Limbourg brothers

In one of the Facebook posts written by Jean-Claude Brunner, Jean-Claude refers to the catalogue entitled ‘The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry’, presently in the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. As it happens, we’ve recently started selling the book ‘Edelman – Bedelman/Rich man – Poor man’, originally published by another company, but distributed via our website. Of course, as a resident of the Dutch city of Nijmegen, these posts immediately grabbed my attention.

Let me start with some background information, as I’m pretty sure that most of you haven’t heard of these artists from a minor city in an even more minor county somewhere in the marshlands which we now call The Netherlands (of course, the county of Guelders could not be called marshland even in Roman times, but still, other parts of the Netherlands were). The Limbourg brothers (at least the three artists amongst them, Paul, Herman and Johan) were born in the second half of the 14th century. Their uncle, Jan Maelwael, was an artists as well, and under his supervision, the brothers studied painting, among other things. Around 1400, that same uncle took his nephews to Paris, where he was working as a court artist, first under Duke Philip the Bold, and later under John, Duke of Berry. The latter was the son of King John II the Good of France. The Duke of Berry was a collector of art, with a passion for highly illustrated books. Under his rule, the brothers Limbourg were assigned to illustrate several Books of Hours:  Les Petites Heures, Les Belles Heures and Les Très Riches Heures (though the latter was never finished, as the brothers died in 1416 in Bourges, presumably from the plague). After their death, their names were forgotten for a long time, until 1884, when Leopold Delisle identified the brothers as the makers of one of the above-mentioned books. Especially their last work has often been seen as possibly one of the best examples of French Gothic manuscript illumination surviving to this day.

As readers of Medieval Warfare, I hear you wondering: “what does this have to do with medieval military history?” Since this would be a rather dubious blog if I left this question unanswered, I’ll tell you. First of all, like with many medieval manuscripts, the illustrations made by the brothers provide us with a wealth of information about life in early 15th century France. Aside from scenes from the court of Duke John, the brothers also portrayed many ecclesiastical and pastoral scenes. And of course, several of these images also show warriors in quite some detail, as well as the city walls of Paris and several of the residences, including castles, of Duke John. Some of these images will be used in Medieval Warfare magazine; in fact, we have already used one of them in Medieval Warfare issue II.3 (page 36), showing the Anatomical Zodiac Man (I admit, not as military, bloody or warlike as one might expect in our magazine, but it served its purpose well).  

The other link between the brother Limbourg and military history can be found – experienced, even – during the Limbourg Brothers festival (the ‘Gebroeders van Limburg festival’ in Dutch), which is being held in Augustus each year in… you guessed it: the great city of Nijmegen, home of – well – me! 

All right, I admit that not all of you will agree with me calling Nijmegen ‘a great city’. If we were to compare it with the topic of my previous blog, Istanbul, it is small; one might even say tiny. However, the center is big enough, at least for a city in the Netherlands. In addition, it does have a rich history, beginning around the time of Emperor Augustus (starting as a legionary fortress). During the High and Late Middle Ages, the county of Guelders, with Nijmegen as one of its main cities, dominated the area, though officially as part of the Holy Roman Empire. During that period, it was powerful enough to withstand its neighbours, including even the Dukes of Burgundy. 

Within this county, the brothers of Limbourg were born, and nowadays their fame is great enough to hold an annual festival in their name. Of course, since the brothers were portraying scenes from all aspects of medieval life, the festival is not only about medieval military reenactment. However, it is visited by many military reenactors as well, including several jousters. I’ve been to a fair share of reenactment festivals these past years, but the Brothers Limbourg festival, as the largest reenactment festival in The Netherlands, is still my favourite (though, I admit, not least of all because it is being held on my doorstep). It might not be as large as Bosworth or Agincourt, but despite its smaller scale, it is still quite fun to watch armoured horsemen try to bump one another from their horse with lances. Of course, the more experienced reenactors or reenactment festival visitors amongst you know what I’m talking about. If you have never seen such a show, I can only advise you to visit one if you can. You can read about it in books or in our magazine, you can watch movies of armies advancing, steel clashing against steel, but seeing it with your own eyes, hearing/feeling the horses hooves thundering, riders galloping towards each other, seeing the lances splintering when the riders hit each other, one might even envision him- or herself in the Middle Ages (at least, one would if one closes his/her eyes, and ignores the 20th century 7-storey buildings all around).

You’ll find some pictures from the festival in this blog, though from a few years back, as the weather has been so terrible the last few years that taking pictures (and really enjoying the experience) has proved rather difficult. Note the picture of the sword fight, in which the reflection of the sun makes one of the sword more of a lightsaber than a medieval weapon (granted, these are replica’s; perhaps some historian tried to date the ‘A long, long time ago’-part), and the jousting picture where the lance is starting the break on impact. 

With several hundred reenactors, and many more visitors, each year, the festival does quite well for itself, even despite the fact that the weather gods seem to have made it their goal to personally crush all opposition before them – and enjoying themselves while doing so. Not bad for a rather small city, which, while having such a long history, unfortunately cannot offer much in the way of historical buildings and monuments, at least not compared to the major cities in Europe. Not that there ever has been a huge historical center like that of Roma Aeterna, Vienna, Paris or London, but the bombing of the city by Allied bombers during WWII – they mistook Nijmegen for a German city; apparently they all looked alike in the dark, from above – certainly didn’t help.

The next Limbourg Brothers festival will take place on 23 to 25 August 2013.

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