Some 500 and more years ago, a young woman from Burgundy achieved that which political parties around the world today find impossible. A hospital that pays for itself. Her name was Guigone de Salins, and the institution which she founded, is to this day providing medical care without charge for the people of Beaune and surrounding areas.
Over the the centuries, the Hospices de Beaune has become the region’s most famous and cherished possession. The magnificent structure opened its doors in 1452, when it was designed to incorporate the most recent developments in the provision of medical care. There are other hospitals in Europe that have been in existence for longer. St John’s in the City of Bruges for example, was founded in the 12c. However the feature that makes the Hospices special, is that it is self financing. Its annual running costs are paid from the proceeds of the sale of wine from its vineyards.
Following her husband’s death in 1462, Guigone could have divided her time between the town houses and thirty three different chateau she owned throughout Burgundy. Instead, she moved into an apartment near to the Hospices, and spent the remainder of her days caring for the sick. When she died, her body was laid to rest, not in the elegant mausoleum alongside the man she married, but in the heart of the institution which would never have seen the light of day, were it not for her charitable disposition.
Captain Etienne de Salins, a Burgundian noble, and the senior officer of an elite corps which provided protection for the Duke of Burgundy, had a perilous task indeed in the early years of the 15th century. Few in his line of work survived to see old age, and sadly Etienne was no exception. An early and unscheduled meeting with his maker took him from his family in 1416, at the tender age of just twenty eight. At home in Salins, in the Jura mountains of Burgundy, he left a young widow Louise, and four daughters, one of whom had been named ‘Guigone’. Broadly translated, the name signifies someone who is willing to stand up for themselves, and fight their corner.
By 1421, some five years after her father’s death, Guigone had reached the age of nineteen, and like her mother before her, was an attractive young woman. She had a quiet inner confidence, an open intelligent mind, and usually thought of others before herself. On the face of it therefore, not such a difficult task for her mother to find her a husband! Indeed, notwithstanding the loss of many young men to a never ending succession of military campaigns and Crusades, there was still no shortage of young aristocratic contenders, all hoping that their noble lineage might receive Louise’s seal of approval. And while Guigone was modestly pleased to have generated so much interest in her marital prospects, there was one particular young aspirant, who already had a claim on her heart. However every effort Guigone made to steer Louise in Antoine’s direction, was met with an uncharacteristic refusal to engage, leading Guigone to assume that there was some as yet unspecified issue with Antoine’s suitability. The real reason however, was that her marital fate had already been decided by Louise and other family members, and her mother’s evasiveness, was born only of a reticence to deliver news, which she knew would bring a different kind of emotional turmoil, to a family that had previously been united, in love and in grief.
The town where the family lived, and Guigone was born, is a combination of two bourgs, strung out along the bottom of a valley in the Jura, the mountain range separating France from Switzerland. A fast flowing river appropriately named, ‘La Furieuse’, runs through the centre of the town, and in certain places along the valley floor, underground springs rise to the surface, which then flow into the river. The springs carry salt from extensive mineral deposits beneath the ground. In the Middle Ages, the preservative qualities of salt made it a valuable commodity. It meant that perishable foods could be stored through the winter months, and taken on long sea journeys. It was commonly referred to as, ‘the white gold’.
Salins was an important centre of medieval commerce. The main street was an array of shops selling luxury goods to the traders and merchants who were a continual presence in the town; tapestries and garments from Flanders; socks, stockings, and woollen outer-garments from Norwich, England; coloured and painted glassware from Murano in Italy; even spices from the Orient, which came to Europe via merchants in Venice. Hotels and restaurants opened to cater for the visitors, and as has always been the case when money flows freely, certain services were available, which could not be found on the daily specials menu!
The salt was extracted by a process of distillation. Large cauldrons of spring water were heated over open fires, fuelled by supplies of wood from local forests. Once the water had evaporated, a residue of salt remained, which was then shaped into blocks the size of a large cake, for ease of transportation. From time to time, the distillation process would lead to fires which destroyed large parts of the town. Rebuilding over the centuries had created a mixture of architectural styles. However, I can still see the magnificent 12c church of St Anatoile, in a fine state of preservation given the passage of time. Inside, I hear Guigone as a child, praying with her sisters for the safety of Etienne, and ‘by the way, please God, when the time comes, bless me with a kind and loving husband like my father’. And those of her great grandfather Dimanche, who changed his name from ‘Asinari’ to 'de Salins’, in recognition of the town’s contribution to his good fortune.
