In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Burgundy and the Netherlands

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Renaissance and Reformation Burgundy and the Netherlands
Jan Dumolyn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0148


The composite dynastic state ruled by a branch of the Valois dynasty, which is here referred to as “the Burgundian lands,” was one of the most significant and powerful political entities of later medieval Europe. Historians usually speak of the Burgundian state between 1384 and 1492 and of the Habsburg state for the period after that. At its zenith in the middle of the 15th century, the Burgundian state consisted of two geographically separated complexes of principalities in Burgundy proper (the duchy of Burgundy and the county of Burgundy also knows as the Franche Comté) and in the Low Countries (the duchies of Brabant, Limburg, and Luxembourg; the counties of Flanders, Artois, Hainaut, Namur, Holland, Zeeland, Nevers, and Réthel; the seigniories of Antwerp, Mechelen, Salins, and Frisia the cities of the Somme, Péronne, Montdidier, and Roye; and, between 1473 and 1477, the duchy of Guelders). Though the Burgundian state obviously derives its (contemporary) name from the Burgundian possessions, its economic and cultural center of gravity was situated in the densely urbanized northern territories and especially in Flanders, Brabant, Artois, and Holland. Of foremost importance were the industrial city of Ghent and the commercial metropolis of Bruges, both in the county of Flanders. Other major urban centers included Brussels and Leuven in Brabant and Dordrecht and Leiden in Holland. In the latter half of the 15th century Antwerp rose as the most important port of 16th-century Europe, while the city of Mechelen increasingly took on the role of capital of the northern Burgundian dominions. Several of the Burgundian territories had a very productive agricultural economy, including the cultivation of industrial crops. The dominant industries were textiles, brewing, metalwork, and the luxury trades. The language of the administration was French, but Dutch was spoken by most inhabitants of Flanders, Brabant, Zeeland, and Holland. Perhaps the most substantial sector in literary production in the Burgundian lands was produced by the rhetoricians (rhétoriciens in French or rederijkers in Dutch). The northern territories were also the home of important manuscript production, tapestry, goldsmith and silversmith work, and miniatures, which were also produced for an international market. The most significant cultural achievement of the Burgundian lands, however, was the Northern Renaissance in painting, with prominent individuals such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.

General Overviews

The first overviews of the history of the Burgundian state were in fact mainly conceived as dynastic histories of the dukes of Burgundy. This biographical approach was to some degree continued in the magisterial and still indispensable four volumes of Vaughan 1962, though in this work emphasis clearly shifted toward the political history of the lands held by the subsequent dukes. The conceptions of “Burgundy” as a “state” and the “Burgundian Netherlands” as its real economic and political heartland have mostly been the result of works such as Bartier 1970, Prevenier and Blockmans 1986, Prevenier 1998, and more recently Schnerb 1999 and Schnerb 2005. Some classic 19th- and early-20th-century books shaped the idea of a separate “Burgundian history” with the emphasis gradually shifting from the role of Burgundy in the Hundred Years War toward the vibrant economies, societies, and cultures within its different regions. Pirenne 1902 linked the growth of the Burgundian state with the origins of modern Belgium, while Huizinga 1919 made Burgundian court culture the symbol of the final stages of medieval culture. From the 1960s on, a series of key texts promoted international interest in the Burgundian state and civilization. Though the number of scholars from the Anglophone world studying Burgundy is increasing, the historiography is still dominated by Belgian, French, and Dutch researchers. Most recently, two new general overviews of Burgundian history have seen the light. Stein 2017 focuses on the Netherlandish territories and emphasizes negotiations between the prince and his subjects, while Lecuppre-Desjardin 2016 rejects the notion of a “state” for the Burgundian polity and focuses on networks of loyalty relations.

  • Bartier, John. Charles le Téméraire. Brussels: Arcade, 1970.

    Bartier engages in the debate on the warlike and imprudent character of the most audacious of the Valois dukes and his ultimate political and military failure.

  • Huizinga, J. Herfsttij der middeleeuwen: Studie over levens- en gedachtenvormen der veertiende en vijftiende eeuw in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden. Haarlem, The Netherlands: Tjeenk Willink, 1919.

