Lotharingia: Charlemagne’s much disputed legacy

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

In 1919, only months after the end of the Great War, a French airman called Jacques Trolley de Prevaux, accompanied by a cameraman, piloted an airship down the line of the old Western Front that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. The result is a haunting piece of film in many ways, and yet what is perhaps most moving is not the scenes of devastation, but the sight of the people below, picking up again the threads of their old lives among the shattered ruins of what had once been homes, with the resilience of a people whom history had long accustomed to the miseries of war.

It is no coincidence that the Western Front — running down the old historical European fault-line that separates Germany from France — more or less exactly follows the spine of what was once, briefly, Lotharingia. After Charlemagne’s death in 814 his empire was eventually divided between his grandsons into three territories, an Eastern Francia that would eventually become Germany, a Western Francia that evolved into France and, sandwiched ominously between the two and named after Charlemagne’s great-grandson, Lothair II, the great swathe of contested land which is the subject of this book.

If the Great War would not be the last time that this part of Europe would face invasion from the east, it was most certainly not the first, and you could count on very few fingers the generations between the death of Charlemagne and the Battle of the Bulge that did not see ‘Lotharingia’ embroiled in one war or another. Philippe Leclerc de Hautcloque — the Free French hero, General Leclerc — is admittedly not a typical case, and yet if a brace of Crusader forbears adds a touch of glamour to his ancestral pedigree, the rest of his family history — soldiers who fought and died in everything from the Hundred Years War to the early slaughter of 1914 — no more than reflects the realities of life over the centuries as Austrian/Spanish/French/English/Burgundian/German/Religious/Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies turned Lotharingia into Europe’s preferred battlefield.

One of the great mercies of this book, though, is that Simon Winder never allows these wars to swamp his story, and with its 15 different incarnations of ‘Burgundy’, its myriad contending authorities — imperial, ecclesiastic, royal, aristocratic, civic — and a map that looks as if a dog had tried to swallow a jigsaw ‘and then thrown it up’, Lotharingia might have been made for him. In a dutiful fashion he does his best to stick to a more or less chronological narrative, but anyone who has read the earlier volumes of his exuberant trilogy — Germania and Danubia — will know that one is never more than a page or two from staring at the skull of some giant proto-crocodile fossil in a Mompelgard museum or wondering quite what Hieronymus Bosch thought he was up to.

I’m a sucker for everything Winder writes, and happy to be told whatever he wants to tell me, and that, as it turns out, is really just as well. I don’t know if there was ever a time — Germania perhaps? — when his editors had a real say, but they have clearly run up the white flag on this one, licensing him to range unchecked up and down the touchline of European history like some hyperactive American Football coach, notes in hand, ready to stop the on-field violence at any moment with a ‘time-out’ to pick over the bones of some impenetrable anomaly of Lotharingian geography.

This book could, and probably should, have been 50 to 100 pages shorter, and yet to cut it would clearly have been an act of almost unnatural cruelty. There is the occasional half-hearted attempt at self-regulation from Winder himself, but he so loves it all — the obscure local museums, the mouldering mausolea, the inexplicable patches of land belonging to this or that bishop, the dynastic vagaries that end up with Dutch footballers wearing orange, the blind mischances of history that plonked a great, hairy 19th-century Prussian paw on the industrial Ruhr — that the only real mystery is how he imagines he is going to stop at a mere trilogy.

It is hard to think, in fact, of another historian or travel writer — and neither term quite does justice to what he does — who is so intoxicated by absolutely everything and everywhere to do with the past in the way that Winder is. He has his doubts, it is true, about some particularly ghastly decades in the first half of the 14th century, and yet one feels that if he could safely rule those out and steer well clear of Versailles, his only real problem would be deciding whether he’d rather sport his particoloured leggings in medieval Ghent, relocate his family to Leeuwehoek’s 17th-century Delft, hang out with Dürer in an Antwerp inn or just settle down in — ‘the real heroes of Germany’ — some nice, sensible Imperial Free City.

Anyone whose favourite French king is Charles X plainly has issues with France (and he’s not too keen on 18th-century Britain either), but put Winder in one of the mutating bits of the Duchy of Burgundy or give him a glimpse of a Count of Loon and he is in his element. He can carry off the big narrative sweep when it is needed, but as with Germania and Danubia, Lotharingia really comes alive when he can nail his argument to a specific place or moment — to the railway terminus at Metz, to the astonishing Cistercian complex of Maulbronn, to Charlemagne’s Aachen, to the great mass of Den Bosch’s St John’s Church, or to that ‘coelacanth’ of Lotharingian history, as he wonderfully calls it, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

It is this which makes his books not just fun as history but indispensable as travelling companions for anyone interested in Germany. There may come a time when, Alexander-like, he will sit down and weep because there are no more obscure, unimaginably dull local museums filled with unicorn horns to conquer, but if Lotharingia is anything to go by, that is happily a long way off.

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