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From the Pen of History: Jean, Duc de Berry

The late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in France are best remembered for the instability of plague, warfare and the madness of King Charles VI. But amidst this cultural upheaval, the royal Valois family also produced one of European history's great patrons of art, whose sponsorship of the famed Limbourg brothers has left us two of the most lavish and "definitive" illuminated Gothic manuscripts to survive the centuries: the Belles Heures (New York, The Cloisters) and the Tres Riches Heures (Chantilly, Musee Conde). While these two manuscripts are the most famed medieval Books of Hours – an illuminated collection of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion – and have been repeatedly printed in facsimile editions, their patron was no less extraordinary himself.


Jean, Duc de Berry, was the third son of Jean II, called "the Good", King of France (reigned 1350-1364), who is perhaps best known as the French monarch captured at the disastrous Battle of Poitiers.  His namesake was born on November 30, 1340, in the Chateau de Vincennes, the younger brother of King Charles V (reigned 1364-1380) and Louis I Duc d'Anjou, and the older brother of Philippe le Hardi, Duc de Bourgogne. The duke's nephews were the unfortunate, schizophrenic King Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422) and Louis, Duc d'Orleans.

His childhood was largely spent during the heated first phase of the Hundred Years War, and as a prince of the blood, Jean trained diligently in the discipline of arms. With his father's defeat and capture at Poitiers, he and his brothers had ample opportunity to test those skills, and his gift of command, in the field. In 1360 he received the duchies of Berry and Auvergne from his father, recently ransomed back from England. The truce did not hold, and Jean was again in the field. In 1369 he recaptured Poitou from the invaders and it was bestowed to him as an additional fief by his brother Charles, now King Charles V. The duke married twice. The first was to Jeanne d'Armagnac and coincided with the receipt of his duchies in 1360. Jean outlived his wife, and he remarried in 1389 to Jeanne de Boulogne.


Although the Duc de Berry owned vast swathes of France his love of luxury exceeded even the wealth of his estates. A lover of beauty and great patron of artists he built sumptuous buildings, collected rare jewels and elaborate treasures, dressed richly and commissioned his famed illuminated books. But his urge to collect went beyond the famed jewels, tapestries and books in his collection. One of Jean's most prized "collections" was his menagerie, which included camels, bears, ostriches, and at one point, a pair of lions. A number of these animals, such as the Pomeranians and the camels, appear in the Tres Riches Heures. He had a particular love of bears and swans, which he used as personal emblems, and his bears and their keeper followed the ducal court on all of his travel. The fierce creatures were said to "follow him like loyal hounds".

The ducal court was constantly on the move, traveling between the seventeen palaces, townhouses and chateaus he owned throughout his estates, and within and around Paris. A number of these figure prominently as backdrops in the Tres Riches Heures. Favorite artisans and craftsmen became permanently attached to the court, and Jean was famed not only for their presence, but for the collegiality he shared with them. It was not uncommon for the duke to take a meal with a favorite goldsmith, or to engage in a debate of verse with one of his poets or musicians. In the Chronicles, Jean Froissart describes the duke as often deeply engrossed in brainstorming with his painter and master sculptor, Andre Beauneveu.


Yet this luxury came with its own price, for Jean was living in a time of constant upheaval at all social levels of the kingdom. The political turbulence in France, first during his royal father's capture, and later, during his nephew, Charles VI's, deteriorating sanity meant that the great dukes found their already vast powers greatly expanded as the management of the kingdom fractured. Although having proven his skill at arms, Jean was a conciliator by nature, and during his nephew's monarchy, he focused his efforts on trying to achieve a meaningful peace with the English and ending the ongoing feud between the duchies of Burgundy and Orleans, which had destabilized the kingdom as surely as had the English conquests. As if these peace embassies were not enough, the duke also tried his own hand at ending the Great Schism of the Papacy, in which he proved just as ineffective as every other prince and cardidnal.

But it was the feud between the French great houses that would mark the final years of the Duc de Berry's life. Louis d'Orleans was murdered in 1407, leaving his rival in Burgundy unchecked. Jean had no choice but to commit himself politically to counter the Burgundians. His rank and prestige made him the titular head of the anti-Burgundian "Armignacs."


Unfortunately, while Duc Jean may have seen himself as defending the crown and the Isle de France, the Armignacs were hated by the Parisians, and in 1411 a mob ransacked first his Paris residence, and then his country estate, Chateau de Bicetre, on the outskirts of the city. By the following year, the Burgundians had driven through his estates and had him besieged in Bourges, his capital. The siege progressed badly for Berry and he took refuge in the cloister of Notre-Dame to negotiate a truce with his Burgundian cousin.


Burgundy had eliminated one rival and brought the other to heel, but the larger effect was to leave the French lords even more factitious than normal, just as the young Henry V of England prepared to invade the continent. Duc Jean was still restoring his holdings when the Harfleur campaign began, ending in the stunning French disaster at Agincourt in 1415.  The Duke died shortly thereafter, on June 15, 1416, in the Hotel de Nesle, contemporaries ascribing his sudden decline and death to a heart broken by years of internal feuding and the fateful blow dealt by the fall of French chivalry to death or capture at Agincourt, including his grandsons, Charles d'Orleans and the Comte d'Eu.

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