguished himself at Poitiers. To block a move by the English to take control of Flanders, or dispute the Valois succession in Burgundy, the new duke, Philippe, married the old duke’s widow, uniting the Burgundian lands and tying them closely to the rich territories of Artois and Flanders.

The Valois thus secured Burgundy and their Northern flank against the English. But the result was to enormously aggrandize Burgundy and to found a new dynasty. For a hundred years Burgundy would become a dukedom so large, so rich, so militarily powerful and so strategically located that it came to be the crucial swing variable in French and European history.

Four dukes in succession would make Burgundy into a key factor in late medieval politics.

Philip le Hardi, Philip the Bold ruled from 1363 to 1404.

His successor, Jean Sans Peur, John the fearless, earned his reputation in the brutal crusade against the Turks in Hungary in 1396. This was the last of the great crusades and a low point in the history of Christendom. No longer was Christendom fighting for the holy land, it was now fighting for Europe.

Jean Sans Peur who ruled Burgundy from 1405, would be assassinated in factional fighting in Paris in 1419 and was succeeded by Philippe le Bon (1419-1467).

Philippe le Bon was perhaps the most glamorous Burgundian duke. He would marry daughters of the kings of France and Portugal and the duke of Artois. He sired, 4 legitimate and at least 26 illegitimate children. A major player in European power politics, his fame would be multiplied by his patronage of the arts.

Finally, Charles le Temeraire, Charles the Reckless whose brief ten-year reign, from 1467 to 1477, was so full of ambition that it would bring the dynasty to the height of its power and precipitate its downfall.

There are a handful of English and French-language accounts of the Burgundian Valois. The latest is that by Bertrand Schnerb, L’Etat Bourguignon (1999). Schnerb teaches medieval history at Lille and curated a beautiful exhibition on the great dukes at the Château du Clos de Vougeot last year.


The Burgundian dukes used every means at their disposal to solidify and aggrandize their power.

By the standards of the day they had huge resources at their disposal. Through their marriage into Flanders they acquired control of the most economically dynamic region of northern Europe, with its booming textiles trade and its flourishing culture of humanism.

The Valois dukes consolidated the richest fiscal apparatus in France, generating a huge revenue above all from their Northern holdings. Between 1379 and 1384 when Philippe relied on revenues from the Burgundian heartland his annual revenue was around 140,000 livre turnoi from his ducal lands and taxes. With the addition of Flanders revenues soared, to 270,000 in 1395 and 696000 in 1402-3, with the vast majority coming from Artois and Flanders. p. 108-109. This made him by far the richest prince in France.

The towns were not always servile. Where they were not the Burgundians did not hesitate to crush them. As Mann points out: “Philip the Bold liked to walk on a carpet depicting the leaders of a rebellion in the towns of Flanders – stepping on the commoners who had dared defy him”. One of the striking features of Mann’s account, I cannot judge its accuracy, is the force with which he delineates feudal aristocracy as a militant and murderous form of class rule.

The marriage policy of the ducal family did everything it could to solidify this link to Flanders. But they also married into the royal house of Portugal.

To deepen their feudal rolodex the Burgundians created a prestigious chivalric order, the order of the golden fleece. It was intended to rival the order of the garter created by Edward III of England in 1340s and given luster by England’s victories in the 100 years war.

The Burgundians added to their prestige by enthusiastically backed the crusades and sending their young princes to fight the “Turks”.

And to make sure everyone got the message, the Burgundians sponsored music and the arts. The Burgundians were amongst the greatest narrators of the final flowering of chivalry. The Burgundians bulked large in Froissart’s chronicles and Christine de Pizan wrote her history of the king Charles V on a Burgundian commission. .

Froissart Chronicles, The Duke of Burgundy. Source:

As Mann puts it: “Its celebration of knighthood appealed extraordinarily to a European world in whichthe real infrastructures of knighthood (the feudal levy, the manor, transcendent Christendom) were in decline. Its Order of the Golden Fleece, combining symbols of purity and valor from Old and New testaments and classical sources, was the most prized honor in Europe.”


