Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country

by Simon Winder


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Following Germania and Danubia, the third installment in Simon Winder’s personal history of Europe

In 843 AD, the three surviving grandsons of the great emperor Charlemagne met at Verdun. After years of bitter squabbles over who would inherit the family land, they finally decided to divide the territory and go their separate ways. In a moment of staggering significance, one grandson inherited the area we now know as France, another Germany and the third received the piece in between: Lotharingia.

Lotharingia is a history of in-between Europe. It is the story of a place between places. In this beguiling, hilarious and compelling book, Simon Winder retraces the various powers that have tried to overtake the land that stretches from the mouth of the Rhine to the Alps and the might of the peoples who have lived there for centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374192181
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 132,765
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Simon Winder is the author of Germania, Danubia, and The Man Who Saved Britain. He works in publishing and lives in Wandsworth Town, London.

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Ice-sheets to Asterix » The warlord » Bees and buckles » The rule of the saints » Rhinegold » The call of the oliphant

Ice-sheets to Asterix

Almost all of the course of human history in north-west Europe will for ever be a total mystery. We can assume that over thousands of years there were all kinds of heroics, inventions, serio-comic leadership failures, natural disasters and exciting vegetable breakthroughs but their nature will always be opaque. The last Neanderthals (their remains first discovered just outside Düsseldorf in the Neander valley) seem to have died out forty thousand years ago, perhaps destroyed by the ancestors of modern humans. Humans had to coexist with various appalling animals such as European leopards and cave-bears but these, like most humans, were chased away or made extinct by the last ice age, which reduced the region to a polar desert. With the gradual retreat of the ice eighteen thousand years ago a fairly familiar landscape emerged: water levels and temperatures rose and more humans drifted northwards.

The one huge and glaring difference was the hilariously named Doggerland, an area that filled most of what is now the North Sea and into which the Thames, Rhine, Meuse, Seine and Scheldt all flowed as a single monster river, coming out into the sea in what is now the far west of the English Channel. This deeply confusing landscape, filled with the little columns of smoke from villages, wolves, huge deer and proto-oxen grunting and cavorting along the swampy banks of one of the world's biggest rivers, was sadly swept away by rising sea levels and tsunamis by 6500 BC. In one of the most dramatic geological events in Europe's history – which must, among other things, have made an astonishing noise – the last, twenty-mile-wide rock-and-mud plug tore loose and Britain became an island. Poor Doggerland was swept away and the English Channel was born, watched by relieved and appreciative groups of hunter-gatherers lucky enough to happen to be on higher ground in proto-Kent and proto-Pas-de-Calais.

For so much of Europe's history it is impossible not to feel that the heavy lifting is being done elsewhere – by, for example, the northeast Asians resettling the whole of the Americas or, later, such epics as the Bornean settlement of Madagascar. These great ecological adventures are a striking contrast to the quite boring if necessary efforts of small groups of European humans to sort themselves out in a bleak, still tundral environment. There was also an increasingly embarrassing contrast with, for example, the Fertile Crescent, where animals and crops were being domesticated and things such as wheels and writing and cities were being invented. As tens of thousands laboured under a burning sun to build great ziggurats at the whim of gold-clad priests and kings, northern Europeans were still playing about with lumps of bear fat.

At some hard to isolate point in time, north-west Europe, while lacking the increasing sophistication of the eastern Mediterranean, became a far more complex society. The traditional images in museums of circular huts, a worryingly feeble defensive wall made out of something like rushes, a thin wisp of smoke from a central campfire, with everyone resignedly waiting for the Romans to invade and build sewers and proper roads, have long gone. A historian who studied Iron Age Europe once made a head-spinning point to me – that before the Roman invasion of Britain the English Channel would have been crowded with big, complex sailing ships packed with goods, but they would have been filled with sailors and merchants who were entirely illiterate. This is obvious after a few moments' thought – but those few moments, for me at any rate, switched my brain onto different tracks. A highly complex mercantile and military civilization, using ships, systems of barter and drawing on raw and finished goods from all over north-west Europe did not need to write anything down. Indeed the entire course of human history did not, until a certain point, need writing at all. From the angle of our own script-obsessed culture it may be difficult not to feel a bit sorry for such people, with their peculiar gods, animal-pelt clothing and general impenetrability. But vast dramas of emigration, invention, fighting and building went on across many generations, leaving countless, almost entirely mysterious results which once had complex meanings.

