Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.08.21 Bousmanne/Savini (eds.), The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy

21.08.21 Bousmanne/Savini (eds.), The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy

The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy was published to accompany the opening of the KBR (Royal Library of Belgium) Museum in September 2020. Based on an examination of its website, this new museum, located in the Nassau Chapel and neighboring rooms, houses a highly interactive set of exhibits focused on the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy, which promise to introduce visitors to both medieval history and manuscript culture via selections from KBR's holdings from the ducal library--truly one of Belgium's great national treasures. The museum will be well worth a visit once public health conditions permit travel again.

The work opens with a preface by the KBR's general director, Sara Lammens. This is followed by a series of essays on Burgundian manuscripts and the world that created them. Following the essays are the full citations for each of the 63 images accompanying the text. Then, the second main section of the work begins: a catalogue of 55 of the manuscripts on display, most with images. The work ends with a selected, but still quite extensive, bibliography. While not a substitute for the indispensable La Librairie des ducs de Bourgogne, Manuscrits conserves à la Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, the work is nonetheless of value to scholars.

The first essay, "The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy and the World Around It," by Bernard Bousmanne, gives an overview of the dukes' and their families' book-collecting activities, as well as the fate of the library after the death of the last Valois Duke of Burgundy. With admirable concision, Bousmanne provides the reader with an overview from which to understand the rest of the volume. He introduces the reader to the cast of characters central to the story of the ducal library, from the ducal family itself to those courtiers, clerics, and craftsmen who contributed in one way or another to the creation of the library or participated in the same manuscript culture. Bousmanne describes the bustling book trade and the factors that went into making a luxury manuscript. Further, he introduces the idea that books were for more than just reading; they were symbols of power and played a variety of political roles. The essay ends with the post-Valois history of this glorious library, including neglect, suffering two fires, and twice being plundered by the French. Nonetheless, Bousmanne ends by noting that of the thousand manuscripts in the library at the end of the fifteenth century, 300 remain in KBR and 100 in other libraries.

Dominique Vanwijnsberghe's essay "Flemish Illuminators in the Burgundian Library" is impressively thorough for a relatively short chapter. As a scholar of texts, rather than images, I felt like I was receiving a brief art history course, which I found both informative and engaging. After a brief introduction to the dukes and their attitudes toward their library, Vanwijnsberghe discusses the many artists, schools, and styles that make up Burgundian illumination, each in a separate section. The first two commissioned their books in Paris, their primary place of residence. Even Philip the Good, at the beginning of his reign, turned often to illuminators influenced by French style. This changed, however, in 1446 when the duke began to focus on his library and to commission works by Flemish artists, as part of what Vanwijnsberghe calls "his plan to foster a Burgundian identity" (33). At this stage the chapter turns to the important figures of Flemish book-making, including copyists and translators, as well as illustrators. Though the essay provides an overview of the various artistic styles, it goes beyond this, placing these artists in their historical cultural context as well. For example, we learn that many of these craftsmen first came to ducal attention during preparations for the Feast of the Pheasant, or again, that Lieven van Latham was both an official court artist and a member of the guild of painters in Ghent, underlining the interconnection of court and urban life in the period (the lawsuit that indirectly ensued from this points to the occasional strife between them). We are reminded that many painters did not work solely on miniatures. Jean Hennecart also made maps and flags, for example. Conversely, none other than Rogier van der Weyden painted the frontispiece of the Chroniques de Hainaut. These observations underscore the point that much of Burgundian book art was meant to glorify the duke and court life. The chapter fittingly ends with a discussion of the Book of Hours of Mary of Burgundy (now in Vienna). Containing works by Vrelant, Van Lathem, and Marmion, its most outstanding illumination is by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, painter of Mary of Burgundy reading her devotions, one of the most famous Flemish illuminations. This superb image, showcasing the height of Burgundian style, fittingly closes this chapter.

We turn from art to politics in Jelle Haemers' "Consensus and Confrontation: The Low Countries in the Burgundian Period (1384-1506)." Haemers confronts the stereotypes (largely based in the work of Johan Huizinga) that many non-specialists still hold about the Burgundian Low Countries. The chapter opens with the tale of October 12, 1492--but not the tale of Columbus! Instead, Haemers describes the "Peace of Sluis," which ended the war between Philip of Cleves and his allies and Maximilian of Austria. He explains that this event is typically read as the culmination of nearly constant conflict between the dukes and the cities of the Low Countries. As he explains, however, historians "no longer reduce the political history of the Burgundian period to a conflict between the state and the cities" (50). Moreover, he notes that the frequent fighting against their subjects suggests that the dukes were not completely successful in their objectives. Haemers states, "This essay will investigate how the situation could get to the point where a ruler was fighting his own subjects and why the nobility and the church also got involved in the conflict" (51). His essay then proceeds to examine the reality of the situation in the Burgundian Low Countries by exploring three groups: the cities, the nobles, and the dukes themselves, using the stories of four people--two men and two women, from different strata of society. The first section opens with the story of Wendelkin, a woman sentenced to carry stones through Sluis in 1396 for the crime of slandering the deceased Louis of Mâle in song. Though this may seem to suggest the tyrannical power of the dukes over the lives of their cities, it also points to a politically engaged citizenry. Haemers explains that from the twelfth century, cities in the Low Countries had been gaining more and more rights of self-governance, largely as a result of their incredible economic power. While most of this power devolved to the urban elite, less affluent citizens like Wendelkin nonetheless expressed their discontent in the public square. Haemers uses statistics to show that while poverty was not unknown in the "affluent" Low Countries, the majority of the citizenry were able to make ends meet. Further, women could gain a measure of power and economic independence within this system, either by joining the guilds or living independently (as was the case with the beguines). Ultimately, the urban elite fully participated in the same Burgundian culture as the court, buying luxury manuscripts, for example, while conversely "the tastes of the clerical and noble elites were coloured by the new fashions in the city. This dialectic formed the basis of the 'Burgundian culture' in the Netherlands" (61). Despite this, nearly every state official was of noble birth. Many nobles were trained in law or accounting (rather different than our typical idea of medieval noblemen). Yet while this nobility engaged in mimicking ducal consumption and currying favor through gift-giving (including through books), they nonetheless maintained ties to their cities through participation in urban culture and institutions. The final section covers "the dukes and their network of estates" (76). How we should understand the vast lands under the Dukes of Burgundy is difficult. Was this a state? A personal union? Was it unified at all? To illustrate this issue, Haemers tells the story of John of Brabant and Jacoba of Bavaria, who held Holland and Hainaut. Through a combination of urban revolt and feudal contingencies, Philip the Good was able to claim their lands. Despite this "union," the dukes' relationships with their territories were not always smooth--even going so far as to include burning Liège and Dinant to the ground--but there was also cooperation. The conclusion brings us neatly back to 1492, where Haemers notes that one of the changes in the dynamics between the dukes and their subjects was the shift toward the Americas with their great wealth and a population they felt they had the right to exploit with impunity, something they had learned they could not do in the Low Countries. The essay is beautifully illustrated throughout with works of Burgundian origin (held both in KBR and elsewhere).

