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W. Blockmans, T.-H. Borchert, N. Gabriels, J. Oosterman and A. Van Oosterwijk (eds), Staging the Court of Burgundy (Brepols, 2013)

W. Blockmans, T.-H. Borchert, N. Gabriels, J. Oosterman and A. Van Oosterwijk (eds), Staging the Court of Burgundy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013). ISBN 978-I-905375-82-0, 394 pp + ii., 64 colour plates.  €115.00.

Reviewed by Graeme Small


[1] This interesting volume highlights the breadth and depth of current research into the Burgundian court, offering an encouraging mix of work by early career and long-established scholars, and representing a wide range of disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary inquiry.

[2] The book is divided into five main sections ( ‘Arts at the Burgundian court’, ‘Golden Fleece’, ‘The Ceremonial Court’, ‘Power and Representation’, ‘The City, the Urban Elite and the Burgundians’, ‘Burgundian Manuscripts’). Sections generally hold together well, but short reflective essays at the start of each one, in place of the brief summary of papers that is set out in the introduction (pp. 11-12), would have lent the volume greater coherence. On the Golden Fleece, for example, the papers appear at first glance to be rather disparate: Barbara Haggh considers the Order’s role in promoting musical creativity, Sonja Dünnebeil demonstrates its ability to provide continuity between the Valois and Habsburg dynasties, while Andrea Berlin brings important new documentation to light on the Order’s part in the trial of the conspirator John of Étampes during a period of dynastic crisis towards the end of Philip the Good’s reign. From these quite different approaches, a central point nonetheless emerges: the Golden Fleece was a far more dynamic institution than Johan Huizinga was prepared to acknowledge, responsive to political challenges and changing cultural circumstances throughout the Valois and early Habsburg years.

[3] In his introductory essay, Wim Blockmans observes that Burgundian expenditure on ‘conspicuous cultural performances, ceremonies and artefacts’ was really quite low compared, say, to expenditure on war. But to judge from travellers’ accounts and the recorded reactions of ducal subjects, it was remarkably successful in promoting ducal authority through performance. Staging the Court of Burgundy focuses on previously neglected aspects of the material culture of the court, such as the art of embroidery (Andrew Hamilton), table- and wine-fountains (Klaus Oschema) or the goblet (Eva Helfenstein), but equally it considers afresh better-known objects such as early Flemish portraits (Till-Holger Borchert), court reliquaries (Jos Koldewij) or books of hours (Kathryn Rudy). Also in this category of paper we might include Jana Lucas’s study of the brass memorial donated to the Carthusian convent of Basel by Isabella of Portugal, which served as a ‘luxurious visiting card’ to the Council then being held in the city. Case studies are enhanced by attempts to challenge established methodologies, such as Henk T Jong’s paper on the Panofsky-inspired school of art historical criticism known as ‘disguised symbolism’. Other papers apply theoretical perspectives or approaches that have hitherto been disappointingly under-represented in the field of Burgundian historiography. Issues of gender are touched on, for example, in Anna Campbell’s paper on gift-giving and religious patronage and Sherry Lindquist’s study of female nudes in manuscripts made for Louis of Bruges, while recent interest in visual culture and performance studies is reflected in the contribution of James Bloom. Several papers show how different media might combine in the process of political communication through performance or artefact – Jonas Goossenaerts looks at Charles the Bold’s marriage celebrations at Bruges in 1468 in this light, for example, while Hanno Wijsman and Sophie Jolivet explore how common ideological strands might be detected in different areas of court culture, such as fashion and dress on the one hand, and manuscript commissions on the other. We are reminded – by Wolfgang Brückle, but also by Joaneath Spicer – of the difficulties in assessing how contemporaries received the political messages which, we believe, these objects and performances imparted. Were miniature white roses depicted in paintings necessarily direct allusions to the Lancastrian alliance of the fourth duke, or simply there for decorative purposes? Is it not probable there were multiple layers of meaning in complex images like the ‘Allegory of the ruler as a good judge’ (the so-called ‘Montpellier parchment’), rather than any one clearly-identifiable message? Studying the reception of visual culture is an immensely complex task, in part because different people were inevitably capable of seeing different things. This last point also emerges from Johan Oosterman’s paper on the sources at our disposal for studying the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, all of which remember the event differently.

[4] In addition to the themes of cultural performance and political communication, many of the essays in this volume are linked by their emphasis on the relationship between city and court. Once again, the contrast with Huizinga’s vision of the court as a closed and introspective world is marked: what emerges instead is a permeable court, disseminating and receiving cultural influences to and from its urban milieu – a process typified, for example, by the singers of the Bruges churches who, as Hendrik Calleweir shows, moved easily between city and court. Eric Bousmar argues that despite the fact it was an increasingly exclusive event in terms of the social standing of participants, the urban location of the form of the court joust known as the pas d’armes marked it out as a ‘mass happening’. Mario Damen reveals how chivalric and urban agendas might still combine in tournaments well into the fifteenth century (thereby challenging some of the findings of Évelyne van den Neste’s 1996 study of the subject). Jesse Hurlbut provides a conspectus of the civic entry ceremonies of Charles the Bold, while Andrew Brown opens up a surprisingly understudied facet of ritual that also integrated the civic and the courtly, namely Burgundian funerals (which he amusingly dubs ‘exit ceremonies’). Bieke Hillewaert’s study of the archaeological remains of the Bruges Prinsenhof reminds us that the ducal presence in the city was transient: itinerant dukes who pack their bags and move to the next city leave less in the ground for archeologists to pore over than more sedentary rulers. But in their absence, their palaces stood as a reminder to their subjects of the duke’s authority. Indeed, as Sascha Köhl points out, municipal architecture was itself strongly marked by signs of the prince’s authority, not least in the decorative schemes of the town hall façade. It is likely, of course, that we will develop a much more nuanced understanding of the periodization, intensity, direction and principal agents of cultural interaction between city and court, and some of the work published here begins to chip away at these issues. Herman Brinkman’s finding that ‘Burgundian influence on Middle Dutch literature (especially chambers of rhetoric) on a broader scale only commenced after Burgundian rule had given way to Habsburg rule’ is significant, and chimes with Emily Snow’s detailed study of the literary contest promoted by Philip the Fair for the liturgy of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows, in which a Habsburg initiative drew on practices associated with civic chambers of rhetoric. These findings sit well with Anne-Laure Van Bruaene’s work (2010) on ‘The Habsburg Theatre State’. In any event, the evidence of Samuel Mareel in the present volume challenges any firm boundary we might care to draw between court and civic literary traditions, in his suggestive discussion of the possibility that occasional poems touching (among other things) on the political fortunes of the dynasty were composed by civic rhetoricians and performed in the course of public processions. ‘Civic patriotism and dynastic celebration’ also combine in the series of portraits of counts of Flanders in Douai BM ms 1110, studied here by Olga Vassilieva-Codognet.

[5] The title of this volume echoes and develops that of a 2006 collection of essays, The Court as a Stage: England and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages (edited by Steven Gunn and Antheun Janse), but the more obvious point of comparison here is another recent collaborative venture, the volume brought together in 2013 to celebrate the career of Werner Paravicini (La Cour de Bourgogne et l’Europe: Le Rayonnement et les Limites d’un Modèle Culturel). Compared to this last collection, Staging the Court of Burgundy is more eclectic and less comparative, being a series of presentations of current work rather than a collection of commissioned essays. One or two of the papers could have done with closer copy-editing and more attentive translation. But on the whole, the volume will be read with profit by students and researchers alike, and is a worthwhile acquisition for historians, art historians and university libraries.

Durham University, May 2015

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