Burgundians and the forgotten kingdom of Burgundia

Burgundians and the forgotten kingdom of Burgundia

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Made famous by Richard Wagner through the epic of the Nibelungen, the Burgundy kingdom and its people, however, appear in history as a quiet neighbor to the main barbarian kingdoms. We have very few sources on them. Without a chronicler like a Gregory of Tours to relate their facts, surrounded by great powers, the Burgundians show themselves too little to interest the Greek and Latin authors of late Antiquity. Indeed, they do not ravage Gaul, they do not seize Rome, they do not kill the emperor either, they remain in the shadows and remain unrecognized today. Their history, although incomplete, is nevertheless rich in events and twists.

Burgundian people

The Burgundiones are a Germanic people among many others, probably coming from the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic, meaning etymologically "islet of the Burgundians" (Burgundarholm). Pliny the Elder was the first to name them and locate them at Ier century AD east of the Oder, in present-day Poland. At the beginning of IIIe century, they are this time in present-day Germany on the Elbe before settling at the end of this century on the Main, constantly at war with their powerful and centuries-old enemies, the Alamans. In 369, the Roman Emperor Valentinian allied with them against these same Alamans.

Around 409, they entered the Roman Empire behind the Suevi, Alans and Vandals with the desire to be part of it. They thus benefit from the status of federates: in exchange for military participation, they receive land and income and retain their customs. Established in the region of Worms (Germany), they made the mistake of seeking to enlarge their territory to the detriment of the Roman Empire whose power was held by General Aetius known as "the last of the Romans", then an ally of the Huns and of Attila.

From this confrontation was born the historical heart of the legend of the Nibelungen. According to medieval accounts, the king of the Burgundians, Gunther or Gondichaire had his son-in-law, the mythical Siegfried, killed. His wife Krimhild sought revenge from her second husband, Etzel who historically can represent both Aetius and Attila and who massacred the Burgundian rulers. In historical reality, let us remember that the Burgundians undergo a terrible shock and are crushed by the Huns, we would speak of 20,000 dead in the Burgundian army, including King Gondichaire in 436. The Burgundian people are reduced to a few tens of thousands of people driven from their kingdom of Worms. These survivors migrate to the surroundings of Lake Geneva to establish their new home.

La Sapaudia, the foundation of the Burgundian kingdom

The survivors of the shock with the Huns led by Gondicaire's successor, Gondioc, are once again integrated, at their request or by obligation, as a federated people in the Empire. Aetius installs them in the Sapaudia, which ethymologically is the origin of modern Savoy. This territory then corresponds to the Jura mountains and to the Swiss lakes including Lake Geneva and serves as the foundation of their kingdom. With his brother Chilperic I who will take over, Gondioc becomes emboldened and decides to expand westward. Around 470, the Burgundians controlled the area of ​​Vienne and Lyon, Gondioc established his court in the latter. Around 480, they went north and east over Langres and Besançon before taking the towns of the Rhône valley to Provence and Avignon.

Their conquests do not seek to destroy Romanization, on the contrary, they complete it. They are indeed too small in number to replace the Gallo-Roman populations in place. It is estimated that they are at most around 25,000 individuals but may be much less. They are therefore content to take key positions, to control the cogs of power without being omnipresent, sharing resources and land with the landowners and the senatorial aristocracy in place. The Burgundians thus take two thirds of the cultivable land, one third of the slaves and half of the houses, farms, gardens, forests and pastures in exchange for the military defense of these territories. To this end, they consider themselves as military auxiliaries to Romaine, benefiting from the magister militum, or the title of "master of the Gallic militia".

Thus, if the Burgundians are germans, they nevertheless respect the previous occupants, partially integrating into the Gallo-Roman ensemble. However, the two ethnic groups remain very distant. Burgundian customs sometimes clash with the refinement of the end of the Lower Empire. If the Romans fall under Catholicism, the Burgundians are Arians. Each ethnic group has its own code of laws.

Apogee and fall of Burgundia

When Chilperic died, the Burgundian kingdom said Burgundia reached its maximum extension, stretching from the line of the Vosges to Avignon and it was during the reign of Gondebaud that it experienced long years of peace and tranquility. His education was made at the imperial court, he received the distinction of patrice, high Roman dignity legitimizing the authority of the Burgundian king over his Gallo-Roman subjects. Gondebaud must nevertheless fight against the Franks and their king Clovis. The chronicler Grégoire de Tours reports a military clash between the two peoples around Dijon. Although defeated, Gondebaud manages to make peace with the king of the Franks, offering him his niece Clothilde in marriage. It is in this way a reign of peace that he offers to his kingdom, striving throughout to calm tensions between Arians and Catholics. And if he himself remains Arian, his son and last Burgundian king Sigismond, takes the Catholic faith from him.

This time it is a chaotic reign that sees the end of the Burgundian kingdom. His royal debut was marked by family violence worthy of Greek tragedies. His second wife is maneuvering against the son of his first so that Sigismund will kill him by mistake, which attracts the wrath of his powerful neighbors and leads him to go in penance at the monastery of Agaune he had founded. Sigismond must then fight the Franks again. One of the sons of Clovis, Clodomir, king of Orleans decides to attack the Burgundian kingdom and has Sigismond assassinated. His brother Gondomar resumed the fight against Clodomir and defeated him in 524, but it was only a respite before the kingdom fell into the hands of the Franks who shared it in 534.

It is the end of the Burgundian dynasty and of this kingdom which will have lasted barely a century but not for all that of Burgondia which continues to exist within the Frankish kingdom leaving the next birth of the Duchy of Burgundy under the Merovingian kings.


- Justin Favrod, Les Burgondes. A forgotten kingdom in the heart of Europe, Presses polytechniques et universitaire romandes, 2002.

- Jean Richard (dir.), History of Burgundy, Éditions Privat, 1988.

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