1477 started badly for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. On January 5th of that year, he was defeated at the battle of Nancy. In that battle, Charles was confronted by an army from Switzerland and Lorraine, funded by King Louis XI of France, the sworn enemy of Charles the Bold. The King also objected to a strong independent Burgundy on his eastern border. Three days later, the mutilated body of Charles was found on the battlefield. His duchy of Burgundy was at once annexed by France, of which it has been a part ever since.
The opposite of boldness is shyness. Perhaps, if Burgundy had instead been ruled by Charles the Shy, it might still be independent to this day like the smaller duchy of Luxembourg nearby. There was another famous battle of Nancy in September 1944, when the US Army drove the Germans out of the city during World War Two.
Pat and I visited Burgundy in September 2010. We are not oenologists – the fancy name for students of wine. Indeed, when a waiter asks me to taste a wine before he fills the glass of everyone at the table, I always feel a bit of a fraud when tasting it and then solemnly tell him to proceed. Nevertheless, we do know the names of the most famous of French wines. When driving through that part of eastern France which contains the region of Burgundy, it was therefore fun to encounter such familiar place names as Chablis, Macon, Beaune and Nuit St George, and so on. The region is also known for the variety of its cheeses and for the making of mustards, as the city of Dijon proves. But, its vineyards are its principal claim to fame. It was the Romans who first figured out that the climate and soil of Burgundy were perfect for the growing of the best grapes. However, after the departure of the Romans, it was the monks who maintained the region’s tradition of wine making. Burgundy is still full of their monasteries and abbeys.
We drove to the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene at Vezelay, which is the oldest Romanesque church in France. It is almost as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and was consecrated in the year 879 AD. It is built on a hilltop and we could see the basilica from the distance, long before we arrived in the little town of Vezelay. The town has been built around the basilica and the buildings of the town spill down the sides of the hill. Therefore, to reach the basilica on the summit, one must climb up through narrow, steep and picturesque streets.
It is claimed that the tomb of St Mary Magdalene in the south of France was opened and that her remains were removed to this basilica. This claim was later disputed, but it was largely accepted in medieval times. As a result, the basilica became a major destination for medieval pilgrimages and was the starting point for crusades. The basilica later became a target for enemies of the Catholic Church. It was seriously damaged by the Huguenots, as French Protestants were known. The Huguenots are these days regarded as victims and refugees, having been kicked out of France and having subsequently settled all over the world. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of unarmed Huguenots attending a wedding in Paris. However damage to this basilica by Huguenots suggests that this massacre may not have been entirely unprovoked.
The years following the French Revolution in 1789 saw further damage to the basilica. The revolution was in many ways anti-catholic, since the mob was very suspicious of the wealth of the Church. Coincidentally, Pat and I expect to be visiting the site of another saint’s day massacre in the next few weeks. We are planning to visit her aunt in Chicago, which was the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. That was a trivial affair compared to 1572, since it involved the death of only seven gangsters. The alleged instigator of that little massacre, Al Capone, was conveniently absent in Florida at the time. If only Charles the Bold had been so prudent!
My other memory of Burgundy is of many fields full of tall yellow sunflowers. This flower is native to the Americas and has presumably been imported from there into France. This must have happened long ago, since sunflowers are prominent in the works of the 19th century French painter, Vincent Van Gogh. There is an increasing demand today for sunflower oil to use in the frying of food, cosmetics, and as a preservative of fish. Apparently it’s very healthy. The fields that I saw must have been a commercial operation.
Let me spring another fancy word on you – heliotropism, which means a propensity to follow the sun. A sunflower starts the day looking east and finishes the day looking west. The French, Italian and Spanish words for this flower are far better than the English word “sunflower”, which tells you nothing. The words are “tournesol”, “girasole” and “girasol”, which all literally mean “turn to the sun”. Surely English speakers could have done better – “sunfollowers” perhaps? This behavior by sunflowers may explain the mental problems of poor Van Gogh and his eventual suicide. There he was trying to paint sunflowers and they just wouldn’t stay still. What painter can cope with a twitchy model?