How France Stole French from the Habsburgs: The Valois and Habsburg Dukes of Burgundy and the Elevation of the French Language, 14th – 16th Centuries

Paul Cohen
University of Toronto

Beginning in the late fourteenth century, a powerful western European state held up the
French language as an expression of its political and cultural identity, showered patronage on
poets and men of letters committed to its elevation, and set out to impose it on its non-
French-speaking possessions. This state was not France, but the Valois duchy of Burgundy,
which governed a vast autonomous territory from the Low Countries to Franche-Comté.

This paper proposes to reconstruct the little-known history of ducal Burgundy’s promotion of
French letters, and to examine its implications for our understanding of the history of
France’s national language. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the independent dukes of
Burgundy did far more to promote French than the French royal house itself, by encouraging
its use in its magnificent ducal courts, patronizing poets, and making Brussels an urbane
francophone enclave amidst a rural Flemish sea. Both the elevation and the dissemination of
French had thus begun long before the French crown reestablished its authority after the
Hundred Years War, and French enjoyed the political support of non-‘French’ polities both
before and after the Valois kings started to celebrate their ‘royal language’.

The sudden reversal in Burgundy’s fortunes provoked by Charles the Bold’s death in battle in
1477 without male issue did little to alter Burgundian support for French – and the Habsburg
kings of Spain who continued to rule the Low Countries as dukes of Burgundy maintained
their support of French letters. But the force of attraction of the Renaissance French
monarchy’s patronage meant that the Burgundian project to illustrate French, born within the
orbit of the ducal court, began to shift to the French court.

To a certain extent, then, the Renaissance French monarchy appropriated the cultural project
to elevate the French tongue from a foreign state, redefining it as a brilliant and peculiar
expression of their own glory. This case-study also reminds us that the histories of specific
vernaculars like French almost always spilled out well beyond the boundaries of the modern
nation-states to which they have associated: not only was French in spoken and written use
outside the French kingdom throughout the late medieval and early modern period, but the
history of French outside of France itself played a decisive role in shaping the invention of
French as the national language of France.