Friday, 21 January 2011

Perfidy knows no boundaries

Mine is a much-maligned nation. ‘Perfidious Albion’ the French like to call the English, and the French never miss an opportunity to run us down. Then again, we like to return the favour.

Perfidy, however, knows no borders and respects no nationalities. The French, in particular, need to be a little circumspect in bandying that epithet around.

Any study of the origins of the French language is likely to make reference to the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. Two of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, swore an oath of mutual support, each speaking in his brother’s language; their armies echoed the oaths, each in their own language, with the interesting provision that if their master were ever to break the oath and to take up arms against the other brother, they swore not to obey him.

The oaths were duly written down, and the French versions became the oldest known documents in that language. Key documents, then, in the history of France.

The oaths didn’t pledge loyalty in a vacuum, but concretely in support of a struggle against the eldest brother, Lothar. Where Louis and Charles had inherited the West Frankish (French) and East Frankish (German) parts of the empire of Charlemagne, Lothar had inherited the title of Emperor and the kingdom of the Middle Franks. It ran from the Low Countries, through the Rhineland, Western Switzerland and Provence into Northern Italy. A long thin strip between the other two.

Imagine how European history might have been with a nation keeping France and Germany apart.

And what perfidy Charles and Louis engaged in: they formally swore to act against the own brother and ostensible overlord. As an elder brother myself, I particularly resent that behaviour.

Lothar held off the malevolent attentions of his brother and was succeeded by his son, Lothar II, whose wife, alas, bore him no children. He spent most of his reign trying to divorce her in favour of a mistress who had already provided him with several. He was prepared to stoop as low as to accuse his wife of incest with her brother, and a couple of bishops, clearly able to reconcile their consciences to any act as long as it was in the service of power, used techniques worthy of Guantanamo to extract a confession.

The Pope would have none of it. In effect, he told Lothar, ‘Hold on. This is all rubbish. She didn’t sleep with her brother. Let’s have no more talk of all this.’ To which Lothar seems to have replied the equivalent of ‘it’s a fair cop, I made it all up’ and accepted the judgement.

The result was that he died undivorced and heirless, and his wicked uncles had their way, dividing his territories between them. The only trace of his kingdom today is in the name of a province, Lothringen in German, Lorraine in French. The rest, as they say, is history: centuries of increasingly bloody conflicts between the successors of Louis and Charles. Just reward, you might feel, for such perfidy. Sworn perfidy at that.

Charles's heirs evicting Louis's from Strasbourg in November 1944
 And as for the English – they had nothing to do with it.