Flat on the floor, England lies enlaced in the serpents of its own European nightmares. (I write “England” because Scotland—small but sane—wants no part in the Brexit psychodrama.) So it’s suddenly important, perhaps helpful, to look closely at what English writers are saying about the continent they appear to be leaving. It’s safe to guess that few of them voted “Leave” in the 2016 referendum. But class counts, as usual, and many of them were stunned to find themselves outnumbered by a majority convinced that their sense of abandonment sprang from alien control of their country by a foreign clique in Brussels.
There is no shortage of writing by English authors who “love Europe.” But what does feeling oneself to be pro-European, even to “love Europe,” really amount to in modern England? The sense of Europe as a destination, as a gorgeous source of culture that every person of imagination should at least acknowledge, really belonged to pre-1939 generations and has waned, as British high and popular culture grew in self-confidence in the postwar decades—and also, as the Brexit drama confirms, in insularity. In vain the history books, especially those published since 1945, have emphasized that the English and British pasts can’t be understood without knowing how deeply what happened on one side of the Channel was shaped and influenced by events, rulers, and beliefs on the other. And they don’t just mean British expeditionary armies in 1914 or 1939. After all, Normandy and a huge region of southwestern France belonged to the English kingdom—on and off—for several medieval centuries. Was this just a colonial occupation, or was England in that period more “European”?
It would be dumb to say that Simon Winder loves Europe. He knows it far too well to have uncomplicated feelings about it. He is better described as a traveler, almost an old-fashioned antiquary, who is enthralled by Europe’s stories, rulers, and battered artifacts—cathedrals, castles, tombs, bomb-proof bunkers, and (constantly rebuilt) bridges. At the same time, because his historical reading is enormous, he knows all too well how those stories, rulers, and many of those buildings arose to the accompaniment of constant, ghastly, and unnecessary wars and the subjugation of millions of inoffensive people who only wanted history to leave them alone. It’s not that Winder spares England. He recalls plenty of contemptible or merely stupid English interventions in Continental affairs that most people don’t know about or would rather forget. But in the end, it’s just because he is a patriotic son of what Germans sarcastically call the Inselreich that he finds Europe so inexhaustibly weird, fascinating, and “other.”
Lotharingia is his third book about the continent, following Germania (2010) and Danubia (2013). But this one concerns countries geographically much closer to England and much more intimately connected with British history than that of Swabia or the Banat or the Grand Duchy of Posen. Lotharingia is, roughly, the broad strip of territories running between the North Sea and the modern Swiss border. The Rhine valley more or less marks its eastern boundary, while its western edge, continually fought over and pushed back and forth, has usually been somewhere near the Meuse (or Maas) and Scheldt rivers. The old Netherlands, including what is now Holland, Belgium, and French Flanders, formed its coast.
Lotharingia was created by the Treaty of Verdun in 843, when Charlemagne’s enormous empire was divided between three heirs. One took West Francia, eventually France; a second inherited East Francia, which was not yet called Germany; and the share given to Lothair I was the slice between those two enormous kingdoms. (Lotharingia is distinct from the Duchy of Burgundy, which covered some of the same territory as Lotharingia but arose centuries later.)
It isn’t a criticism, still less a jeer, to say that Lotharingia is a very English book. It’s not so much history as a long cultural tour, led by a brilliantly witty guide who never stops talking, who constantly halts the group in the street to reminisce about his own experiences or digress into a wonderful anecdote, and who gets everyone into extraordinary places normally locked up. There are a great many jokes and irreverent hoots, in case everything gets too earnest. The First Crusade, for instance, was a “homicidal outing,” and in the subsequent Crusades
it was common for younger sons simply to disappear for years on end and quite often never return. It was a throw of the dice as to whether you ended up wearing perfumed robes in some top new castle, married to an Armenian heiress and tucking into a pomegranate breakfast, or chained up in a Seldjuk atabeg’s dungeon trying to lick moisture off the walls.
Some non-British readers may be put off by this lack of solemnity, given the darknesses in Europe’s past. Two words that recur throughout the book are “boring” and “fun.” Repairing a city’s defenses in a time of peace is “boring,” whereas plotting to elect an obviously useless Holy Roman Emperor is “fun.” Winder reflects that
while in theory old-regime German towns must have been fun, with their unfailing patterns of tolling bells, nightwatchmen, guild parades, public punishments and city gates clanging shut at dusk, there is a tiny counter-argument that they were in practice unbelievably boring.
