The Burgundian Brand

Written on November 29, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

PtgSince Miguel has given me the perfect introduction to prattle on about my own area of expertise, I feel I can indulge. The upcoming conference at the Carlos de Amberes foundation is a good reminder that when you learn how to throw a good party, people remember it for a long, long time. It used to be considered that the Dukes of Burgundy were the ne plus ultra  of medieval splendour and the lavishness of their ceremony was the last gasp of a medieval culture soon to be eclipsed. Jan Huizinga’s classic Autumn of the Middle Ages and Otto Cartellieri’s work on the Burgundian Court propagated this view most clearly and, to a degree, it still attains.

Nonetheless, many historians now view these ceremonies rather differently. The ceremony of the Burgundian court – the jousts, burials, Joyous Entries, baptisms, meetings of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and so on – are routinely examined as part of a complex semiotic landscape where symbols and gestures are mined for their ulterior significance and the role they play in expressing power. I certainly agree with this approach. It is also worth noting that Burgundian ceremony ended up anchoring later Spanish ceremonial practices. Indeed, lying in the Real Academia de la Historia is a collection of what might be termed "best practices" laying out Burgundian ceremonial protocol for the benefit of Spanish courtiers.

Miguel notes in passing the core Burgundian dilemma – they were powerful rulers who lacked a title by which to rule. A weak king is still a king. The Dukes of Burgundy, by contrast, were: duke (Burgundy), duke (Brabant), count (Flanders), count (Artois), duke (Luxembourg), count (Franche-Comté), duke again (Zeeland), etc…. As anyone who has read the full title of Charles V knows, the Burgundians collected an impressive number of territories.

But what a headache to rule! In a world where power redounded to the person, and the person was the title, this meant that every time the Burgundian court traveled from one jurisdiction to another, from Brussels to Ghent or Lille, for example, the Duke became legally a different person. The extraordinary ceremonies of the Burgundian dukes reflect this peculiarity of rule. While to our modern eyes it seems as if the ducal court was an almost non-stop ceremony, to someone living in the Low Countries in the 15th or 16th century, the ruler was largely absent. Thus, at times when he did show up, all the more important to make a big impression.

I don’t mean to be facile (or only a little) when I say that this strikes me, the more I think about it, as an exercise in building a Burgundian "brand." In the absence of a clear constitutional mandate to rule over all their lands as a single entity, the Dukes of Burgundy used lavish ceremony to craft an image of their court as a center of governance. The Burgundian brand was designed to give themselves the power of kingship by other means. And like an exercise in modern branding, this required close attention to the details to ensure that expectations were met.

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, this makes sense. You don’t spend a huge whack of money – and Burgundian ceremonies were extremely expensive – without expecting a return on your investment.
The return was power and stability and it was effective enough to allow the Burgundian lands to compete with France as a major power in the 15th century.


Miguel December 2, 2007 - 4:43 am

Chronicles like Chastellain’s have indeed had a great success and transmitted a portrait of 15th century life as colourful as Van Eyck’s paintings. And Huizinga is a good example of that idealizing (and irresistibly attractive) trust in the chronicles of the time to understand the spirit of that age. Of course that method distorts our representation of reality and we risk seeing the Middle Ages as a Hollywood movie. Yet I wonder if post-modern historiography does not risk also distorting reality by reacting excessively against taking the sources at face value. True, the splendour of Burgundian court can be seen as a successful operation of marketing through the creation of a brand. But doesn’t this vision project our own concepts into a century which did not use them? I do not know much about 15th century, so I just ask from pure ignorance, but I know that trying to understand Greek religion through modern experience centered on “belief” just does not work, and we have to use the categories coined by the Greek themselves (see Paul Veyne). I am not sure that the Dukes would have agreed that they were trying to sell a product (a king-like court) as Moët Chandon sells bottles of champagne. I mean, is 20th century utilitarianism a good tool to understand the motivations of those splendorous ceremonies? Take this just as another well-meant provocation to make you, Rolf, go on developing your fascinating subject (if you feel like it).

