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The Burgundian Brand

Rolf Strom-Olsen [1]

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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] 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-ComtĂ©), 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.