A very long time ago, but also for a very long time, there was a third country between what is now France and what is now Germany. Today, this area is divided among a number of countries – Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Eastern France, Western Germany, and Switzerland. Parts of this area were known for a time as “Burgundy.” But originally this area was called “Lotharingia,” in honor of Charlemagne’s grandson, who once ruled the region. Although it not often told or even remembered, this area has a long and interesting history. This unfamiliar history is the subject of the latest book by Simon Winder, a book that is full of wonder and unexpected delight.
“Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe’s Lost Country” is actually the third in a series of books by Winder. In this book as well as in Winder’s first two books in the series – “Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of Germans and Their History” and “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe” – Winder takes an unusual and highly personal approach to his subject. The books are each arranged according to historical chronology, but Winder does far more than simply recount the dry historical narrative. He overlays the historical account with lengthy descriptions of his own visits to each of the sites and places he describes. He recounts his visits in his own unique style. In each chapter, we join Winder as he wanders across the landscape of history; his accounts unfold in a discursive, free associational dissertation that is equal parts erudite and borderline crazed.
The result of Winder’s unique approach is that at each key moment in the history, we come away with a telling sense of place. When Winder begins his description of the remnants of a formerly fortified Celtic town by saying “Perhaps the most striking pre-Roman place in northwest Europe is on a high hill near Otzenhausen in a wooded area of the Saarland,” we know we are about to encounter the very terrain of history.
Lotharingia itself was created at the Treaty of Verdun in 843, in which the Charlemagne’s vast territorial bequest was divided into West Francia (what ultimately became the essential core of France), East Francia (which ultimately formed the core of the Holy Roman Empire) and Middle Francia, which was initially ruled by Lothar I, and later ruled by Lothar II. Because there is no single modern country that corresponds to the region that became known as Lotharingia, and because of the long, complicated, and predominating history between the former West and the former East Francia, the history of the third of these three regions is all too often overlooked. That is the story that Winder has set out here to tell.
It is very hard to capture in a few words exactly what kind of book Winder has written. It is of course, first and foremost a history of a specific region, but a history that Winder tells in his own way, with an unerring sense for the curious detail or the memorable feature of each moment. To cite but one of many examples, in describing the brief prosperity and eventual doom of the Dukes of Burgundy, he tells us that “The Dukes’ best strategy could only be to further encourage their rivals in their pursuit of alcoholism and lunacy.” Winder says one of these Dukes, Charles the Bold, that he “went from being within an inch of becoming the King of Burgundy in 1473 to being a naked corpse in the snow, gnawed by wild animals, at the beginning of 1477.”
For those who must have a narrative framework, Winder does walk through the long and complicated story of the region. However, Winder is interested in far more than merely the political or military history of the region. He is perhaps more interested in the region’s cultural history, and throughout his book there are interesting accounts of the region’s characters. For example, his long depiction of Hildegard of Bingen includes a commentary on her medical writings; Winder notes that “there are so many curiosities, but her cure for jaundice, by carefully tying a stunned bat to your loins and waiting for it to die, seems beyond improvement.”
Given Winder’s broad prose style and his penchant for humorous asides, it might be easy to miss the very serious aesthetic aspect of his mission. He incorporates into his far-ranging discourse several very detailed accounts of the region’s many prominent artists. For example, his detailed examination of the life and works of the Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch includes a series of sharp and serious observations. Winder says, for example, that Bosch’s paintings “were not designed to create an aesthetic reaction, but to drive you down onto your knees, to think about your fate in a fallen world.” Winder has one observation that will ring true for anyone who has ever wondered about Bosch’s fascinating and phantasmagoric paintings – “A lot depends on whether or not Bosch had a sense of humor – were his visions of Hell and its torments supposed to be entertaining or serious?”
Winder devotes an entire chapter to the artist Albrecht Dürer, whom Winder describes in characteristic style as “my favorite German of all time.” Being German, Dürer is of course not from the region Winder is describing in “Lothringia.” However, Dürer traveled extensively in what is now the Netherlands and kept of record of his travels in a diary that miraculously has survived. Winder recounts Dürer’s travel narrative with a keen appreciation for the artist’s eye but an even deeper appreciation for what Dürer has managed to record and pass along to us.