But this show of frivolity is deceptive. Lotharingia belongs to a genre of English first-person writing, once vastly popular and beloved but now rare, in which the author hides behind an affectation of comical silliness. The amiable ass—it’s part of the self-deprecating style—lets his real intelligence be guessed at. Some Winder readers have been reminded of 1066 and All That, the marvelous take-off of English history lessons written in 1930 by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman (“The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time”). But 1066 can be seen as a penetrating satire on English complacency and ignorance, rather than merely a hearty “laugh at oneself.” Winder’s book reminds me more of the artful artlessness of Three Men in a Boat (1889), whose author, Jerome K. Jerome, performs the affable idler who always pulls the wrong rudder cord and forgets to bring the can opener.
Winder seems to have found his way into every church, fortress, and museum between Basel and Amsterdam. Often he is revisiting some shrine that he last saw in his wandering youth or on a family holiday in a Western Europe that had only just carted the rubble off the town square or mended the shell hole in the chapel roof. His enthusiasm is not just for church architecture (he is a far more exciting companion than those itinerant Anglican parsons loaded with dreary black-and-white photographs of fan-vaulting), but for the tombs and the lives of the forceful men and women who ended up under their effigies.
And his knowledge of Flemish and German painting overflows joyously. He is obsessed with the work of Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch. Incredulous, he recalls how Dürer handed around prints of Melencolia and The Knight, Death and the Devil in a Dutch pub: “some of the greatest works in all northern art—some presumably getting crumpled or having wine spilled on them or being carried off by a dog.” As for Bosch, “I am probably writing this book because of the accident of working in a bookshop when I was sixteen with a copy of a lavish edition of Bosch’s complete works and his imitators near the till.” In several pages about him and his ill-recorded background, Winder contends that for Bosch “the act of making [the paintings] was a religious one and his unfettered inventiveness a gift from God.” The work was “not designed to create an aesthetic reaction, but to drive you down onto your knees, to think about your fate in a fallen world.”
Beyond some sentences about being brought up a Catholic in the London suburb of Norwood, Winder says nothing directly about his own beliefs. “The story of Lotharingia has been its crazy-paving of faith. My own sympathies veer around pathetically, depending on where I am.” He hates fanaticism wherever he finds it in history, and he finds it on both sides of the Reformation crevasse that was to divide his Lotharingia. But he clearly does not like the flavor of Reformation principles, and not only because of their destruction of all that was decorative and colorful in the churches he knows so well. In several passages, he suggests that Martin Luther was a failure:
If you were a fan of smashing things up it must have been a brilliant time as acres of stained glass were destroyed and great bonfires of images filled town squares. Of course, Luther’s aim was to reform, to make the One Church better, but this did not work out…. One curiosity of Reformation ideas is that they were thoroughly unsuccessful. Much of Europe remained placidly Catholic.
Winder is arguing in effect that the Counter-Reformation triumphed: “The cult of the Virgin Mary became central to Catholicism as Rome realized that Calvin and the others had created a morose, masculine, visually uncompelling…and generally unfun creed.” This isn’t a version of history many scholars in Northern Europe and America would subscribe to. But Winder’s contempt for “whitewashed” austerity does relent a bit in the great, bare Protestant church at Dordrecht: “a sober aesthetic.”
Much of Lotharingia was a spilled-muesli mess of tiny principalities, each with its own ruler. Winder delights in their eccentricities, and in the unlikely pockets and enclaves that have somehow survived absorption into bigger dukedoms, empires, or kingdoms. (Luxembourg and the microprincipality of Lichtenstein are examples, and so—until 1918—was the minute enclave of le Moresnet neutre between Belgium, the Netherlands, and Prussia, whose official language was supposed to be Esperanto.)
But this means that any chronological, conventional history of Lotharingia is bound to be tangled. Thickets of dynastic relationships and marriages alternate with unfamiliar battles between individuals hard to tell apart (everyone in the early period seems to be named Louis or Charles or Margaret, and sometimes two different Charleses are chopping up their enemies or marrying the ten-year-old daughter of a neighboring margrave on the same page). Winder’s persisting problem is that his Lotharingia simply has too many places, personalities, crises, and connections, and lasts too long, to fit into a book this size—and it’s a fat one. Almost every few pages, he mourns that he could have written an entire book alone on this or that topic.
One splendid set-piece is the tale of the mighty Dukes of Burgundy, who nearly—if it hadn’t been for Joan of Arc and Swiss pikemen—managed to partition France in the fifteenth century with the help of the English. Philip the Good of Burgundy lived in magnificence (180 artists were employed to decorate his houses, and in winter he ordered gigantic snowmen representing the Seven Sleepers and a Danse Macabre). The dynasty’s palace at Hesdin was equipped with “machinery” that could make snow, imitate voices, and squirt water up ladies’ skirts.
