BY its position on the eastern flank of France around Dijon, and by the subtle statesmanship of its dukes, Burgundy emerged with little harm from the Hundred Years’ War, and became for half a century the brightest spot in transalpine Christendom. When the Burgundian ducal family of the Capetian line became extinct, and the duchy reverted to the French Crown, John II gave it to his fourth son Philip (1363) as a reward for valor at Poitiers. During his forty-one years as Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold (Philippe le Hardi) managed so well, and married so diplomatically, that Hainaut, Flanders, Artois, and Franche-Comté came under his rule; and the duchy of Burgundy, technically a province of France, became in effect an independent state, enriched by Flemish commerce and industry, and graced by the patronage of art.
John the Fearless (Jean sans Peur), by a fine web of alliances and intrigues, stretched his power to the bursting point, and France felt challenged to resist. Louis, Duke of Orléans, ruling France for his mad brother Charles VI, allied France with the Holy Roman Empire in a plan to check the unwisely fearless Duke. John’s hired assassins killed him; violent strife ensued between the Burgundian party and the Armagnacs—followers of Louis’ father-in-law the Count of Armagnac—for the control of French policy; and John in turn died under an assassin s knife (1419). His son Philip the Good renounced all feudal allegiance to France, allied Burgundy with England, and annexed Tournai, Namur, Brabant, Holland, Zeeland, Limburg, and Louvain. When he made his peace with France (1435) he exacted the recognition of his duchy’s practical sovereignty, and the cession of Luxembourg, Liège, Cambrai, and Utrecht. Burgundy was now at its zenith, rivaling in wealth and power any kingdom in the West.
Philip might not win from tender minds his title “the Good.” He was not above chicanery and cruelty and unmannerly flares of wrath. But he was a devoted son, an excellent administrator, and a fond father even to his sixteen illegitimate offspring. He loved women royally, had twenty-four mistresses, prayed and fasted, gave alms, and made his capitals—Dijon, Bruges, and Ghent—the art foci of the Western world outside of Italy. His long rult brought to Burgundy and its provinces such affluence that few of his subjects made any fuss about his sins. The Flemish towns fretted under his mastery, and mourned to see their old guild organization and communal liberties yielding to a national economy under a centralized government. Philip and his son Charles suppressed their revolts but allowed them a conciliatory peace, for they knew that from the industry and commerce of these cities came the richest ducal revenues. Before Philip the regions of the lower Rhine had been fragments, as diverse in institutions and policies as in race and speech; he bound them into a unified state, gave them order, and seconded their prosperity.
Burgundian society at Bruges, Ghent, Liège, Louvain, Brussels, and Dijon was now (1420–60) the most polished and amorous in Europe, not excepting the contemporary Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici. The dukes preserved all the forms of chivalry; it was Philip the Good who founded the Order of the Golden Fleece (1429); and it was in part from her Burgundian allies that England took the chivalric pomp and glamour that brightened the rough surface of English manners, glorified the campaigns of Henry V, and shone in the pages of Froissart and Malory. The Burgundian nobles, shorn of independent power, lived chiefly as courtiers, and developed all the graces of dress and bearing that could adorn parasitism and adultery.1 Merchants and manufacturers robed themselves like royalty, and fed and gowned their wives as if preparing the scene for Rubens. Under so loving a duke monogamy would have been lèse-majesté. John of Heinsberg, the jolly Bishop of Liège, spawned a dozen bastards; John of Burgundy, Bishop of Cambrai, had thirty-six children and grandchildren begotten out of wedlock; many of the elite, in this eugenic age, were so born.2 Prostitutes could be found at almost any time and price at the public baths. At Louvain they pretended to be landladies, offering accommodations for students.3 Festivals were many and extravagant; famous artists were engaged to design the pageants and decorate the floats; and people came over frontiers and seas to view gorgeous spectacles in which nude women played the part of ancient goddesses and nymphs.4