Winder writes that Dürer was “quite by accident standing in the very spot where human history had just changed in the most fundamental and irreversible way.” Antwerp in 1520, Winder writes, “has a fair claim to be the sustained point where the Old World and the wider world came together.” Dürer’s observations in Antwerp, recorded in his diary and recounted by Winder, include not only a walrus, a baboon, and an Indian coconut, but most importantly of all, the first treasure returned to Europe as a result of the invasion of the Aztec empire by Hernán Cortés. Winder recounts Dürer’s words on seeing the treasure (all later melted down): “All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle ingenia of men of foreign lands. Indeed, I cannot express all that I thought there.”
It is no accident that Winder has such a deep appreciation for Dürer’s travel diary, because in many ways, what Winder has done is to present a personal travelogue of his own, albeit in the guise of an account of history. As readers, we are privileged to walk along with Winder as he strolls across northern Europe and as he keeps up a running, sometimes antic, and occasionally almost unhinged oration about his observations. For example, Winder describes Dordrecht as a town that is “famous for its painters and for its bogglingly large, oil-tanker of a church which looms over the town like some permanent, ancient moral reproach.” He describes the long tenure of the disengaged Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II as being “rather like in a primary school where all the teachers have disappeared: for a while everyone keeps playing nicely – but after a few hours they start spontaneously developing slave labor, concubinage and human sacrifice.”
As you delve deeper into this book and become familiar with Winder’s expansive and rambling approach, you greet his broad introductions of place and circumstance as the opening for new and potentially enlightening encounter. When Winder begins a paragraph by writing that “One of the most relentlessly uninteresting displays of culture in Western Europe occupies the ground floor of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille,” you know that you are about set off on another excursion. Indeed, from this seemingly unpromising introduction, Winder goes on to describe his joyful discovery in the museum’s basement of the battlefield maps of Louis XIV, from which Winder then goes on to describe the wonder of the military fortification designs of Vauban, as well as the extraordinary efforts of Uncle Toby in Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy” to work out the logistics of the Siege of Namur. Winder’s unrestrained and emphatic celebration of the odd, the curious, and the interesting is both infectious and entertaining. (And if I may insert my own aside here, it is no surprise to me that Winder is an aficionado of Sterne’s writings, as both authors have a penchant for the sly aside, digression, and double entendre.)
One of the many delightful aspects of Winder’s approach is his gleeful celebration of odd or unusual names and words, and of the curiosities of language generally. For example, Winder excitedly describes seeing at Childeric’s tomb at the museum in Tournai “a debonair and alarming scramasax – a wonderful word for a long knife.” Among the few written historical records of Charlemagne are the accounts written by “the enjoyably named Notker the Stammerer.” Winder observes with sheer delight that the Duchy of Cleve (of the unfortunate Anne of Cleves) was once known in English as – yes! – Cleveland. Winder also notes that “five of the six letters in the word Zürich are mispronounced in English.” Winder describes Luxembourg’s continuing existence in the 21st century as effectively “a dynastic and territorial coelacanth.”
Winder’s book is a amusing and entertaining mix of guilds, religious wars, voyages of discovery, remarkable paintings, expressive literature, betrayals, political or military triumphs and disasters – as well as mountains, rivers, swamps, and plains, castles, and moats, streets, villages, and farms — all rolled together in a delightfully savory prose stew.
Having now read all three of the books in Winder’s travel series, I have come to think of him as more than just the author of some books I enjoyed reading. He has become more like a valued and trusted travel companion, a friendly, garrulous guide who has an unerring talent for finding and describing people, places, and events that he knows I will appreciate. Winder’s style is so distinctive and unusual that I have to add here that his book is not for everyone. But those with a certain kind of curiosity and wanderlust will find Winder’s enthusiasm, and his book, to be irresistible.
One Final Note: Although I wholeheartedly recommend Winder’s book, I know that some readers might prefer a more traditional history. For those readers, I recommend the historian Norman Davies’s excellent 2012 book “Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations,” which includes an detailed account of the rise and fall of the Duchy and of the County of Burgundy.