Europe could still not be described as ‘civilised’. Indeed, far from it. In addition to the perils of warfare, the population had to contend with disease. The plague known as ‘the Black Death’ was the most voracious, laying waste to whole towns and villages in the most distressing manner. In the countryside, bands of cut throat mercenaries roamed. Hardened to the horrors of warfare, their only thought was to maximise their plunder from rich, poor, and clergy alike, before the start of the next bloody campaign from which there was every chance they would never return; and to cap it all, packs of wolves, which were not averse to picking off the odd isolated traveller, to supplement their meagre winter fare.
From 1404, the year after Guigone’s birth, her father was in the service of Duke John I. After the lifting of the siege of Maestricht in 1408, he became known as ‘John the Fearless’. It is not clear whether this was in recognition of acts of personal bravery, or his shocking decision to murder the defeated opposition, including all their priests and the Bishop.
The politics of the day could best be described as ‘complicated’. It might also fairly be said, that John’s approach to affairs of State, had a tendency to exacerbate the complications. Burgundy was ruled by its Dukes, and France by the King, albeit both the Dukes, and the King, were part of the same Valois family. King Charles VI was a minor when he acceded to the French throne in 1380, and shortly after he reached his majority, he was incapacitated by bouts of mental illness.
The Duke of Burgundy was the most senior member of a governing council which ruled France while the King was a minor and when he was ill. The younger brother of Charles VI, Louis, Duke of Orleans, was resistant to Burgundy having so much influence in French affairs, and in particular, access to the French treasury. So when Duke of Burgundy Philip the Bold died, and before John could step into his fathers’ shoes, Louis seized the opportunity for the French Valois to take back control. It was a pre-emptive move which left John’s status in France weakened, and Burgundy’s coffers considerably lighter. Struggling to make his presence felt, humiliated by unfavourable comparisons with his father, and worried about the financial implications for Burgundy, John decided on decisive action. He engaged paid assassins to see an end to Louis as he was returning to his residence in the centre of Paris. Everyone on the King’s side assumed that John was behind the attack, but the matter was put beyond doubt, by a clumsy trail of evidence clearly linking John to one of the assailants. Having little alternative but to admit responsibility, he fled Paris to avoid arrest, leaving his advisors to deal with the fall out as best they were able.
Nicolas was born in 1376 in the town of Autun, southern Burgundy. His father died when he was young, but fortunately for Nicolas and his brother Jean, his mother, was a resourceful woman, from a family of winemakers, the instinct of survival set deep in her bones. Her ambitions for her children saw both Nicolas and Jean sent to Paris to study law. She could not have chosen a profession better suited to the combination of intellectual dexterity, and cold and calculating logic, that was Nicolas Rolin.
His eloquence in support of a cause, saw him rapidly promoted from his first employment as a clerk in the parliament building in Beaune. He went back to Paris, where he became the trusted advisor to Duke John. In the matter of the assassination of Louis, Nicolas was handed the unenviable task of countering the obvious conclusion that John was a murdering criminal. The client having already made his confession, the case appeared hopeless. However in legal matters, as they say, nothing is so simple. Responding to the challenge, Nicolas came up with the infrequently used defence of the desperate despot, known as ‘tyrannicide’. The essence of the plea requires the defendant to prove that the victim was a tyrant, who duly met his just deserts, leaving the aggressor to be congratulated, rather than incarcerated. For the plea to work, as might be expected, it had to be supported by some evidence of behaviour which could fairly be categorised as tyrannical. An imaginative list of heinous activities on the part of Louis was drawn up, including such unfair practices as: ‘dipping a cherry branch in the blood of a cockerel and a white chicken, which possessed such magic powers, that no woman could resist the advances of its owner’. Fearful of challenging such compelling testimony, the court decided unanimously in favour of John, with a pardon from the King thrown in for good measure. Nicolas’ reputation in the eyes of the mainstay of the Burgundian nobility, was firmly established.