Above all the Burgundian dukes played politics. In a sense they had little option. As the Anglo-French war progressed, the English become ever more dominant. And things got even worse in 1392 when the French nobility had to the face the fact that the latest Valois to inherit the throne Charles VI was prone to bouts of violent madness, including inexplicably turning on his own retinue and killing his own knights in cold blood.

The Dukes of Burgundy found themselves engaged in a power play which put in play nothing less than control of the French monarchy, if necessary in collaboration with the English. This put them at odds with the King’s younger brother Louis Duc d’Orleans, who generally posed as the head of the “patriotic” faction, but who was not above entering into alliances of convenience with the English, if needs be.

The result of this clash was to turn Paris in the early 1400s into a battlefield in the manner of feuding contrada in an Italian city state. The clash between the Burgundians and the Armagnac sparked civil war across France. In November 1407 Jean Sans Peur had his rival the king’s brother, Louis duc d’Orleans murdered in Paris in cold blood. With France in chaos, the ambitious new king of England Henry V revived the English military effort and reasserted his claim to the throne of France. In October 1415 the English crushed the French at Agincourt, killing perhaps as much as 20 % of the entire French nobility of fighting age. By 1418 the English were menacing Paris and the civil war was still raging. Indeed, the French civil war was about to intensify. In September 1419 the Orleanist faction ambushed Jean Sans Peur of Burgundy and killed him. They had their revenge for the murder of Louis by the Burgundians in 1407.

The possibility of an Anglo-Burgundian deal had long been in the making. They had in common a hostility to the power of the French kings. The killing of Jean Sans Peur clinched the deal. On the Anglo-Burgundian alliance of the 1420s see this recent essay by Clifford J. Rogers. The results for “France” were dramatic.

In May 1420 Philip Le Bon of Burgundy, who succeeded his assassinated father, helped to broker the Treaty of Troyes under which the heirs of Charles VI of France were disinherited and Henry V of England would become king of France. Until Charles VI’s death, France would be under the regency of Henry V. In the regent’s council of French advisors, the duke of Burgundy would have the first place. When Henry V died the regency in France was assumed by the duke of Bedford to whom the Duke of Burgundy promptly married his sister. In 1423, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance was complemented by a marriage treaty with the duke of Brittany and a treaty of peace between England and Scotland that removed the main foreign ally of the Orleanists.

The 1420s were the lowest points of medieval France. As Rogers reports: “In 1428, English forces began the siege of Orléans, the main dauphinist city north of the Loire. Even without active Burgundian assistance to the English it seemed to many that a Lancastrian victory in the war had become imminent. As Marguerite la Touroulde recalled some years later: At that time there was such misery and such shortage of money in this kingdom … that things were in a pitiable state. And even those who were loyal to the King [Charles VII] were all nearly in despair. I know this because my husband was at the time the Receiver General, and he had not four crowns all told, of the King’s money or his own … At that moment there was no hope except in God.

“God” did indeed swing the balance. Since it had been Henry VI’s queen, Isabel of Bavaria who had signed France away in the Treaty of Troyes, a popular prophecy promised that a virgin would appear to save France. In February 1429 at a moment of dire crisis for France, a young girl from Domrémy on the border of Champagne and Lorraine came on the scene, Joan of arc. A religious mystic and proto nationalist she rallied the French resistance. The siege of Orleans was relieved, the English defeated at Patay and the path was clear to assert Charles VII’s legitimacy as French king, by a coronation at Reims. His reign, much commended by Machiavelli in early 1500s, would become crucial for French recovery.

Image: Charles VII by Jean Fouquet 1445 Louvre

As the French pushed their advantage, at Compiegne in 1430 Joan or Arc, fell into Burgundians hands and was sold by them to the English for 10,000 pounds, a vast ransom. With the connivance of the church hierarchy they tried her for heresy and burned her at the stake in May 1431.

As French resistance consolidated, the English descended into their own dynastic crisis, the War of the Roses. English subsidies to Burgundy dwindled. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, in 1435 Burgundy abandoned England and concluded a new treaty with Paris and the Valois kings, acknowledging their sovereignty but insisting on the independence of Burgundy and reparations for the murder of Jean Sans Peur in 1419.

