Book Note:
Philip the Disappointing
7 November 2018

¶ Among the books that I planned to give away, when I culled the history bookcase, were Richard Vaughan’s books about the four Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Rash. I had found them disappointing, with too much scholarship and not enough narrative drive. That was ten or more years ago. One recent evening, desperate for something to read (why is this happening so often?), I picked up Philip the Good from the giveaway pile, and read the chapter,”The Duke and His Court.” 

I soon realized that what disappointed me about Philip, anyway, was Philip himself, and not Vaughan’s history of his nearly fifty-year rule over the complicated assortment of Low Country territories (together with the Duchy and the County of Burgundy, the former part of France and the latter part of the Empire) that might have become a sovereign nation if Charles the Rash hadn’t deserved his sobriquet. Charles’s father, Philip, presided over the Golden Age of Netherlandish art, as well as the earliest period of music that I can listen to with real pleasure, and I have always tried to think of well of him for that reason. Unlike his skinflint cousins, Charles VII and Louis XI of France, Philip conducted an extravagant court. His entertainments were preposterously lavish, and it is not hard to find jawdropping accounts of his Feast of the Pheasant, a banquet held at Lille in February 1454.

But Philip clearly was, as Vaughan maintains, an inadequate statesman. He never grasped that France’s Nº 1 foreign policy was the extermination of the “Burgundian” régime. Richer than many kings, he and son were unable to garner a crown from the Holy Roman Emperor. How naïve of them to imagine that they ever would.

Well, I’ve been re-reading the book from the start, and it has made me itch to have my copy of Aline Taylor’s book about Philip’s wife, and Charles’s mother, Isabel of Portugal. I seem to have let it go. Vaughan writes, “It would be nice to know more about this interesting woman.” Isabel represented her husband at many conferences, and frequently oversaw the payment of troops. It is difficult to get a handle on her, because, well-bred woman that she was, she left little in the way of personal remarks. And her exercises of power irritated male commentators precisely because they were so competent. Philip’s third wife, she married him in 1430 — Jan van Eyck was sent on the marriage embassy to Lisbon to paint her picture for the Duke’s approval — and she bore him his only legitimate child (Charles; there were scads of bastards). Then she left him! In 1457, she retired to her own court, frequently attended by her son. We don’t know why, really; it’s unlikely that an explanation couched in the language of the Fifteenth Century would tell us what we want to know. But I suspect that she lost her respect for the duke.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to buy the used but unread copy that someone’s selling through Amazon for five bucks. This is how I get rid of books!

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