    The importance of this classic word hardly needs to be emphasized. To a large degree, the writings of this great historian have colored and still shape our understanding of Burgundian court life. Different English translations exist, but none of them are really satisfactory, being either partial or—as in the case of The Autumn of the Middle Ages, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)—very unreliable.

  • Lecuppre-Desjardin, Élodie. Le Royaume inachevé des ducs de Bourgogne (XIVe–Xve siècles). Paris: Belin, 2016.

    Rejects the unified reading of Burgundian history around a process of state building and presents a more fragmented and anthropological analysis. The Burgundian polity was rather a “Great Seigniory” with no coherent state ideology and was constructed through a network of sometimes opportunistic state officials.

  • Petit, Ernest. Histoire des ducs de Bourgogne de la race capétienne: Avec des documents inédits et des pièces justificatives. 9 vols. Dijon, France: Lamarche and Darantière, 1885–1905.

    This older work needs to be mentioned because it can still be useful for factual information on military and diplomatic matters, though the interpretative parts now fail to hold any general interest.

  • Pirenne, Henri. Histoire de Belgique. Vol. 2, Du commencement du XIVe siècle à la mort de Charles le Téméraire. Brussels: Lamertin, 1902.

    The greatest Belgian historian and one of the most important social and economic historians of the Middle Ages has played a particular noteworthy role in the construction of the classic historiographic narrative of the “century of Burgundy.” Though he saw the Burgundian state through the lens of (Francophone) Belgian nationalism as a prefiguration of his fatherland, his study of the politics of the dukes cannot be reduced only to this element.

  • Prevenier, Walter, ed. Le prince et le peuple: Images de la société du temps des Ducs de Bourgogne 1384–1530. Antwerp, Belgium: Fonds Mercator, 1998.

    Another luxuriously edited book in which some of the main specialists in Burgundian history (Walter Prevenier himself, Wim Blockmans, Marc Boone, Marie-Thérèse Caron, Thérèse de Hemptinne, and Robert Stein) focus on social groups, family structures, networks, and state power, including a number of marvelous illustrations, carefully selected by An Delva.

  • Prevenier, Walter, and Wim Blockmans. The Burgundian Netherlands. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Walter Prevenier and Wim Blockmans have written these masterful overviews of the history of the Burgundian Netherlands. While The Burgundian Netherlands is a richly illustrated book that is also accessible for a wider intellectual audience, see also their book The Promised Lands: The Low Countries under Burgundian Rule, 1369–1530 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), an excellent introduction to the main themes and problems of Burgundian history, which serves very well as a textbook for university students.

  • Schnerb, Bertrand. L’état bourguignon, 1363–1477. Paris: Perrin, 1999.

    In the traditional centralist French historiographical vision of the success of the monarchy in unifying the country, it has long been unthinkable to write what Bertrand Schnerb, the leading French specialist in Burgundian history, has written in this thorough synthesis of Burgundian political structures: that “Burgundy” was in fact a “state” and in that sense a full-scale rival and alternative to France itself.

  • Schnerb, Bertrand. Jean sans Peur: Le prince meurtrier. Paris: Payot, 2005.

    John the Fearless has traditionally been presented as a villain in French medieval history. Providing a wide range of evidence on the duke and his political career, Schnerb corrects this biased picture and shows that he was in fact one of the most talented and energetic politicians of his time.

  • Stein, Robert. Magnanimous Dukes and Rising States: The Unification of the Burgundian Netherlands 1380–1480. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198757108.001.0001

    Of fundamental importance is Stein’s narrative of how the dukes acquired their principalities more through power politics and financial means than through legitimate succession. Also important are the sections dealing with the importance of representative institutions. The focus is mostly on Brabant, Holland, and Flanders and less on the French-speaking principalities.

  • Vaughan, Richard. Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State. London: Longmans, 1962.

    Also see his John the Fearless: The Growth of Burgundian Power (1966), Philip the Good: The Apogee of Burgundy (1970), and Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy (1973). Although seemingly biographical in content, Vaughan’s books were conceived in far broader terms; they are actually full-scale political histories of their reigns and also pay some attention, albeit limited, to socioeconomic and cultural questions. In 2002, with various reprints thereafter, new editions of the four biographies have appeared, including new introductions with updated bibliographies.

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