Chapter 4 is Tania van Hemelryck and Olivier Delsaux's essay "French Literature at the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy, from Philip the Bold to Charles the Bold." It argues that Burgundian literature is some of the most interesting of its period, but it must be understood in its context. The result was what the authors term "a genuine cultural policy, which sought to show continuity with House Valois, while also allowing for, or even demanding, novelty" (101). They explain that the ducal love of books must be understood as a Valois trait. The Louvre was filled with books and both Charles V and John, Duke of Berry, were noted book collectors. Philip the Bold and John the Fearless unsurprisingly, therefore, concentrated on Paris as the center of literature. This shifted after the assassination of Duke Louis of Orléans, when John needed to justify his actions. Philip the Good shifted his focus away from France to the Low Countries, and this continued through Margaret of Austria. Van Hemelryck and Delsaux point out, however, that the dukes were not alone in creating the literary culture of the court. Writers included court officials, clerics, and nobles; further, nobles imitated the dukes in their own book collections and sometimes commissioned works themselves as gifts for the dukes. Even the common people were exposed to the literature of the day, as there were public events where readings were done. The authors describe this as "ritualised sociability" (99). One of the dukes' innovations was to create an official position of court writer. The literature itself had themes that diverged somewhat from the rest of French literature, including an interest in classical, rather than medieval, legends (after all, the Order of the Golden Fleece was named after one), romance-histories of famous court figures, princely advice books, guides to the nobility, and celebrations of particular dukes (something distinct from the French tradition). Rewriting texts, adding notations, and making compilations were also popular, and in the fifteenth century, there was a tendency to translate verse into prose. The result is that French literature at the court was much like the court itself: a combination of continuity and change in the service of ducal power.

The final essay in this volume, "The Care and Conservation of the Manuscripts of the Dukes of Burgundy Today," by Tatiana Gersten, is an excellent closing to this exploration of the ducal library. Thanks to support from the Baillet-Latour fund, KBR is conserving and restoring the nearly 300 manuscripts of the ducal library now in its collection. Gersten explains that these are not merely artifacts, they are books meant to be read. Any conservation measures must bear this in mind, allowing for new research and new conservation methods. She explains that even damage is preserved, as this is part of the book's story. Using concrete examples, illustrated with appropriate images, Gersten discusses various conservation techniques, such as the use of Japanese paper to reinforce places where iron-gall ink threatens to damage paper, or applying small amounts of adhesive to paint in miniatures. She provides examples of how even apparently similar damage may require different interventions and how every alteration to the manuscript is recorded and reversible. The chapter ends by discussing why the books on display are exhibited as they are, with a discussion of temperature and humidity control and the dangers of light exposure. This essay should be an excellent introduction to the topic of conservation, accessible to any reader.

The catalogue entries that comprise roughly half of The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy are an interesting read in and of themselves. These include contributions by Bernard Bousmanne, Elena Savini, Jessica Pranger, Céline Van Hoorebeeck, Ann Kelders, and Tania Hemelryck and Olivier Delsaux. Though they are clearly connected to the forgoing essays and to each other, each can be read on its own with all relevant information about the manuscript being included in the description. Each provides an interesting story about the history, art history, or culture surrounding the manuscript, as well as a description of the object itself. The volume also showcases a wide range of manuscripts including many genres of literature, as well as account books. Though they were clearly chosen for the beauty of their illuminations, manuscripts are included for their binding or text as well. There are even a few books written not in French, but in Latin and Dutch. Taken together then they illustrate the breadth and depth of the ducal library.

The flaws of this book are at the level of copy-editing. There are occasional places where the English is hard to follow or where a word is misspelled. In a few places, the text refers to a person by more than one name without explaining that they are the same person, and in one instance one catalogue entry contradicts another. I was also sorry not to have an index. I must stress, however, that many of these things, especially the last, are likely to go unnoticed by the casual reader.

I was truly delighted when I saw this book, but its value is not only in its aesthetic appeal. As a scholar, I can imagine turning to it as a quick overview of a text I may wish to investigate further or as a brief introduction to a specific figure. I also believe that it has great potential in the classroom. The images not only show marvelous examples of the medieval book, but also of medieval life, and the essays are quite accessible. As a whole, this volume brings to life the world and the books of the ducal library.