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06.01.05, Nijsten, In the Shadow of Burgundy

The Medieval Review

06.01.05, Nijsten, In the Shadow of Burgundy

Court Culture, Downsized

This book is a history of the culture of a medium-sized court in late medieval Europe. According to the author, Gerard Nijsten, aspiring to "court culture" constituted one of the means by which the dukes of Guelders had to "demonstrate and fight for sovereign authority" (17). The duchy of Guelders was located on the Lower Rhine between the spheres of influence of the Empire, France and Burgundy, and, for Nijsten, it provides an interesting case-study of a border area with a distinct cultural identity. The book argues for a rehabilitation of the image of Guelders as an "international" crossroads of court culture. It also provides an alternative portrait of late medieval court culture, typically studied from the perspective of the largest, most affluent courts.

The time frame covered by the study is primarily 1371 to 1473. It examines the court of four dukes: William I and Reinald IV of the house of Juliers, and Arnold and Adolf of the house of Egmond. To a lesser extent, it deals with the later years of the court up to its incorporation into the Hapsburg Empire in 1543. A helpful chronology is included in the initial pages of the volume.

In his Introduction, Nijsten eschews a theoretical debate over the exact meaning of the word "culture," rather he claims to use it as an umbrella term under which are collected a variety of meanings: the acquired habits of a group, the collective experiences found around a "centre of power," in addition to a cohesive political system in which a ruler demonstrates his power. The major theoretical writings on culture briefly cited include Elias, Bourdieu, Geertz, Eco and Durkheim.

One of the challenges of describing the culture of the court of Guelders is the absence of many extant forms of cultural production. One of the strong points of Nijsten's book is that it reconstructs a picture of court life from a variety of archives (inventories, registers, letters, and charters). This portrait, as Nijsten himself admits, can tend to be "fragmentary" (215) and, in parts, it strikes the reader as speculative. I suspect, reading Nijsten, however, that this book will open up new avenues for debate on Guelders for years to come.

Part I ("The Court") is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 analyzes the emergence of functionaries at the ducal court: a knightly elite, servants and learned men. The increasingly complicated business of government, Nijsten claims, necessitated more and more literate clerks. Other professions, including physicians, priests, clergy and other university-educated officials joined the court in turn. The mid-fifteenth century, Nijsten argues in this chapter and repeatedly throughout the book, was the apex of the court of Guelders, and was necessarily the moment when its staff was the largest.

Chapter 2, entitled "A medium-sized court on its travels," claims to study both the sedentary elements of the court and the mobile retinue of the duke, although the bulk of this chapter is really more concerned with the former. Nijsten estimates the size of the court as in the "medium" category of European courts, about one half of the size of the court of Philip the Good. He also describes the gradual shift of the court's site from Grave to Arnhem during the time of Arnold of Egmond, and includes reflections on the concomitant shift in location, and in relevance, of certain archives.

Chapter 3 explains the privileged location of the region and the financial boon of revenues generated by river tolls. Nijsten makes a significant claim here about the relationship of art and ducal wealth, rejecting the Prevenier-Blockmans thesis of a causal link between cultural activity and financial success. He argues instead that the choice to develop court culture was more a matter of individual ducal ambitions. He asserts also that art was not a luxury but a necessity (107), a claim upon which the rest of the book will attempt to expand. He adds that the cost of cultural activity, with the exception of precious metal work, was relatively inexpensive when compared to other expenditures. In this chapter, Nijsten seems particularly at home with the source material: account books and financial registers.

Chapter 4 discusses the sources in which the image of the ideal prince may have been cultivated in Guelders. He begins by explaining the important late medieval genre of the "mirror for princes." Nijsten dismisses, however, the thirteenth-century compilation of didactic texts known as the Nederrijns Moraalboek, as the best place to investigate the princely instruction of late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Guelders. He prefers other documents: a fragment of a Middle Dutch version of Giles of Rome's De regimine principum, some court poetry by Claes Heynenzoon (also known as Gelre Herald) and a chronicle fragment. Nijsten cautiously discusses the literary conventions of both lyric and the pseudo-historical accounts, venturing into interesting conclusions about the links between power and authority. The chapter offers reflections on the social aspects of ducal education: the relations of student and master, the kinds of books that were taught, as well as the attitudes of parents toward children's studies.

