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Lotharingia by Simon Winder

Lotharingia by Simon Winder
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In this “quirky” but enjoyable book – the third in a trilogy of European histories – Simon Winder tells the story of “Europe’s lost country”, said Ben Hall in the Financial Times. Lotharingia was a kingdom formed in the ninth century, when the three grandsons of Charlemagne met near Verdun “to dismember his unwieldy empire”. One carved off the western portion (essentially France), another took Germany and the eldest, Lothair, got the middle – a narrow “arc of territory” stretching from the Alps to the Flemish coast, today encompassing the Low Countries, Lorraine and parts of Germany. Lotharingia existed only until 870, when it was parcelled up between its two neighbours. But even though it disappeared from the map, Winder maintains it has remained a motor of European history, playing a crucial role in most of the continent’s major conflicts, from the Reformation to the two World Wars. Such has been its importance that if Lotharingia were still a country, it would have “the most eventful history of any state in Europe”.

Like Germania and Danubia, the first two titles in the series, this is an idiosyncratic work of history, said Daniel Johnson in The Sunday Times. Winder regularly breaks off his narrative to regale us with anecdotes – about a “disastrous” holiday, say, or a trip to a museum. All, however, are “somehow connected to the dynastic dottiness that he adores”. Although he calls these books “personal histories”, they are “more weird and wonderful than that”. Packed with remarkable characters and memorable facts, they’re like “Wagner’s Ring retold in the manner of 1066 and All That”.

And that’s the problem, said Richard Bassett in the London Evening Standard. So hard does Winder find it to “resist caricature” that we are “rarely allowed to penetrate beyond slapstick”. A “post-Brexit audience” will no doubt enjoy having its prejudices confirmed by the portraits of “funny” Europeans, but more serious-minded readers will feel undernourished. Winder can overdo the “knockabout humour”, said Stephen Moss in The Guardian, but there’s a “serious purpose” behind this work. “By rescuing Lotharingia from historical oblivion, Winder looks afresh at the long arc of European history, with its perpetual interplay between defiant local units and grandiose attempts at unifying schemes.” This dynamic is still in evidence today, with the ambivalence felt by many towards the EU, which “can be seen as an attempt to recreate the Carolingian empire”. We are all, it seems, “heirs of Charlemagne”.

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