I’m researching fifteenth-century Flanders. I’ve been reading a biography of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip cuts a fine historical figure, a leader known for his ambition and his style. Third in the series of four great dukes who led Burgundy to pre-eminence in fifteenth-century Europe, he was a trend-setter for the nobility of his time. His court was the richest and most colourful; the fashions and the manners exhibited in his court were scrupulously studied and copied across the continent. He was patron to many great artists, including Jan Van Eyck.
I am struck by how familiar the cast of characters is. It does seem sometimes like European history boils down, like Game of Thrones, to a rather overripe saga of conflict among a limited set of families, generation after generation. Reading about the early 1430s, early-to-mid-reign for Philip, I encounter a Bourbon. Charles, Count of Clermont, is a rival of Philip’s, loyal to Charles VII, King of France. I encounter a Habsburg. Frederick IV is Duke of Austria. King Charles seduces the duke into skirmishes with Philip with a promise of Artois, once it’s been freed from Burgundian control. How an Austrian duke could be drawn in by the offer of faraway, French-speaking Artois offers an insight into the late medieval feudal world view, in which nobility collected land like postage stamps. A map of territories owned by any one of these grand lords would look like a modern, worst-case example of U.S. congressional gerrymandering. Philip’s domains were scattered all along the course of the Rhine, from the Lowlands into eastern France.
The Bourbons and Habsburgs were destined to become titans in Europe, and their battles would define European history for a century and a half. But in Philip the Good’s day, they were rather hapless houses, struggling with dozens of other families for a place in the new Europe. And no one was destined to gain much traction against Philip. He was lord of his times, and, indeed, a model for at least one descendant of the House of Bourbon. Louis XIV was an attentive student of the duke’s style.