Part II ("The Arts") is divided into four chapters about music, literature, book production and the visual and applied arts, respectively. Chapter 5 attempts to reconstruct the musical scene at the court of Guelders in the absence of extant musical compositions. Nijsten's return to archival sources reveals a plethora of details about the culture of early music in Guelders: the variety of instruments, the salaries of musicians, and also the kind and quantity of musicians. He discusses singers and choirs as well as class and gender difference of court musicians. He conjectures that an exceptional patronage of music existed at the court of Guelders, based on an argument regarding the low mobility of the ducal singers.

Chapter 6 "Literature: the written and spoken word," Nijsten argues that under dukes William and Reinald, a literary culture flourished at the court, even though, of the few extant sources, almost none are dedicated to the dukes. He bases his claim on the variety of codices originating from around the county of Guelders in the same period. In the case of Guelders, the record has preserved only an incomplete puzzle. In this chapter he reconstructs the career of an exceptional court herald--a sort of guardian of chivalric values and diplomatic knowledge--who also happened to be involved in writing, Gelre Herald (mentioned above in Part I). Nijsten makes use of manuscript miscellanies to draw other conclusions about aspiring "occasional" authors in Guelders. For example, the compendium by Tilman Pluntsch allows Nijsten to discuss the social situation of an amateur poet known by the name Master Laurentius. He also makes a case for another would-be writer, the apothecary Henricus of Arnhem. Writing, in addition to being an aspiration for an educated class, served an additional purpose in Nijsten's view: the representation of the noble persona in "troubled times." A variety of texts are discussed to support this argument: a travel narrative to the Holy Land following Duke Arnold's travels to Palestine in 1450, in addition to some verse historical narrative that memorializes ducal valor in diplomatic and military clashes with neighboring powers. Although Chapter 6 brings much new literary material to critical light, its analysis seems somewhat limited. Nijsten offers only passing scrutiny of the contents of these texts and how exactly they shaped the ducal image. Many questions remain open as to the nature of literary artifacts, and the influences on literary production, in Guelders.

Manuscript production and readership is the subject of Chapter 7. Nijsten claims that there is no evidence for a clear division of labor between administrative and literary writing in a ducal scriptorium. He emphasizes also that in Guelders determining the provenance of many of the books is often problematic. Examples discussed include the Guelders Armorial, an undedicated Latin breviary bearing the coat of arms of Guelders, the illuminated prayer-book belonging to Duchess Mary, a breviary belonging to Duke Arnold, and the masterpiece book of hours belonging to his wife Catherine. Nijsten's analysis of these works is narrow, primarily limited to description. He then reviews various archival sources where mention is made of book production and/or collection in order to assess the size of the ducal library of Guelders. At the end of the chapter, he raises the "language question" of the ducal court, as well as the question of rewriting. Nijsten offers very brief comments on the transformation that such texts underwent in their recopying or translation in Guelders, offering only the vague explanation that many of them "came under the spell of 'spiritualisation'" (258).

Chapter 8 showcases a variety of non-literary forms of artistic expression, emanating from and around the court. He discusses painting of various sizes, in addition to archival traces of no longer extant works. Nijsten confirms previous scholarship that the duke and duchess commissioned works from the "visual and applied" arts, and that the artists living in the duchy were of high quality. He shores up his claim with both extant specimens by, and archival mention of, artisans who specialized in stained glass, sculpture, gold work and tapestry. Nijsten asserts that the only rarely would an artist be kept in full service of the duke (only usually the goldsmith). This chapter maintains that painting of the 1440s in Guelders was exemplary, and that the movement of artisans to and from neighboring courts assured "international" cross pollination of styles and trends.

Part III ("Court Culture") is divided into three chapters which each point to the role of court spectacle in reinforcing ducal authority.