But the neighbors, and not only the French kings, hated this ever-expanding Burgundy. It all ended in the inchoate, blood-soaked career of Charles the Bold, who after looting and burning to the ground the Flemish town of Dinant in 1466 “spent the remaining twelve years of his life in a frenzy of violence, eventually destroying his patrimony and inadvertently reshaping Western Europe.” Finally the Swiss, of all people, stopped him at the Battle of Murten in 1476, and the next year he was killed besieging Nancy: “Europe’s most powerful, haughty and glamorous ruler” left as “a naked corpse in the snow, gnawed at by wild animals.”
Charles the Bold left Mary, a young woman of nineteen, as his only heir. Louis XI of France at once moved in; he paid an English army to get out of his way and reoccupied Picardy, Artois, Flanders, and then Burgundy itself. If Louis had possessed minimal charm or tact, he might have married Mary. But she and her English stepmother, Margaret of York, were as tough as he was. She married a Habsburg instead. If she had chosen Louis, France plus its enormous non-French Burgundian possessions, which included the Netherlands, would have become the European superstate. As it was, the Habsburgs suddenly became a power in Northern Europe, and
the French now spent three centuries trying to capture the territories to their north: centuries of grinding warfare, bankruptcies, revolution, countless deaths and literally thousands of uninvolving paintings of men in wigs on horses, as they battled to get what Louis XI might have had in return for a little civility, a gold ring and a fair-to-middling banquet.
This history of the Dukes of Burgundy forms the spine of Lotharingia’s narrative, and Winder tells it carefully and lucidly. This was the moment when Charles the Bold’s late-medieval Burgundian world of meaningless dynastic conflict started to give way to the competition between hardening states and empires, and within a generation the Reformation gave equally futile wars the huge mobilizing power of religious loyalties. Mary’s Habsburg marriage brought the Netherlands into the middle of European history. Soon split between Spanish Habsburg rulers and the rebel Dutch Republic, the Netherlands would for several centuries be at once a battlefield, a fountain of scientific ideas and inventions, and a focus of Europe’s economic and artistic evolution.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) brought Central Europe to a condition of death, ruin, and lawlessness that would only return in 1945. Winder doesn’t share the enthusiasm of diplomatic historians for the Treaty of Westphalia that ended it: “It marked no real let-up.” Germany had lost its entire population growth of the previous 150 years; the Palatinate (the region halfway down the Rhine’s right bank) had lost half its inhabitants. According to Winder’s estimate, perhaps a million people would die in the Fronde rebellions in France in the years after the treaty. These were times of misery and fear:
Religious identity was a killer—ownership of a specific book, of some beads, of a statue, or where and how you buried your dead were issues which could result in execution, imprisonment, forced enrolment in work gangs, confiscation of property. Each successful siege resulted in a miserable outflux of those whose only safety lay in entangling their wagons with those of the defeated army. Dutch towns became used to dealing with traumatized Protestants from the south heading north…. The relentlessly Catholic nature of Belgium is the result of any number of treks northwards by defeated people who had never imagined they would be leaving their homes for ever.
Along this part of his narrative, leading toward the French Revolution and the obliterating disaster of the twentieth-century wars, Winder distributes facts you would want to pin to a wall and anecdotes you must remember to tell friends. The way that Swiss Protestants in 1576 worked out how to send porridge all the way down the Rhine to besieged Strasbourg—and keep it hot. Or the gigantic tabletop maps Winder found in the Lille Museum’s basement:
Made for the military commanders of Louis XIV and Louis XV, each tabletop is covered in a relief model of a northern border town and its countryside…every tree, stream and farm building in place but shrunk to 1/600th of its size.
Or the self-governing microstate of Neuchâtel, today in Switzerland, which for some reason supplied the Russian aristocracy from Baku to the Urals with French-speaking Swiss governesses (real French girls might be dangerous Jacobins). Or the revelation that in 1600 Prince Maurice of Orange built a racing land-yacht on the Hague sands: “Setting aside the atypical experience of medieval prisoners catapulted into besieged towns to freak out the defenders, the yacht must have achieved the highest human speed (at last outpacing the horse) ever seen on land in Europe.”
Predictably, revolutions are not exactly Winder’s cup of tea. They destroy palaces and cathedrals, kill harmless but entitled people, and disrupt intriguing old institutions. Nevertheless, he has an excellent instinct for what they are like when they get going:
In many ways the fizzing hysteria of the next few years [after the French Revolution] bursts the bounds of this book. Everywhere had its weeks of excitement/terror/betrayal/recrimination. Decisions and loyalties which seemed rational one day became fatal the next.
Winder has little sympathy for the French émigrés who fled wailing and cadging abroad, so I think he lets himself sound more ancien régime than he really is when he writes that “the habits of obedience, heredity and order were lost” in the revolution. He detests the “Marseillaise,” “that sinister precursor to the frenzies of nineteenth-century opera. Nobody had really sung in public before about the desirability of soaking France’s fields with the enemy’s blood.”