The Orleans faction on the other hand, were not so impressed. Nicolas had counselled John, that chopping one head off the hydra, was only going to aggravate the creature. And so it proved. The Orleans family were incensed at John’s cowardly act, followed by the dishonourable manner in which he escaped punishment, blackening the name and memory of their favourite son Louis in the process.
England under Henry V
In addition to the threat posed by the Orleans, there was another political complication which John, and therefore Nicolas, had to contend with. This came in the form of the expansionist aggression of English warrior King Henry V, later to be immortalised in the work of William Shakespeare. England laid claim to the French throne, and if this claim was supported by John, and the fighting forces of Burgundy, it would almost certainly succeed. However John was worried that he might have met his duplicitous match in Henry. A leader just as bloodthirsty and brutal, but benefitting from an important quality for someone in his position, clear and intelligent thinking. At least with the Orleans faction, John felt more in the company of like minded people.
Nicolas however, had made up his mind. He advised John to throw the might of Burgundy behind Henry’s army, and bring an end to the Orleans dynasty once and for all. John could not be convinced, and assumed a position squarely in the middle of the fence. Henry won the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and in breach of the prevailing etiquette which held that captured nobility were to be returned for a ransom, went on to slaughter all those who had surrendered, including two of John’s brothers. Later, when Henry laid siege to the town of Rouen, he kept all its inhabitants starving within the walls, and John did nothing to come to their aid. In both instances, Burgundy was kept out of the fray.
As might be expected, John ended with the worst of all worlds. The Orleans faction were so incensed at his treachery and lack of support, they tricked him into attending a meeting to discuss peace, and finally obtained their revenge, by meting out the same fate to John, as he had to Louis. In the eyes of many in the Court of Burgundy however, the advice of Nicolas to support Henry, was perceived to have been correct.
Nicolas and Guigone
After her father’s death in 1416, responsibility for identifying a suitable match for Guigone and her younger sister, rested with her mother Louise, and a sort of informal family council, made up from other senior members of Louise’s family. News of Guigone’s looks, and her pious and charitable nature, had spread far and wide, and there was no shortage of families with heirs and titles registering their interest. She was almost spoiled for choice!
The one name that Guigone did not expect to hear from her mother’s lips, was Nicolas Rolin. Rolin was a man whose reputation was still lodged in her memory in the context of her father’s disapproval of the actions of John. Etienne had described John’s right hand man Rolin, as a person lacking principle, whose words and deeds could not be trusted. Had her father still been alive, she knew any proposal made on behalf of Nicolas Rolin would have been rejected out of hand. Her father however was no longer with them, and Guigone now had to contend with the wishes of Louise, and those of the ‘family council’.
Since his early encounters with Etienne, Nicolas had succeeded in further enhancing his status. In 1422, he received the ultimate accolade and reward for his endeavours, when he was appointed Chancellor of Burgundy. It was the most powerful position beneath the Duke, and opened the door to many privileges, including for Nicolas, the choice of a new spouse from the fairest maidens of Burgundy’s aristocratic elite. Nicolas became the first and only husband of Guigone, on 20 December 1423.
Before doing so however, he had to deal with Louise’s conscience. Nicolas was required to declare, that from the time of marrying Guigone, he would have eyes for no other woman. As a demonstration of his passion and commitment, he had the initial S for ‘seule’ - ‘the only one’, emblazoned on all their possessions. It was in the tiles of the floors of their residences, the tapestries, in fact, just about everywhere, including the canopy over the bed they lay in at night. He could not miss it!
We met in April 1468 in Guigone’s bureau. It was two years before she died, and six years after the death of Nicolas.
Copyright belongs to Paul Thomas. Copying, disseminating, or using for any purpose other than personal use is not allowed.
For the factual background, the excellent work of Marie Therese Berthier and John-Thomas Sweeney, ‘Guigone de Salins Une Femme de la Bourgogne’, Medieval editions de L’Armancon, has been of great assistance