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De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo

Second paragraph of third chapter:
De slaapkamer stond vol met flesjes, schalen en kolfjes met planten-aftreksels, azijn, kamferolie en andere middeltjes om de pijn van de aan-staande moeder te verzachten. Hoewel de toortsen, die een parfum van hars verspreidden, de toch al pittige mei-temperaturen helemaal de hoogte in joegen, mocht volgens de traditie geen raam opengezet worden om frisse lucht toe te laten vooraleer de kersverse mama ter kerke was gegaan. De babyuitzet omvatte twee wiegen, eentje op houten wielen voor effectief gebruik en een andere, uiterst luxueus en verfijnd, om mee te pronken. De hertog wilde groots uitpakken met zijn eerstge-borene. Voedster Guyote, die het gewicht van haar kolossale borsten torste, at de klok rond, terwijl Margaretha van Vlaanderen zuchtend het ultieme moment afwachtte. The bedroom was full of bottles, bowls, and flasks with plant infusions, vinegar, camphor oil, and other remedies to ease the pain of the expectant mother. Although the torches, which spread a perfume of resin, raised the already hot May temperatures still further, tradition decreed that no window could be opened to allow fresh air before the brand new mother went to church. The baby setup included two cradles, one on wooden wheels for practical purposes, and another, extremely luxurious and refined, to show off. The duke wanted to go big with his first-born. Guyote, the wetnurse, bearing the weight of her colossal breasts, ate around the clock, while Margaret of Flanders, sighing, waited for it all to be over.
This is a big huge book by a Flemish writer about the history of Burgundy in the time when it included the territory from Switzerland to Friesland and everywhere in between, most notably almost all of what is currently in Belgium. The downfall of Burgundy is treated in a couple of fiction books that I have read - Dorothy Dunnett has the Battle of Nancy in one of the later Niccolo books, and it's a central parallel timeline theme of Mary Gentle's Ash. But I confess I knew very little about it.

This first few chapters look at the emergence of Burgundy as an entity from the confusion of post-Roman Europe, but the meat of the book is an account of the century or so from 1369, when Philip the Bold married Margaret of Flanders and united the territories from Dijon to the North Sea, to the Battle of Nancy in 1477 in which Charles the Bold (Philip's great-grandson) was killed and Burgundy's pretensions came to an end. It's full of incidental detail, the assassination of John the Fearless, Joan of Arc, the Feast of the Pheasant; Van Loo also takes us through the great art of the day and the politics behind it - the big names here are Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.

If the Burgundians had had better luck, the kingdom might have survived as a single territory to the present day. The presence of so many great cities in the territory meant that there was an early tradition of civic engagement and government. The variety of languages spoken meant that innovative policies about linguistic governance needed to be worked out sooner rather than later. Revolts tended to end with settlements involving greater rights for citizens rather than repression (though not always). The argument is made that some of the foundations of the modern state were laid in medieval Burgundy.

I must say that for me I found the overlapping sovereignties of the period rather reminiscent of today's situation in Belgium. My home is less than 5km from the linguistic frontier, which was only drawn in 1962 and became a provincial boundary only in 1995 when Brabant was divided. But at the same time we are only 10km from Tourinnes-le-Grosse, which was an exclave of the Prince-bishopric of Liège within the Duchy of Flanders for many years. The attempt to govern Belgium as a unitary state from 1830 to 1962 was the real historical anomaly.

Even after Nancy, it wasn't all over; Charles the Bold's daughter Margaret was of age and ruled well for five years until her death after a hunting accident in 1482, aged 25. Perhaps that is the real turning point. (And perhaps it's telling that historical narrative, including this one, tend to concentrate on the disaster of Nancy without reflecting that Margaret inherited most of her father's territories intact and the disintegration happened after her death, not his.)

A recently arrived diplomat told me a couple of days ago that he had been recommended this book as a good entry into the history of this part of the world. I think my advice would be to wait until there is an English translation. It's very good, but at 519 pages of detailed yet also idiomatic Dutch, it's a tough slog for the non-native speaker. You can get it here.

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