Accommodation with France was the defensive option. But how stable was it? Understandably, Charles VII of France regarded Burgundy as a dangerous threat to his sovereignty. The Burgundian dukes, for their part, had everything, but a crown. With the advent of Charles le Temeraire to the dukedom in 1467 it became clear that without a kingdom they would not be satisfied.


How could a dukedom gain promotion to a monarchy?

One option was to solidify the already formidable institutions of the Burgundian realm. Charles the Bold created a standing army and a permanent tax system to back it up.

The familiar story of the military revolution, translated into critical theory by way of Foucault and others, locates the critical breakthroughs in state organization in the 1500s. Burgundy’s history suggests that this early modern narrative underestimates the significance of the late-medieval period and the hundred years war in particular, which impelled dramatic changes in military organization. The success of British archers against French knights in the second half of the 14th century, changed European military history. The basis of military power and the social relations built on them were irrevocably changed. In the Burgundian army the shift was dramatic. In 1372 knights and knight bachelors accounted for 19 % of the burgundian army, for 13 % in 1382, 7.2 % in 1405 and 3-5 % in 1417. Meanwhile, following the English example the share of archers surged from 12 % in 1382 to 40 % in 1417. By 1430-1436 “les gens de trait” (long and crossbowmen) made up 70 % of burgundian army. 266-267. This assimilation of the English way of warfare was another aspect of the diplomatic alliance of the 1420s.

Burgundian artillery piece captured by the Swiss in 1475

Meanwhile, Burgundy was caught up in the beginning of the age of gunpowder. In 1366 Philippe le Hardi ordered 2 artillery pieces and 4 pounds of powder for every Burgundian fort. In 1406 when the Burgundian army moved against Calais it deployed 120 canon and 10,000 powders of powder. Thirty years later, for another attack on Calais they allowed 575 cannons on land and 80 at sea. Between 1442 and 1446 alone the Burgundians acquired 320 new pieces. And it was not just the number, but the weight of artillery that increased. The heaviest gun in 1409 weighted 8 tons. By 1449 the Duke commanded a piece of 16.5 tons that would take more than 48 horses to move. To manage his artillery park, in 1414 Jean Sans Peur appointed a chief garde et maître d’artillerie. From the 1440s the prestige of that office was indicated by attaching it to the Lord Chamberlain, giving the chief artillery officer direct access to the duke.

Apart from the English example and the gunpowder revolution, the other great influence on the Burgundians was competition with the  French. By 1447 Charles VII had established a permanent French army, made up of so-called ordinance companies. This gave the French an enviable and alarming degree of flexibility. They were always ready to strike. As Charles the reckless remarked: “le roi de France qui es si muable et si inconstant que nul ne sait ce qu’il a en propops et comment bonnement l’on se gardera de lui, car il a tourjours ses gens d’armes prets”. P . 270 No one could predict the next move by the French king, because he always had his men at arms ready. Burgundy had no option but to follow suit. In 1468 Charles the Reckless began his rule with a general muster of all those required to do service. Fighting potential was to be ranked by physical capacity and income, with fixed tables specifying the levy in times of war. To provide an immediate striking force the Duke in 1474 ordered the creation of 22 ordnance companies on the French model, with a total of 19800 fighting men more or less permanently under arms.

A permanent military establishment on this scale was very expensive. By the 1400s medieval monarchs were struggling to contain the basic logic that tied taxation to representation. If the king wanted taxes he had to call a parlement to vote them. Of course, Charles wasn’t a monarch, but that didn’t stop him calling a parliament of burgundian notables at the town of Malines. He had them vote taxes and crown him. Not surprisingly Louis XI saw this as a clear and direct challenge to his authority a flagrant case of lese majesté.

