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18.02.10, Stein, Magnanimous Dukes and Rising States

18.02.10, Stein, Magnanimous Dukes and Rising States

The historiographical debate on the Burgundian state has endured for more than a century. Caught between France and England during the Hundred Years' War, the various principalities ruled by the Valois Dukes of Burgundy not only developed into a major European political power, but were also famous for economic strength and sophisticated cultural production. In a new contribution to this old scholarly discussion, Robert Stein advances a specific perspective, one which should be welcomed because of its originality but which also raises major questions. Despite my doubts about the approach, this book has strengths that must be acknowledged and should certainly be welcomed as contributing to our understanding of the Burgundian unification of the Low Countries.

One strength is its discussion of how the dukes acquired their principalities more by power politics and financial maneuvers than by legitimate succession, a narrative certainly worth reading. A second is the overview of institutional developments, and the sections on the importance of representative institutions are particularly useful and innovative. A third accomplishment of the book is its explicit treatment of the formation of this medieval state in the interplay between the prince and what Stein refers to as "the subjects" of a polycentric political order. Stein considers the Burgundian state a "composite monarchy," a concept developed by J. H. Elliott to designate a polity that combines diverse territories under a single ruler. While the term itself does not clarify whether there are special characteristics to the formation of a state ruled by a composite monarchy, it does offer a useful description for the Burgundian state. By attaching less importance to the actual centralization and unification of the various principalities (the Duchy and the County of Burgundy, but also Flanders, Hainaut, Brabant, etc.), Stein correctly emphasizes that they continued to distinguish themselves by individual features. His main focus is on Holland and Brabant, and, to a lesser degree, on Flanders. This "northern" perspective is welcome, but it comes at the cost of some neglect of the "French" territories of the Dukes: Burgundy proper, Franche-Comté, Artois and the possessions in Picardy.

In fact, this is arguably the most "un-French" book written on les grands ducs de l'occident. Stein's focus on the northern Netherlands produces long passages on episodes such as the attempt of Jacqueline of Bavaria to claim Holland and Hainaut and the factional struggle between the Hooks and the Cods in Holland. These are topics well worth mentioning in a Burgundian history, but there is almost no discussion of the civil war in France between Armagnacs and Bourguignons, a conflict with tremendous implications for the financial and political development of the Burgundian state. Even the Hundred Years War is only given scant attention, despite the crucial impact of this long series of military confrontations on Burgundian state formation. Even if Stein's very "Dutch" approach is a useful complement to other works on the Burgundian polity by historians such as Richard Vaughan, Werner Paravicini, Graeme Small, Bertrand Schnerb and Élodie Lecuppre-Desjardin, who start from a "French" perspective, to my mind his focus on Brabant and Holland remains problematic. In practice, the author's lack of interest in the French political field that always fully engaged the Burgundian dukes leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy that military and geopolitical aspects matter less in this model of state formation, precisely because they are never seriously taken into consideration.

Institutions and officials matter more to Stein. To this end, he aligns himself with a rather traditional Weberian stance and at times overuses the terms "rationalization" and "bureaucracy." On the eve of their unification, Stein argues, all the principalities of the Netherlands were bankrupt because of the dynastic adventures and disastrous financial policies of previous counts and dukes. In the nick of time they were rescued by rational Burgundian bureaucrats, intellectuals with university degrees who had replaced the old feudal elites in central state institutions.

While these bureaucrats were significant, Stein's emphasis on their innovative methods of financial control and administration seems overdrawn in view of evidence from the sources. The stark contrast he suggests between the pre-Burgundian and Burgundian eras in the rational administration of demesne and finances is slightly exaggerated, as is the presence of judicial and financial specialists in government institutions selected solely on the basis of competence (as opposed to "arbitrary feudal" methods). There had been extensive use of professional officials with a legal training in Flanders and the rest of the southern Low Countries since c. 1300 and, even earlier, princely governments in the region had imported new financial techniques.