The archaeology of this pre-literate Europe has simply added layer upon layer of frustrating mystery. At Glauberg, just outside Frankfurt, there is a sequence of elaborate Iron Age remains, initially excavated just before the Second World War. In later digs an extraordinary figure was found, almost undamaged – a six-foot sandstone statue of an armoured man with a shield, neckerchief and bizarre headgear combining a cap and what look like gigantic flaps almost like rabbit ears. The figure seems to have been carved in around 500 BC and it has an undeniably Roswell alien-invader atmosphere. It may be a prince, a cult object or the much-loved logo of a chain of chariot-repair shops. But we don't know – the statue is both fascinating and boring in a highly unstable mix. With no context and no narrative, I felt almost resentful that this figure had safely stayed underground for two and half millennia just to mess us about now. All we can say is that the north-western Europe which we live in has vast substrata of human achievement about which we can understand next to nothing.

Once the Romans arrive, and particularly once Julius Caesar writes The Gallic War, it is as though a huge, Continent-wide curtain has been lifted and what we see – written about by a direct eye-witness, indeed by the man most responsible for messing it up – is a series of highly organized, sophisticated societies, in terms of military technology hard for the Romans to defeat and with large, complex and tough ships designed for the harsh weather of the Atlantic. Reading Caesar's account one immediately feels more confident about the nature of north-western Europe, with the proviso that everyone should nonetheless remain wary: surviving written-down words and more readily understandable remains give an illusion of new solidity and purpose and yet everyone was just as articulate, aggressive, faithless, heroic, haunted and incompetent before some unpleasantly over-militarized Italians arrived.

Perhaps the most striking pre-Roman place in north-west Europe is on a high hill near Otzenhausen in a wooded area of the Saarland. Fewer locations give a stronger sense of how human life in much of Europe is dictated by trees. Pine and beech forests were the great enemies, their seeds creeping forward and within a generation stamping out any areas abandoned by humans. In the medieval period settlers were given special privileges during the 'mattock' years needed to tear out roots and make farmland: extensive warfare, plague or crop failure might be human disasters, but they were arboreal opportunities. The Celtic fortified town built up here over a couple of centuries was enormous. It has been worked out that in its final form (around the time of Caesar's invasion) it was made from some thirty-five miles of tree trunks and 315,000 cubic yards of stone (helpfully re-imagined by archaeologists as some nine thousand railway trucks' worth). This extraordinary need for wood, both for the structure and for fires, would have meant that what is now again a convincingly dense region of woodland would have been largely stripped and its ecology – presumably of farms and readily visible wide tracks – too different to be imagined. The town site is protected by a (for me) grimly steep climb to the top and nourished by a spring at its centre which still flows.

The fort was built by the Treveri to defend themselves against marauding Suebi. The Treveri were the enemy most respected by Caesar, repeatedly mentioned in The Gallic War, and they caused him endless problems during nine years of campaigning. The Romans became so obsessed with their leader, Indutiomarus, that they adopted the unusual battle strategy of every Roman simply hacking his way directly towards Indutiomarus to ensure his being killed regardless of casualties. As the Treveri were always on the offensive their Saarland base never came into use – or at least is unmentioned by Caesar. It was abandoned in the same year that a Roman camp was set up nearby, but there is no evidence either way as to whether it was abandoned voluntarily or through battle. The Treveri survive in the name of the city of Trier (more clearly in its French version as Trèves) and genetically, it can be assumed, all over the place. All memory of the meaning of the fort was long lost – and even today it is still known entirely ahistorically as the Ring of the Huns, adding an enjoyable flavour of dark doings.

It is possible to be immobilized by The Gallic War as it is such a relief to move on in a flash from second- or third-hand Greek rumours about the nature of north-west Europe mingled with the analysis of bone pits to sudden, brilliant Technicolor. Caesar is nothing if not self-aggrandizing, but he is also just very interested, as would his original audience have been. He talks about the region between the Rivers Waal and Meuse as 'the island of the Batavii', which accidentally preserves the sense of the Dutch river system as once being vastly more wide, unruly and isolating. He also talks about the ease with which enemies could flee into the hilly Ardennes or into 'the marshes' – now non-existent but once an almost Amazonian quagmire that spread through the many meanders of the Rhine and Meuse – or onto coastal islands protected by high tides. He discusses the Belgae and the Helvetii, talking about their exceptional bravery and making The Gallic Wars the founding document for two modern nationalisms as well as generating a lot of rather mediocre (if richly enjoyable) nineteenth-century town-hall frescoes of people with big moustaches and sandals. He builds the first bridge over the Rhine, probably near Koblenz. Above all, the book is an account of violence – of the superiority of Roman violence over Celtic violence and, when resistance was broken, of massacres and destruction.

