Just a few miles outside of Maastricht is a large Dutch village called Meerssen. Today it’s a sleepy commuter settlement. But on this day in 870, it witnessed the tense conclusion to negotiations between two early medieval kings, Charles and Louis, who were there to divide the kingdom of a third king, their nephew Lothar II, who had died precisely one year earlier. What should we make of this treaty, over fourteen hundred years on? For nineteenth- and indeed twentieth-century historians, Meerssen was a major step in the birth of France and Germany. Yet things were not at all so simple.
Kings Charles and Louis were brothers – grandsons of the great Charlemagne, who had been crowned emperor in 800 – but that did not mean they trusted each other, and there was little room for sentimentality in early medieval kingship. They agreed in advance that they would each bring only four bishops, ten counsellors and a maximum of thirty other retainers to the meeting, so that no one side could intimidate the other. The negotiations took a while, too, beginning on 28 July, and lasting for eleven days. Even in the early Middle Ages, dividing up a kingdom wasn’t easy.
What made it harder was that one of the brothers, Louis, had suffered an injury immediately beforehand, falling from a collapsing balcony. One of the advisors of King Charles heard about the incident, and recorded that Louis ‘was rather shaken, but soon recovered’. Actually, Louis had broken two ribs, and his own followers could hear the bones grinding together. But the tough old king, at this point in his late sixties, evidently managed to keep the extent of his injuries hidden from his brother and his advisors, and only after the treaty between them had been signed did he retire to his sick-bed (for two months).
In fact, Louis not only feigned good health at Meerssen, he forced a hard bargain on his younger brother. Charles, who had reacted first on hearing of their nephew’s death in 869 by invading the kingdom immediately, was forced to concede a great deal of land and assets that he had already captured. Louis evidently put on a bravura performance worthy of his grandfather Charlemagne.
Charlemagne was probably on the mind of both kings. Although each had ruled portions of Charlemagne’s territories as independent kingdoms since at least 843, they still lived in a world where the reunion of Charlemagne’s empire was conceivable and desirable. Neither Charles nor Louis managed to achieve this (though they both tried, each mounting serious invasions of other Frankish kingdoms, and Charles even succeeded in briefly becoming emperor) – but fourteen years later, Louis’s son Charles ‘the Fat’ did, more by luck than judgment.
Meerssen therefore did not mark the beginning then of France and Germany, for its rulers still mentally inhabited ‘Francia’, whether east or west. But it did mark the end of the independent kingdom of Charles and Louis’s poor nephew Lothar II, Lotharingia, or as it is sometimes called, Lorraine. And far from settling the division of this kingdom for good, Meerssen in reality marked just the beginning of a rivalry between rulers to its west and east over who could control Lorraine’s rich resources, a rivalry that was often violent, and that in some ways continued into the twentieth century.
It is a pleasing twist, therefore, that the most ambitious attempt to break Europe’s century-long cycles of wars should have taken place just five miles away from Meerssen, in the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 which established the modern European Union. Maastricht has already outlasted Meerssen, which was replaced by another treaty less than ten years later in 880. But only history will tell whether it will prove more effective in the long-run at establishing peace.
Charles West is Reader in History in the Department of History, Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore. His translation of a key source for the history of Lotharingia, in collaboration with Rachel Stone, Hincmar of Rheims’s De divortio, is out now.