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History of Burgundy

Monastic Dominance
9C - 13C

Tremendous change occurred during the Middle Ages in Burgundy, due in the most part to the spread of Christianity and the influence of the monasteries. It encompassed all aspects of life and laid the foundation for the glorious age of the Dukes of Burgundy which was to follow.

Christianity had been spreading across Europe but it was given a real boost in 800 AD when Charlemagne was made Holy Roman Emperor bringing law and order, and prosperity to the continent. Through his military manoeuvres he extended the boundaries of Christianity and religion spread apace.

The first monastery in Burgundy was at Cluny, started by the Benedictine monks in 940 AD. With over 1,000 monks in residence, more than the population of most towns of that time, large buildings had to be erected to house everyone and 40 farms produced the food. The abbey became grander and grander as its power over the whole of Europe increased. It was the largest church in Christendom, only succeeded later by St. Peter’s in Rome, dominating Europe for hundreds of years. It organised pilgrimages, oversaw hundreds of other monasteries and governed by the power of excommunication.

But with power came luxury and corruption. One young monk, St. Bernard, left Cluny in 1112 to get back to the roots of religion, wanting a return to a simple, monastic life. He went to the Cisterian monastery, Cîteaux which he helped to transform by example, before going on to set up other abbeys including Pontigny and Fontenay. 500 Cisterian abbeys flourished during his lifetime alone and this figure increased six fold over the next century.

Wine Legacy

Wine had been produced since Roman times in Burgundy but the Benedictine monks of Cluny left a lasting legacy when they introduced the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape varieties to the region. Being astute, the monks also realized that the wine from certain parts of the vineyard was better than others and divided the land up into ‘parcels’ according to aspect, soil, orientation etc. This became the concept of ‘terroir’ so important in Burgundy today and many of the demarcations still exist; the monks of Pontigny, for example, started wine growing in Chablis, picking out plots which produce Grand Cru wine today. Clos de Vougeot was divided into three vineyards with differing soils.

Romanesque Architecture

Fontenay Abbey, Burgundy, France
Fontenay Abbey

The effects on the area were profound and lasting. There was a construction boom to end all booms as 80 grand cathedrals were built, 500 large churches and parish churches too numerous to mention sprang up. Often parts from the old Roman buildings were used such as columns and stones, inspiring sculptors such as Gislebertus in Autun to carve the magnificent tympanum over the cathedral door.

Apart from the building materials, bands of masons, glass makers and fresco painters came across from Italy to work. Once again the location of Burgundy stood it in good stead: there were easy river connections for transporting materials and a lively free flow of ideas from all the neighbouring countries.

As the churches grew taller and grander, so the architecture changed, gradually merging into the Gothic period with flying buttresses and barrel vaulting, the latter being particularly good for the acoustics of the resounding Gregorian chants.

The style also changed as the puritanical Cisterians under St.Bernard gained momentum, and the sculptures of the likes of Gislebertus – the apes, lions and devilish creatures – gave way to the clean unadorned lines of Fontenay Abbey and Pontigny.


Manuscript from Pontigny, Burgundy, France
Illuminated Manuscript

The First Crusade left Vézelay in 1095 for the Holy Land, and others were to follow. But as well as the departures, there were the arrivals too as many came to Burgundy on pilgrimages. While there were attacks from marauders such as the Hungarians who burnt down St-Philibert’s in Tournus at one point, Burgundy was considered to be one of the safest places in France at the time. As a result, the monks brought the relics of their saints for safe-keeping. The remains of Mary Magdalene where brought from St-Maximin to Vézelay, and Lazarus was brought to Autun attracting medieval tourism and prosperity to the region.

The Cultural Foundations

Many of the things which form the basis of life in Burgundy took shape during the Middle Ages. Agriculture and the appreciation of wine and food; developments in architecture stemming from the abbeys and churches which in turn lead to the religious music and illuminated manuscripts, plus of course, spirituality – all lasting legacies.

Pam Elson ©burgundytoday.com