- In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages
This carefully structured and tightly argued book belongs on the priority list of all who study European courts. It is not a quick and easy read. Nor is this a book that should or can be casually "mined" for the information Nijsten has painstakingly gathered from accounts and archives. The final three chapters, in particular, are filled with keen insights about the intersection of culture and politics, and these insights build upon the nuanced analyses that have proceded them.
The book's origin in a dissertation (Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1992) is evident in the overwhelming accumulation of detailed information it presents about the Duchy of Guelders between 1371 and 1473. Among the several items on Nijsten's agenda are the rescue of Guelders from its traditional characterization as "a large straggling duchy" (390), and, indeed, also the demonstration that, particularly in the years around 1400, Guelders was extraordinarily innovative. The "shadow" (384), even "menace" (423) of the powerful Burgundian court also make it appropriate to consider the degree to which that court's influence "seeped" (398) into the court culture of Guelders and to raise questions about how we can identify "national" qualities of courts that functioned at the international level. At a more theoretical level, by selecting "court," "art," and "culture" as the book's "core concepts" (7) and by using these concepts as titles for the book's three parts, Nijsten invokes and examines the ideas of Elias, Eco, and Geertz, among others, and also makes it clear that Guelders and Burgundy are only part of the story. Although we are introduced to the court of Guelders in particular, we are also intended to get "a clearer picture of 'average' court culture" (5) at a "medium-sized" European court in the fifteenth century in general and to try out the usefulness of yet more universal concepts. Since the measure of court success is ultimately political, "the symbiosis of culture and politics is the Leitmotiv of this book" (10). In short, this is an ambitious project.
One has the sense that the book's structure has been carefully thought out over the past decade and a framework rigorously applied in order to shape a project that might otherwise get out of hand. Data comes from a vast series of ducal accounts, also from letters, charters, legal documents, wills, inventories, from ducal and other archives, and from municipal accounts (11–12). Part 1, "The Court," deals with court functions and functionaries, travel, money, and "the ideal prince"; and part 2, "The Arts," looks at music, literature, books, and visual arts. Nijsten's procedure is consistent throughout. Mountains of data are sorted as to category, then defined as necessary (see 24 for the hierarchy of the "knightly class," for instance), then described (see 211–12 for links between heralds and sprekers, or disclaimers), and then analyzed (see 41 and 103 for the "middle category" status of medical men and musicians as determined by the costs of clothing presented to [End Page 658] them). What emerges is a surprisingly full picture of a court that in midcentury numbered about 300 persons in Duke Arnold's immediate household.
As the author explains in the introduction, the first two parts of the book are intended to be descriptive, the third part to be interpretative. Part 3, "Court Culture," asks "how did the elements of court culture function within the totality of that culture?" (309) and provides contexts: princely residences; the motley company of fools, dwarfs, heathens, and so on that constituted a miniature version at court of the larger macrocosm; the "culture of gifts" (336–38); ceremonials, festivals, and politics. Ideas about the adaptation of the court to an increasingly urban environment are particularly useful.
The personalities of the four dukes and their consorts and...