My own view of the Romans in Gaul (and of Julius Caesar) is entirely coloured by a lifelong love (happily shared with my sons) of Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix books, set in the aftermath of Caesar's return to Rome from Gaul, so there is no aspect of real Roman culture which is not swamped for me by these books' vivid ridicule. In some moods (and I do not think I am alone in this) I am fairly convinced that Asterix the Legionary may be the funniest book ever written, although, in fairness, Asterix and Cleopatra can make an equally convincing claim. This adds an interest to visiting the in other ways drearily exhaustive collections of Roman stuff in the museums of places such as Metz, Cologne and Mainz, where anything from a legionary helmet to a toga-clad figure on a tombstone acts merely as a reminder of various hilarious episodes. The roots of the Asterix books are complex and deserve more study – they were a response to the Nazi invasion and occupation, a satire on the French army (in which Goscinny served), a response to Goscinny's being Jewish, an attack on Americanization, and so on. But they have also acted more broadly as a sort of wrecking-ball, smashing up through utter derision all traces of fascism, whether of the kind first invented by Mussolini or the variant embraced by Vichy, all of which took deeply seriously the imagined values, discipline, order and frowning gravity of the Roman Empire. The Asterix books made it no longer possible to see perfect rows of steel-helmeted troops with their square-jawed officers without them being merely a prelude to some farcical humiliation by the Gallic heroes. As Obelix says in, I think, every one of the books, 'These Romans are crazy.'

The warlord

With his entire cavalcade strongly smelling, as usual, of moustache wax, pricey toilet waters and Brasso, Kaiser Wilhelm II on 11 October 1900 inaugurated one of the funnest things ever to happen to the Taunus hills north of Frankfurt. In a flurry of bizarre hunting caps, badges, special cloaks and sashes he laid the foundation stone to mark the rebuilding of the Roman fort known as the Saalburg.

Kaiser Wilhelm had many failings, but his storybook attitude towards history has left us all in his debt. North-west Europe is dotted with fair-to-middling Roman leftovers but none have the atmosphere of the Saalburg. Tossing aside the usual academic fuss and havering, it was decided to rebuild from scratch the whole thing just as it used to be. This being 1900 one can imagine the complex flavour of the enterprise and the very non-Asterix sense of imperial destiny that would have hung in the air even more heavily than the eau de toilette. This was very much a personal project of the Kaiser's, egged on by a handful of toady archaeologists who should have known better. For instance, the Kaiser insisted on a Temple of Mithras being built, because Mithraism had a soldierly, band-of-brothers, initiation-rite, all-male flavour, although there was literally no evidence whatsoever for its existence at the Saalburg. The inside of the temple is a joy: it has the air of an old-fashioned nightclub long gone out of business, with the ceiling painted blue with stars and a gigantic painted carving of a half-clad youth killing a white bull.

The fort itself is more serious and felt particularly so as I was there midwinter – and therefore missed all the dressing-up and the reconstructed Roman meals at the taverna. Being there with snow on the ground and skeletal trees was of course ideal for getting some sense of those poor Roman sentries far from home, stuck in a temperature-defective variant of Beau Geste, looking wearily into the murk to the east, dreaming of lemon trees and waiting for yet another German attack.

The Saalburg was the furthest point the Romans reached across the Rhine. It must have been a glum posting, but it was protecting a range of Roman towns which still exist, with their names twisted about a bit by time, scattered along the Rhenus (Rhine): Colonia Agrippina (Cologne), Confluentes (the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel: Koblenz), Bonna (Bonn, straightforward enough), Moguntiacum (Mainz), Bingium (Bingen), Novaesium (Neuss).

Once you start walking the ramparts you feel very slightly Roman, blowing into your hands to keep them warm, looking out for the stern-butfair officer of the watch. The walls do seem a bit low though, whether a reflection of reality or to save Wilhelm money it is unclear – in either event they do suggest an over-reliance by the Romans on Germanic tribes not developing small-ladder technology. The Roman-style storage rooms are used as a museum, packed with the usual ancient things hardwearing enough not to have rotted – any number of spear-points, votive-oil lamps, figurines, trowels, gutters, pots. It seems unfair that the nature of some Roman materials allows them to survive, while the surrounding wood-and-fibre cultures have largely vanished. There is even a disconcerting little clothing pin with a swastika, a Roman appropriation of an Indian symbol. There is also an excellent display of the size of different Roman military units using Playmobil figures, which catch the mood very well, although probably not as Wilhelm intended. And to bolster the fraudulent temple, there is great stuff on Mithraism, with its wholly mysterious use of stone spheres, and the way that the initiate could move up through the ranks from Lion to Persian to Courier of the Sun (the wonderful word Heliodromus) and all the way up to Father – but we do not know, and never will know, how or why. It certainly fits though with the Kaiser's rather redeemingly confused feelings about masculinity.