Rolf Strom-Olsen December 3, 2007 - 1:20 am

Miguel, thanks for the comment. You are quite right of course that we should not export our own views upon the past as being normative. To consider Burgundian ceremony as an exercise in branding much like the image-building behind Versace or Moet-Chandon is not really what I meant. My point is that what we term a “brand” is designed to conjure up a host of qualities that redound to the object, person or idea being branded. As I see it, the key purpose behind lavish Burgundian court spectacle was to project a concept of rule and power that extended beyond the ordinary powers that fell to the Duke as matter of formal titular authority. Thus, a “brand” of power that was designed less to reinforce the Duke as, say, the authority to grant rights over coinage and more to elevate him to a higher role as a final arbiter over all his provinces, indivisibly. That required creating an image and idea of the Ducal court that went beyond its mere legal function. It had to create and maintain an aura of higher power and legitimacy (neither of which it possessed legally) and it had to do so in a way that remained consistent within and across his territories. So in that sense, I do see a correlation with our modern marketing concept of branding: to create the idea of something that rises above and beyond its mere utilitarian function. Thus – Moet-Chandon is more than just champagne, Versace more than just clothes. My analogy is admittedly a bit facile. But to get a sense of what the Burgundian court was trying to achieve, it is still perhaps useful, since it speaks to this need to “sell” an image of power that extended beyond its ordinary, utilitarian function. That said, however, I don’t think the Burgundian dukes would have done commercials, although now that I think about it, isn’t holding all those jousting tournaments a bit like modern sponsorship of sporting events!! ;)

Julián Montaño December 3, 2007 - 9:59 am

Let me play the role a benevolent judge in this controversy, please. Lets us to label the Miguel party as the venerable Essentialist party: “you should not judge rich late Middle Ages symbolism with XXI categories”. Burgundians, and all these peculiar people have their own categories for understanding power, the representation of power and their role in the very complex web of symbols, rites, emblems, signs that builds the self-understanding of the Burgundians. Please try to understand them with their own self-image. Let us to label Rolf party as the witty Nominalist party: “this is about symbols, this is about roles played at particular times with particular ends, why not try to understand these people with the same categories which picture those ends and roles in XXI century”. At the end to understand them is to explain their behaviour in our own categories, to localize them in what we actually do, to translate those symbols to our language -that is what understanding is all about: to translate something to our position. Miguel is the Essentialist party (he is playing the Central European side of himself) because not to place the late Middle Ages symbolism (the Court & King symbolism) in their proper contest and meaning implies to miss the whole point, the particularity, the singleness of that rich text that is the medieval protocol, something of a kind, a world in itself that needs to be understood in their own categories, a species in itself. Rolf is the Nominalist party, because he believes that human behaviour could be described in different categories, XV c. categories, XXI c. categories (very much in the fashion as the Dukes of Burgundy play different roles, described themselves, in their different territories): we gain in the understanding of them in a way they did not achieve in understanding themselves if we define their behaviour as “branding”, “utilitarist strategy”, etc. -very Atlantic position, and a very musical one: variations on a theme. Both approaches are true: when understanding a complex net of symbols, signs, a protocol, a text, you should bear in mind both the 1st person perspective (what they think about themselves) and the 3rd person perspective (what we could see of them with our own, far, spectacles). In this way we could go further in understanding what they do and go further in understanding what we do -being what we have learnt from them or we can learn form them. Neither an Essentialist nor a Nominalist approach, neither 1st person perspective nor 3rd person perspective. Better to keep Miguel & Rolf views at the same time: Dominican and Franciscan, Modern & Postmodern, European & Atlantic, literary & musical.

Miguel December 3, 2007 - 5:55 pm

Gosh! I never suspected we had such illustrious intellectual ancestors when posting and commenting. I’m flattered. Thanks to both of you, Rolf and Julián. In fact, I was carried over, apart from unconscious Dominican essentialism, from my admiration to Huizinga’s approach and style. But I can now see the point of the branding analogy, and I have come to like it. In fact “external perspectives” may distort what they want to show if they are taken too literally, but they do throw new light in angles left in darkness by the internal viewpoints. To keep the nominalist approach within due limits, however, I think that the best defense is not dry German essentialism, doomed to lose the battle of modern audience, but unscientific romanticism, influenced by childhood readings of Sir Walter Scott rather by than any historian, which refuses even to utter in the same breath jousting tournaments and Louis Vouitton’s Cup!!

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