If he shows some sympathy for the French Revolution in its first dawn, he has none at all for Lenin, “the greatest of all early twentieth-century performance artists,” but his effort to shrink him to absurdity by a slapstick version of his “sealed train” journey from Zurich to Russia really doesn’t work. There was comedy enough on that weird expedition, but Catherine Merridale’s wonderful Lenin on the Train (2016) catches it more expertly. By then, anyway, the whole horizon around what used to be Lotharingia had long since darkened. The “Golden Age” of Holland had already gone into “nightmarish collapse” in the eighteenth century, extinguished by natural disasters and foreign rivals. The Dutch were left feeling bitterly that “Britain and France had copied Dutch techniques and then used their larger scale to crush Dutch competition.” Dutch greatness had included innovations in everything from shipbuilding and insurance to scientific instruments, cartography, furniture design, and ceramics.
The rebellion of the American colonies raised vain Dutch and French hopes that British expansion might be ending in disaster. As Winder inimitably puts it, “After Britain had pigged out on its winnings from the Seven Years War, dumped its friends and become Europe’s first super-power, it was too good to be true that after so short a period of lording it, it might lose its biggest colony.” But British wealth and imperialism survived the loss of America. Northern Europe now entered two centuries of continental war, made possible by the modern nationalism distilled in the French Revolution, with its power to mobilize whole populations.
The narrative—from wars Napoleonic to World Wars I and II—is familiar. Winder tells it always cleverly and sometimes cursorily. But he is best on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, whose battlefields and annexations happened across what had been Lotharingia. Bismarck’s seizure of Alsace and Lorraine was “the founding disaster of the twentieth century,” he writes. He goes to Metz and Nancy to see how French propaganda caricatured Alsace and Lorraine as two helpless little girls, raped and humiliated in countless images. This “deluge of printed, painted or sculpted kitsch” nourished the cult of revenge that was only satisfied when France reconquered the provinces in 1918 and again in 1944. Real Lotharingian history could have told a different story: “Germans could point out until they were purple in the face that this was land snatched by various French monarchs from the sixteenth century onwards…but nobody in France was listening.”
From here, Winder’s tale of wars and empires gets bleaker and bleaker, and his mesmerizing digressions get rarer. The port of Antwerp reminds him of the appalling Leopold II of the Belgians, whose “Christian civilizing mission” in the Congo cost the lives of half its human population and reduced hundreds of thousands of elephants to ivory billiard balls and letter openers. And Winder’s visit to Huis Doorn, the Dutch villa where Kaiser Wilhelm II spent his exile after fleeing Germany in 1918, is as chilling as anything he says about trench warfare:
Wandering through its mournful rooms the visitor is caught in a labyrinth of horror, and at its heart, propped on a chair in its former owner’s bedroom, is a pretty cushion stitched with the words Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles, über in der Welt.
In 1939 the peoples of Charlemagne’s patrimony started killing one another yet again. Much that Winder could have loved flies apart into rubble, or is torn up to wipe soldiers’ asses, or is pinched to hang in a den by somebody who wouldn’t recognize Van Eyck’s name even if he could pronounce it. Now the book’s war chronicle once more keeps stopping for wayside discoveries. Charles de Gaulle in 1914 falls wounded on the crucial bridge at Dinant that the Germans would cross again in 1940. In Bad Godesberg, Winder samples the enduring gloom of the Rheinhotel Dreesen, where Hitler met Neville Chamberlain in 1938 (Henry Kissinger patronized it in the 1960s). General Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque told a “ragtag group” of defeated French patriots in the Sahara that they would go on fighting until they hoisted the tricolor again on Strasbourg Cathedral (and his division did just that, liberating Paris on the way).
The last fanatics who died protecting Hitler’s Berlin bunker were not German at all but French, volunteers of the SS Charlemagne Division. Their cap-badge
was split down the middle—on one half there were fleurs-de-lys, and on the other the old Imperial eagle: in other words it was expressing the union of West Francia and East Francia, with the Third Reich finally crushing within the line that ran down the badge’s middle the now cowed and absorbed territory of Lotharingia.
But cowed forever? Winder looks at the six nations that came together in 1950 to found a European community (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, and Italy) and realizes that these are all successor states of Lotharingia—even Italy, through its connection with Savoy.
And here, in a burst of optimism, he ends the book. Except that he doesn’t, and rambles into a long and absorbing postscript that starts by listing all the other things he wishes he’d written about and goes on to reflections about Magritte, an Alsatian barge holiday, the death of his father, a tour of the Maginot Line, and the dinosaur replicas outside London’s Crystal Palace. Then the book finally stops, except—hold on!—there’s something more to say about how old he was when he first opened Tintin in Tibet, or did his father read it to him? And that hill in Norwood so steep for a small boy’s legs…but there Simon Winder really does have to stop.