The Burgundians: A Vanished Empire by Bart Van Loo (Translated from Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier) - review by Michael Pye

Michael Pye

Wine, Women & Pointed Shoes

The Burgundians: A Vanished Empire


Apollo 624pp £30

Burgundy is red wine. Burgundy is a dark red colour. Burgundy is an earworm. Burgundy is a player in the operetta (and very bad film) The Vagabond King, in which a chorus dressed in chain mail bellows, ‘And to hell with Bur-gun-dee.’ The bellower-in-chief is the poet François Villon, leading France in a vaguely medieval war against some half-forgotten nuisance of a state. It’s a musical, so the details hardly matter.

But the real Burgundy was substantial enough in its own way, a state that late-medieval emperors aspired to rule. Its showiness, its art and its people’s passionate interest in classical Greek and Latin made it the harbinger of the more familiar Italian Renaissance. It is still basic to the origin myths of the Belgians; the Dutch parliament once rather warily traced back its own roots to the Burgundian Estates General of 1464. We owe to it some of our modern tastes: for vinegar – so much sharper than wine must – in mustard, and for Pinot Noir, which became the staple of Burgundy wine following the exiling of the Gamay grape to Beaujolais.

A power in the making of Europe and our tastes, Burgundy deserves our attention, but you have to find it first and it can be hard to fix on a map. The state was not where the wines are made. The Flemish writer Bart Van Loo began trying to

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