No burgundian prince could be surprised at jealousy from Paris. To counteract it, the basic Burgundian policy had been to balance England against France. But who in the 1460s and 1470s ruled England? With the War of the Roses England was tearing itself apart. In the Wars of the Roses, the French monarchy had allied itself with the Lancastrian faction. Burgundy had picked the Yorkist side. When Warwick the Kingmaker swung the balance in favor of Lancaster and Henry VI was returned to the throne, Louis XI decided it was time to strike against Burgundy declaring war in 1471, offering the Lancastrians Burgundian territory. It was a menacing combination for the Burgundians. But Charles the Bold struck back. When he was driven out of England Edward IV of York was given shelter by Burgundy. And with their assistance he returned to England in 1472 to reconquer the kingdom. In 1472 in Schnerb’s words a “vast network of alliances” was assembling against Louis XI of France including the house of Aragon, the dukes of Brittany, Milan and Savoy. A first bout of campaigning began in 1472 and ended inconclusively with a truce in the fall of 1473.

At this point Charles the Reckless further raised the stakes. He had been expanding Burgundy’s territories in the Holy Roman Empire to include Upper Alsace. Now his ambition went further. In a spectacular meeting with Emperor Frederick III, Charles hoped not only to consolidate his territories along the Rhine, but to receive the dignity of a kingship, which would place him on the same level as the French king. The deal would be cemented by the marriage of Marie of Burgundy, Charles’s only heir to Maximilian of Habsburg, heir to the Habsburg lands. This would place burgundy beyond the reach Paris and the Valois and make burgundy on the west side of the Vosges into the widest extension of the Holy Roman Empire.

Image: Banquet given by Charles the Reckless for Emperor Frederick III at Trier 1473, Zurich Schilling Chronicle.

Disastrously for Charles, the negotiations with the Emperor broke down, at least for now. Burgundy was now in a dangerous position, having antagonized the French kings and failed to cement the necessary deal with the Habsburgs. Charles responded with characteristic aggression. Spurned by Holy Roman Empire of German nations, Charles decided to attack it. He would consolidate the link between his Burgundian “French” lands and his rich source of income in the north further down the Rhine in Flanders by intervening in the Archbishopric of Cologne, where his friend the bishop was being besieged by the populace assisted by the Landgrave of Hesse. But, the Burgundian siege of Neuss failed and it had the effect of raising against him a crushing three-way coalition. In December 1474 Burgundy faced a coalition headed by Louis XI of France and Frederick III of Habsburg. They were joined by an alliance of the cities of Alsace with the formidable Swiss cantons that resisted Burgundy’s policy in upper Alsace. The ensuing war, was a military disaster for Burgundy. By the time he was brought to bay in January 1477 outside Nancy, Charles’s army, depleted by hunger, disease and desertion numbered only 2000 men, against a Swiss force of 12,000. Charles was killed whilst fleeing the field.

Image: The battle of Nancy (1477), Chronicles of Luzern, Diebold Schilling the Younger, 1511-1513, Facsimile folio 119r (241). Final attack on the Burgundian forces. In the Centre: Charles the Bold in his “golden” armor.

Now Burgundy’s mighty western and eastern neighbors pounced. Charles the Bold had no male heir. His daughter Marie de Bourgogne would inherit. But Louis XI announced that a fiefdom granted by the king of France could not be passed to the female line. The French monarchy reclaimed the Duchy of Burgundy. At this point emperor Frederick III realized that unless he acted fast France would claim the entire rich inheritance of burgundy. Marie of Burgundy had inherited her family’s strength of character and had no intention of becoming a pawn of the French. So she married herself off to Maximilian I of Habsburg son of Frederick III. The result was to create one of the most spectacular territorial agglomerations Europe had ever seen, as represented by Mary’s coat of arms.


In 1493 a treaty between France and the Holy Roman Empire, the treaty of Senlis, sealed the fate of Burgundy. The dukedom – what we think of as Burgundy today – went to France. Flanders and the Netherlands went to the Habsburgs. In 1500s the grand-son of Maximilian and Marie of Burgundy, the great grand-son of Charles the bold, Charles V would inherit the greatest Empire that Europe had seen since the days of Charlemagne. His territories stretching from the Netherlands to Spain in the West and Austria and Italy in the South East, encircled France and set the stage for the Franco-Habsburg conflict that would define European politics down to the age of Napoleon. That confrontation was not an inevitable, natural given of European geopolitics. It was the division of Burgundy that brought France and the Habsburgs face to face.

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