Burkart, Kreuzzug als Selbstbeschreibung. Burgundische Statuspolitik in den spätmittelalterlichen Traktaten des Jean Germain
Annotation author: Kammerer, Lorenz
Book author: Burkart, Eric

Eric Burkart, Kreuzzug als Selbstbeschreibung. Burgundische Statuspolitik in den spätmittelalterlichen Traktaten des Jean Germain (Pariser Historische Studien 117), Heidelberg 2020

The crusade politics of the late medieval Valois  dukes of Burgundry (1363–1477) have puzzled modern historians for a long time. Under the rule of this sideline of the french royal dynasty, Burgundry reached the apex of its political and economical power and became a leading centre of the arts. In seeming contradiction to this development, which has often been described as a textbook case example of early modern state building, stand the constant aspirations of the Burgundian elite, especially Duke Philip the Good (1396–1467) to be the leaders of a new crusade to the holy land, a project that was doomed to fail in the highly fractured political landscape of the 15th century and has therefore been branded reactionary and „medieval“ within the literature. The monograph under review here, the revised version of Eric Burkarts Dissertation, aims to challenge this view. Instead of attributing Burgundian crusade plans to the romantic fantasies of a ruler dreaming of an heroic past, the author argues, they should be interpreted as a legitimizing discourse that arose out of the need to consolidate the Duke’s status among the established monarchs of European christendom. To support this thesis, Burkart analyses three theological tracts by Bishop Jean Germain (ca. 1400–1461), all of which are relativly unexplored in the literature, and situates them in their political context. For this argument, he uses an methodology of interpretation inspired by the Objektive Hermeneutik („objective hermeneutics“) school of German sociology.

The first chapter (p. 27–53) therefore discusses at great lenghts the central claims of this methodology and its relevance. Since the shared ideological horizon of medieval people cannot be accessed directly, the historian relies on „artifacts“ (all kinds of sources, not just written ones). To understand these correctly, adherents of the Objektive Hermeneutik school claim, we need to analyse them very carefully, only relying on the inner logic of their separate units of meaning which should be interpreted sequence by sequence. Only once we’ve formed our understanding of an „artifact“ on its own by this method, we should proceed to confront it with our contextual knowledge. By this standard, it is argued, we can avoid circular reasoning and achieve maximal transparency of the process that leads to a particular scholarly view about the past.

The following three chapters (p. 53–175) give an detailed overview of Burgundian politics up to the mid-15th century and the biography of Jean Germain. Burkart shows how this theologian already used crusade rhetorics at the council of Basel to demonstrate his Duke’s rightful place among the highest monarchs of Western christendom. The twin motives of crusading and knighthood were still strong in the late medieval imagination and therefore became a perfect instrument for integrating the relatively fragile, highly diverse society of the new Burgundian power. The next three chapters give an in-depth analysis using the method described above  of three theological treatises: The trésor des simples (p. 177–278), the mappemonde spirituelle (p. 279–314) and the liber de virtutibus (p. 315–356). All of these texts were given as a gift to Philipp the Good during a ritual ceremony of the Order of the Golden Vlies in 1451. They each belong to a different genre: The trésor the simples is a dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim which refutes Islam as a heresy; the mappemonde spirituelle is a list of all historically christianized regions; and the Liber the virtutibus is a mirror for princes dedicated to Philip’s Son. The most important paragraphs of these texts are transcribed in the appendix of the book (p. 373–407). Burkart convincingly shows how all of those treatises construct crusading as an important task of the ideal christian ruler and then go on to describe Philip’s ancestors as people worthy of that role.

In an concluding chapter (p. 357–372), he then synthesizes this result with the context he established through the previous chapters: The newly powerful Duke of Burgundry had an deficit of legitimation both with respect to his status among the established rulers and among his own people which formed their own state only recently. Far from being a reactionary anachronism, crusade plans had the role to counter this crisis of representation by proving the rightful place of the Valois Dukes among the most worthy of all Christian rulers.

Overall, this book is well-researched and its arguments are carefully constructed and successful. However, it should be noted that the author repeats himself very often. Furthermore, he uses a great amount of jargon stemming from the school of sociology that inspired him. This is not problematic per se, of course, but it can make the text inaccessable for non-specialists at time. Both of these points raise the question if the books argument couldn’t have been presented in a more compact format and will probably slow down its reception. With this caveat, it can be recommended to everyone interested in late medieval crusading and the historiographical relationship between the medieval and the early modern periods.