With a different selection of sources, facts and protagonists, it could just as well be argued that the Burgundian state apparatus looked more like a network of patron-client relationships, or a gang of organized criminals. Stein does acknowledge that patronage, factional struggle and arbitrariness existed in local courts and obstructed the "rational" state. However, he tends to neglect the persistence of these pre-Burgundian aspects of state formation in his argument for a rational Burgundian bureaucracy.

While most state-building narratives since Charles Tilly analyze "war," "taxation," and "political representation," Stein takes only the latter two seriously. In his view institutions that represented subjects who thought they would gain from unification further stimulated the Weberian rationality of the Burgundian composite monarchy. At the same time, Stein argues that the Burgundian state was as much constructed "from below" as "from above," the outcome of a dialogue between the prince and the "subjects." What he means by this latter term, however, is generally only the regional elites, as his discussion of subjects focuses on the limited group of urban upper classes who were represented in the Estates General and provincial representative institutions.

Nobles and clerics (unless they acted as bureaucrats) do not play important roles in Stein's story, nor does he grant the popular classes much agency as a historical force. His narrative suggests that the Burgundian state was primarily born in the negotiations between Valois princes and a politically conscious northern burgher elite, who sometimes seem to foreshadow their descendants who played an important role in the specific character of the Dutch Republic a century and a half later. He does not address the strong forces of social and political mobilization in the textile towns of the Low Countries, nor the culture of dialogue and deliberation common to craft guilds as well as representative institutions composed of rich merchants, both strong indicators that many wealthier master artisans belonged to the "political society" of the realm. To some degree, the state and its officials had to consider their interests, or sacrifice political and economic stability. Guilds had more political weight in Flanders and Brabant than in almost any other region of late medieval Europe. Despite an extensive, growing literature on this topic, Stein does not sufficiently engage with the socio-economic, political and cultural importance of the lower ranks of "subjects."

Stein concludes that urban elites accepted Burgundian state formation because they realized their own interests would profit as well; the dukes allegedly created a favorable economic climate with monetary stability. In absence of evidence for this claim, I think that it might be correct for the reign of Philip the Good, less so for his predecessors Philip the Bold and John the Fearless, and not at all for his successor Charles the Bold. While Stein's discussions of state finance are interesting, his argument that every Dutch principality was on the verge of bankruptcy before the Burgundian dynasty saved them with its efficient institutions is rather implausible. Similarly his lack of interest in economic developments does not accord with his emphasis on urbanized regions like Brabant and Holland and his claim that the urban elites had much to gain from unification under Burgundian rule. Supporting this hypothesis would require a deeper analysis of the socio-economic and urban structures of the late medieval Low Countries. Even though this is not an economic history, a brief outline, at least, of current thinking on the socio-economic development of the Burgundian lands--and the great contrasts among its constituent principalities--would be relevant to his discussion of state formation.

In general Stein's approach is so oriented towards consensus that he systematically avoids considering conflict, which forces him to minimize the importance of the frequent revolts and civil wars in the Burgundian principalities. It might well be argued that revolts such as those in Bruges (1436-1438), Ghent (1449-1453) and virtually every Flemish city in 1477 and 1482-1492, which were periods of civil war rather than minor incidents as Stein implies, had a stronger impact on Burgundy "from below" than the fiscal interests of average Holland towns with a few thousand inhabitants. The upper echelons of the Burgundian nobility receive the same treatment. Stein's disinterest in war entails disinterest in the Burgundian military elite, a group of largely francophone nobles. He also reduces Brabant, a principality with significant military presence and a strong knightly tradition, to a mere region of towns. In his narrative, the noblemen of the Low Countries appear only as losers in the process of state formation, a claim with little empirical foundation, contradicted by increase in wealth and power enjoyed by many great nobles under Burgundian rule.

Magnanimous Dukes and Rising States does offer a fresh perspective and should certainly be read for its useful empirical work on a number of specific issues. However, in my opinion it will not serve as a final synthesis of Burgundian state formation in the Low Countries as it lacks balance and includes some questionable claims not supported by evidence from the sources.