Burgundy, in the narrower sense of the term the territory of the old Duchy of Burgundy, is a region of passage between the Paris Basin and the Rhône valley and between the upper Rhine and the Loire valley, and is accordingly, from the point of view of history and culture, one of the most interesting parts of France. Taking in the four départements of Saône-et-Loire (chief town Mâcon), Côte-d'Or (Dijon), Nièvre (Nevers) and Yonne (Auxerre), it has a total area of 31,582sq.km/12,194 sq. mi and a population of around 1.6 million.
Lower Burgundy, the northern part, is a plateau of Jurassic limestones dissected by the river Yonne and its right-bank tributaries the Cure, Serein and Armançon which in the north gradually merges into the Paris Basin. To the south of Lower Burgundy is Upper Burgundy, which is of more interest scenically and greater importance historically. The heart of the region is the fertile basin of the Saône. East of the Saône is the old county of Bresse, a wooded upland region with many lakes (poultry rearing). South of this are the Dombes, a plateau formed from Ice Age detritus with innumerable lakes which falls steeply down to the Rhône valley. West of the Saône is a Jurassic plateau which rises to around 600m/2,000ft in the famed region of the Côte d'Or. The Autun basin, with iron and coal, has developed into an important industrial region centerd on Le Creusot.
In the heart of the Monts du Morvan, a northern spur of the Massif Central, lie a series of enchanting lakes. At higher altitudes in these granite hills are areas of agricultural land intersected by hedges (the typical bocage landscape) and expanses of magnificent forest. Farther south are the uplands of the old county of Charolais or Charollais, mostly covered with pasture, with the Monts du Mâconnais to the east. Still farther south are the Monts du Beaujolais.
Agriculture (cereals, stock farming) still plays an important part in Burgundy, and in this well wooded region forestry also makes a considerable contribution to the economy.
The oldest traces of human habitation in Burgundy date back 100,000 years. As an area of passage, a transit route, Burgundy has yielded only modest evidence of early human settlement. Between 60 and 50 B.C. Caesar's forces pushed into Burgundy, and in 52 B.C. the Romans broke the stubborn resistance of the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix at Alesia (Alise-Ste-Reine, northeast of Semur-en- Auxois). In subsequent centuries Roman civilization and the Christian faith gradually spread throughout the region. In the fifth century the Burgundians migrated from the Middle Rhine into the Saône plain and gave their name to this new home. In 534, however, the Burgundian kingdom was conquered by the Franks. When the Frankish kingdom was divided under the treaty of Verdun (843) two independent kingdoms came into being in the eastern part of its territory. In 934 these were combined to form the kingdom of Burgundy, which in 1032, in the reign of Emperor Conrad II, was incorporated in the German Empire (the "Holy Roman Empire"). The western part of the territory then passed to the West Frankish kingdom and developed into the independent duchy of Burgundy - the region now known as Burgundy - which became a pillar of the Christian church. Here Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), fighting against the pomp and magnificence of Cluny, established his position as the strongest and most influential figure in the West. When Burgundy passed in 1363 from a collateral line of the Capetians to Philip the Bold of Valois this marked the beginning of a brilliant period of expansion towards the North Sea and the Jura. Then, with the death of Charles the Bold in 1477, the Duchy of Burgundy passed to France, of which it has now been part for more than five centuries.
Numbers of magnificent and well preserved buildings erected by the ecclesiastical and secular authorities in Burgundy still bear witness to a power and prosperity which was brought to an end by the French Revolution. The wealth of Burgundy depended on the building timber which could be sold to the court or to the city of Paris, then steadily growing in size - the transport problems being eased by the canals which were now being constructed on an increasing scale.
Although Burgundy has a few remains of Roman art and architecture, its great period of artistic achievement began in the 11th century with the flowering of Romanesque architecture, sculpture and painting. It is as if, around the year 1000, a new impulse came into Christian art in this region. Burgundy's numerous Romanesque village churches for long remained unnoticed, and it is only within recent decades that art historians have fully realized and appreciated their importance. There are something like 350 churches in Burgundy, of which, with the best will in the world, the ordinary visitor can see no more than a handful. Cluny, Vézelay, Tournus and Paray-le-Monial are perhaps the best known and most visited, but the less obvious churches like those of St-Etienne, La Charité- sur-Loire, Semur, Autun, Saulieu and Fontenay ought not to be neglected.
The name of Cluny is a reminder that the church reform movement which started there developed its own version of Romanesque architecture and influenced many religious houses both in Burgundy and elsewhere in Europe. The Benedictine monks of Cluny built what was until the 16th century (when St Peter's in Rome was built) the largest church in Christendom. Without the example of Cluny many of the churches of Burgundy could not have been conceived. Art historians are still at a loss to explain this great creative flowering of architecture and sculpture in Burgundy over the space of a century and a half; they cannot say what impulse set this great building program in motion or how, with the material resources available, it was successfully carried through.
It is not surprising that, after such an apotheosis of art and architecture dedicated to the glory of God, the Gothic style which about the middle of the 12th century began to radiate from the Ile de France made only slow progress in Burgundy and is represented by a relatively small number of buildings - small, at any rate, in comparison with the numbers of Romanesque churches. Examples of Gothic churches are Notre-Dame in Dijon and the cathedral of Auxerre. The Flamboyant (Late Gothic) style of the 14th century made even less impact in Burgundy, and Renaissance influence is also limited: Burgundy has few Châteaux comparable with those of the Loire valley.