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Lotharingia: Europe’s Lost Country, Simon Winder

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe’s Lost Country, by Simon Winder, Picador, £14.99, 504 pp, ISBN: 978-1509803286

In my mid-twenties, for the second time in my life, I left these islands to venture onto “the Continent”, the purpose being to attend the wedding of a friend. The journey was by sea, land and sea – Dún Laoghaire, Holyhead, London, Dover (I think), Ostend –the final destination being the town of Kortrijk, also known as Courtrai, in western Flanders, just a few kilometres from the French border and the towns of Roubaix and Tourcoing. We had been picked up at Ostend by the brother-in-law of the bride and one thing in particular struck me as we were driven, on fast and enormously busy roads, the short distance south to Kortrijk: everyone seemed to be in a great hurry to be somewhere else and, judging from the plates on their cars, most were on their way to a different country: going across from the Channel ports to Germany perhaps, or from France to Belgium, France to the Netherlands, Belgium to the Netherlands, Belgium to Luxembourg or Germany, or further south to Switzerland. In a fast car, you could be through Belgium in well under two hours, from Lille in France, say, to Breda in the Netherlands. What did all this mean? This proximity, this ease of travel, the ability, even need for some at least, to get to a different country and back for work purposes a few times a week? Well, I wasn’t sure what it meant but I guessed that it must have been conducive to a somewhat different mentality from that which is natural to the inhabitants of an island, an island from which I hadn’t budged, for example, for my first eighteen years and then only to go to the other one.

Another thing I noticed on that short trip was that the bride and her family, sitting in the kitchen of their house in Kortrijk and no doubt talking mostly about the arrangements for the marriage ceremony, slipped effortlessly back and forth from French to Flemish (or Dutch as I think they called it). It wasn’t of course puzzling that they could speak both languages: they were living very close to a linguistic frontier, and they were an educated family. No, what I found strange was that one sister would ask a question in French and be answered in Flemish, or vice versa. It wasn’t that one of them favoured French and the other Flemish: either might lead in either language. But why did they change language so frequently, I wondered. They didn’t know, they told me. It was just “natural”.

“Lotharingia”, the subject of Simon Winder’s new book of travel-cum-history-cum-entertainment following his successful earlier volumes Germania and Danubia, is his chosen term for the lands in between, between France and Germany that is. Historically, the name derives from two divisions of the Frankish empire (the empire of Charlemagne), a large territory which had stretched from Catalonia in the southwest to Bohemia and Moravia in the east and from the North Sea half-way down the Italian peninsula. It was first divided between Charlemagne’s grandsons into West Francia (roughly France), East Francia (roughly western Germany) and Middle Francia, while the latter was in 855 shorn of Provence and northern Italy, to become Lotharingia (the kingdom of Lothar II). Not that history stopped there or boundaries ceased changing. Oh no. This was a territory which continued to be fought over by powerful neighbours to west and east and was the site of some of Europe’s most bloody battles, including Waterloo, Verdun, the Somme and “the Bulge”. The current state of Belgium dates from only 1830.

Winder’s engrossing accounts give more weight to earlier territorial struggles, which are less well-known, and as much space to cultural as to political history. If, traditionally, English schoolboys were baffled by the long procession of kings and queens and needed a shorthand way of keeping some kind of mental grip on them (“a bad king”, “a weak king”), then pity the poor continental children who must grapple with Charles the Bald, Charles the Bold, Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple, Philip the Bold, Philip the Fair and a good dozen of Henrys. To all of this complexity, Winder is a perpetually good-humoured guide: if he cannot make you grasp (or remember) the detail, a perhaps impossible task, he will at least make you enjoy it.

The European lands that Charlemagne conquered and in which Latin Christianity was to flourish (to which the large number of impressive surviving churches and abbeys are testimony) bear a remarkable similarity to the nations that came together to form the European Economic Community in 1957: France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, West Germany. Simon Winder closes his account of “Lotharingia” in this decade, noting that the new pan-European institutions decided to make three key cities of this heart of Europe their capitals: Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. And in 1950 the city of Aachen (otherwise Aix-la-Chapelle), which sits on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the city where Charlemagne lived and was buried, decided to award an annual prize for services to European unity.

Publishers often include a postage-stamp-sized photograph of the author on the inside back cover of the book. In the present case, however, Picador have allotted Mr Winder a full page. This, I think, was a shrewd marketing decision. Few will be able to resist taking a journey in the company of a man who looks such pleasant company. As Tom Stoppard remarked of Germania and Danubia, Simon Winder’s gift is to supply us with “an idiosyncratic, often funny fusion of history writing, travel writing and disrespect”. And, one might add, a fascinating introduction to a part of Europe that is steeped in history and culture and crowded with fine towns and cities but which not enough of us visit.

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