The organization of the Roman Empire in the north-west changed at various points – but the main units were Germania Inferior, Gallia Belgica and Germania Superior (i.e., superior in the sense of further upstream on the Rhine). Germania Inferior ran through the modern southern Netherlands, its key northern metropolis being Noviomagus (Nijmegen) guarding the split in the Rhine between the southern arm of the Waal and the northern Nederrjin. All points further north, a maze of complex swamps and unrewarding waterways, were shunned. Germania Inferior then continued down the Rhine to Bonn. Gallia Belgica covered what became Flanders and south to the Somme and then ballooned out to the east to cover areas such as Champagne, Luxembourg, Lorraine almost up to the Rhine – it was later split in two parts, one in the west, and the other in the east with its capital at Trier. One curiosity is that the area known as 'Civitas Tungrorum' was moved from Gallia Belgica to Germania Inferior but kept its separate integrity in obscure ways which made it later into the physical territory of Bishopric of Liège – an amazingly persistent, sprawling absurdity on the map which drove all manner of would-be world conquerors mad until at last chucked into the dumpster by Revolutionaries in 1795. The last of the three provinces, Germania Superior, stretched down the Rhine, bulging onto the right bank of which the Saalburg was a notable element, and then down to Lake Zürich and Lake Geneva. Its principal cities were Mainz and Argentum (Strasbourg), with Mainz the main military hub for supplying the forts (result: a particularly numbing museum filled with pots, short swords and spearheads accidentally dropped in the Rhine on the way across). In the mid-third century waves of attackers and a wider crisis in the empire meant that the Saalburg and other forts were abandoned and the line taken back to the Rhine. Roman rule continued long enough to establish Christianity, from the Emperor Constantine's capital at Trier, to create structures and institutional memories which have existed, albeit sometimes under acute pressure, ever since.


Excerpted from "Lotharingia"
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Copyright © 2019 Simon Winder.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Maps xiii

Introduction 1

A note on myself and France

A note on place names

Chapter 1 17

Ice-sheets to Asterix

The warlord

Bees and buckles

The rule of the saints


The call of the oliphant

Chapter 2 47

The split inheritance

Margraves, landgraves, dukes and counts

Imperial grandeur and decay

Boulogne boy makes good

The Cistercians

Chapter 3 77

The Sibyl of the Rhine

Some nuts and bolts

Stories of Wolf Inngrim

Street scenes

Amiens Cathedral and its aftermath

Famine, plague and flood

The bold and the mad

Chapter 4 113

The fearless and the good

Prayer nuts

A word of advice from Mehmet the Conqueror

Poor local decision-making

The bold and the Swiss

Chapter 5 139

The great inheritance

Mary the Rich and the future of the world

New management at Hawk Castle

'Beware, beware, God sees!'

Uses for paper

Chapter 6 167

The New World

Margaret of Austria

The life and adventures of Charles V

The Oranges


The Catholic case

Chapter 7 197

The sufferings of Lady Belge

Life in 'the garden'

Birds, beasts and flowers

Croissants of crisis

Whitewash and clear glass

Chapter 8 223

'A harvest of joys'

Fencers and soap-boilers

Elizabeth and her children

Uncle Toby's hobby-horse

'Too late to be ambitious'

Chapter 9 253

Nancy and Lorraine

Rebuilding the Rhine

Sperm by candlelight

Gilt and beshit

Adventures in tiny states

In the time of the periwigs

Chapter 10 289

Heroic and ominous

'The old times have gone'

The great French gingerbread-baker

Armies of the Ocean Coast

Europe reordered

'What is there to fear if you are a slave?'

Chapter 11 323

Strange happenings underground

The New Rhine

The Translation Bureau of Barbarian Books

Baden in turmoil

A Newfoundland dog in Luzern

Grand Duchies, Empires and Kingdoms

Chapter 12 361

Kilometre pigs

French exiles

Metz and the nationalist frontline

Expanses of baize

Bullets, tusks and rubber

Rays and masks

Chapter 13 395

'Barracks, barracks, barracks'

War plans

The Battle of the Frontiers

Kilomètre 0

Red, yellow and blue

Shame on the Rhine

Chapter 14 433

Dreams of Corfu

Walls and bridges

The Kingdom of Mattresses

The road to Strasbourg


Charlemagne comes home

Postscript 465

Acknowledgements 471

Bibliography 473

Index 481

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