In his description of the "private" lives of the duke and duchess in Chapter 9, Nijsten's comments about the reading of books for moral edification seem right, yet his descriptions about what "art" and "beauty" constitute in the Middle Ages seem naive (361). He stresses that spectacle creates a public rhetoric of self-creation, but does not elaborate much on this idea. This chapter also initiates a serious engagement with the Elias thesis linking culture, power and state-formation. Nijsten approaches Elias with caution, claiming that compared to the seventeenth-century focus of Elias' famous study, Guelders' court culture was "only in its infancy" (320). Nijsten, however, does not go much further than claiming that daily court life was made up a complex series of interactions between the duke and duchess, their courtiers and their urban context. This chapter, although ostensibly analytic in nature, ends with elaborate descriptions of various features of court life (the exotic "animal garden" and the motley crowd of outsiders at court, including fools, "heathens," Jews and dwarves) as well as examples of court rituals (birth, death, hunting and tournaments).

Chapter 10 focuses more acutely on the dukes of Guelders and their subjects in the urban context of their interaction. Nijsten shows how archival materials document the measures that the dukes took to assert a public image of order and authority in public rituals. Ceremoniousentries and banquets, but also episodes of everyday life (marriage, death, etc.) provided the dukes the opportunity to consolidate power and to project images of unity. The dukes' conscious effort to project a public image of public guardian extended to their support of the Christian faith, specifically their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and their support of the building and restoration of religious institutions. As princes of the Empire, external diplomatic and international obligations were also crucial. All this came at a price for the small court of Guelders: debt and continual effort to maintain both image and influence. Nijsten concludes with an important question: did the Burgundian court act as a model for a court like Guelders? Of course, it did. Nijsten is right to answer this question with another question: what would qualify any influence in the period as essentially Burgundian?

Chapter 11 of this book explores the relationship between court culture and territorial identity. It is perhaps the most interesting chapter for the non-specialist reader. He questions the idea of the specificity, or rather the distinctiveness, of regional identity. When referring to this identity in the context of European nationalism, Nijsten elegantly calls Guelders but "a tender shoot." In this chapter, he is mainly concerned with whether the dukes were able to inspire a desire for unity in their lands. He claims that, in part, they were able to do that; however, this does not mean that they possessed a clear, unwavering strategy of how to do so. Nijsten's view of history and politics in Guelders seems more Machiavellian, namely that the dukes were primarily interested in the preservation of power and only casually concerned with the kinds of ideal behaviors of a princely education outlined in Chapter 4. The assertion of authority and the preservation of power, of course, as Chapter 10 showed, involved public rituals and ceremonies aimed at projecting regional unity. Nijsten importantly notes, however, that surprisingly the dukes had no official writers of history at court. Glorifying genealogies of Guelders, of the sort which blossomed at the court of Burgundy, were left to clerics or townsmen. Nijsten ends his work with a paradox: territorial awareness cropped up in Guelders, and was reinforced by significant elements of court culture, but as it developed this awareness became a threat to the ducal authority which it had sought to promote in the first place. For Nijsten, culture does not make authority; it can only reinforce power and authority already in place.

The Appendix offers a reconstruction of the book collection of Duke Arnold and Duchess Catherine.

Nijsten's erudite book offers an array of new sources for the study of the late medieval northern Europe. It will challenge scholars of late medieval courts not to take aspects of larger court culture for granted, but instead to investigate the socio-economic underpinnings of cultural activity, and to look deep into the archives for additional evidence of such cultural productions.

The weakest part of this book, it seems to me, are the frequent generalizations and undeveloped theoretical considerations found in it. For example, note 3 of chapter 5 (149) gives a long excursus on the meanings of medieval art. The discussion of habitus and behavior, in order "to penetrate the princes' mentality" (ch. 4, pp. 129-30), strike the reader as less than sophisticated. These theoretical discussions are not so much wrong as they seem ancillary, rather than integral, to Nijsten's historical narrative and analysis of court culture in Guelders. The monograph takes an admirable interdisciplinary approach; at times, however, the clumsy theoretical categories give the reader pause.

The book offers an attractive variety of plates which highlight various aspects of court culture covered in the study. The work was first published in Dutch in 1992 as a dissertation, it was rewritten in 1996-97, and appeared in its current English-language form in 2004. The time lapse between the publication of the thesis and this volume, however, means unfortunately that the critical works cited in the abundant bibliography primarily only date from the mid-1990s.