The final volume in London-based author and publisher Winder’s trilogy about the history of Europe, following Germania (2010) and Danubia (2014).
In this history of an ill-defined region of Europe—not quite Germany, not quite France, running along both sides of the Rhine, encompassing northern reaches of the Netherlands and including Flanders, Luxembourg, and Alsace-Lorraine all the way to Switzerland—the author brings the material rivetingly alive with the sheer elasticity of his imagination and prose. This region, “a mass of illogicality,” was first defined after Charlemagne’s death in 814 and named for one of his three grandsons, Lothair (thus, Lotharingia, created by 843), and it has “provoked wars in every century and…been the site of many of the events which have defined European civilization.” Moving chronologically, Winder marvels at how little we know about this region before the onslaught of Julius Caesar. When the Roman general lifted the veil in The Gallic War, it appeared as “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.” Tracing the disintegration of the invading marauders and the early Christian centuries’ attempts to “erase all trace of native paganism,” Winder enlivens his accounts with chronicles of his visits to many of these ancient archaeological grounds. Sifting through massive amounts of information covering centuries, he wisely structures the narrative around certain spots, such as Amiens or Beaune, and sharp profiles of notable historical figures—e.g., Hildegard von Bingen, “an obscure mystic from the twelfth-century Rhineland,” or Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings were created “to drive you onto your knees, to think about our fate in a fallen world.” Throughout, Winder infuses his account with such energy and wit that readers may be pleasantly unaware of the many history lessons he imparts.
A meandering and highly entertaining amble through fascinating bits of history that culminates in the horrors of the invading armies of the world wars.