Because he’s having so much fun, his book is often funny. There’s a great riff on the 17th-century scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who used his microscope to study sperm, research that was pleasurable at the beginning and rewarding at the end. After much study, he concluded that his testicles were full of minuscule men awaiting an opportunity to grow. “Despite his fame,” writes Winder, “I’m not sure I would particularly have wanted to shake his hand.”
Winder himself is anything but a monkish writer, which makes this book a joy to read. His very un-Cistercian insistence on the essential disorder and beautiful chaos of history, however, also means that this is a book for dipping in repeatedly for its wit and language, as well as for the sheer insanity of human ambition and cupidity throughout history, rather than for being read in one sitting.
Winder, who is known for his playful histories, Danubia and Germania, has a very personal approach to history. Despite the huge research that has gone into this book, he wears his learning lightly, and much of it written in the form of personal travel memoir, as he explores the enormous cultural riches of this place... Winder is at his best when writing about people such as Dürer (“My favourite German”), Hieronymous Bosch, Holbein. His deep appreciation of their work allows irreverence... Many European thinkers still dream of a federal Europe, with a distant, benign leadership presiding over increasingly autonomous, self-ruling regions. That imagined Europe, with its patchwork of languages, religions and rulers, sounds a lot like Lotharingia.
Winder overdoes the knockabout humour and at times comes close to the tone of 1066 and All That with his tales of bloodthirsty nobles and long-suffering peasants. But his strength is that, ignoring what pusillanimous academics might think, he trusts himself to have a go at reframing European history. Ever since Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Empire “was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire”, it has rarely been taken seriously, and it did collapse like a pack of cards in the face of Napoleon’s assault. By making it pivotal to his trilogy and, in this book, 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. Even now, in the battles over Brexit and the future of the EU, we see those opposites at war. In that sense, we are all the heirs of Charlemagne.
Winder is fascinated by the quirks of geography, the enclaves and exclaves and micro-kingdoms of Lotharingia. This is a quirky book. But it is also an intelligent treatment of the vanities of (mostly) men and a thousand years of often pointless bloodshed. Lotharingia’s postwar statesmen were the founding fathers of today’s European Union, its cities home to the EU’s institutions. Their aim was to make the region as uneventful as possible — another example of its lavish contribution to European history.
I’m a sucker for everything Winder writes, and happy to be told whatever he wants to tell me, and that, as it turns out, is really just as well...It is hard to think, in fact, of another historian or travel writer — and neither term quite does justice to what he does — who is so intoxicated by absolutely everything and everywhere to do with the past in the way that Winder is...He can carry off the big narrative sweep when it is needed, but as with Germania and Danubia, Lotharingia really comes alive when he can nail his argument to a specific place or moment...It is this which makes his books not just fun as history but indispensable as travelling companions for anyone interested in Germany.
Winder knows much about Lorraine but is so keen to not let drop his guard of irreverent humour that we are rarely allowed to penetrate beyond slapstick. And yet, as some of his other writings show, and as his poignant description of Metz railway station in this volume underlines, he is far from incapable of rising above this.
Lotharingia draws no conclusions, enforces no moral and sedulously avoids mention of the B word, though we can assume that much of it was written after the 2016 referendum. If the book has less of an obvious bone structure than its two predecessors, this is due to the nature of the land Winder has sought to study, a place of fluid borders and changing national identities, dotted with microstates that come and go in Cheshire Cat fashion, according to history’s exigencies. We share in his enjoyment at making a narrative web from seemingly implausible connections. Who else would have lighted on the balcony of Basel’s Hotel Les Trois Rois as the link between Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and the First Zionist Congress of 1897? The work, like its predecessors, is that of a sturdily convinced European who can see no advantage in cutting adrift from his beloved continent.
Winder is not the first British traveller to fall in love with “Dutchmen” (as British sailors once dubbed all Europeans). Yet no Briton has written better than Winder about Europe. At a time when we might be tempted to turn our backs on our neighbours in exasperation at the hostility that Brexit has provoked on the Continent, we could do worse than to read his three volumes to remind ourselves that we, too, are Europeans —not least in our love of horrible history.