The Cockpit of Europe and other popular war zones

You may laugh but, one day, when I have sufficient time and money, I’m going to go to Belgium for a month! I’m going to rent a car and book a bed in different auberge every night, one with a decent restaurant, and every day I’m going to drive a different historical battlefield and walk the ground.

Bouvines, Ramillies, Waterloo, Ypres, Mons, Dunkirk and Bastogne, I’ll visit them all at my leisure and then dine like a field marshal and raise a glass to the fallen over the centuries. Then maybe nip across the border into France and do the same at Crecy, Agincourt and the terrible battlefields of the Somme, where several members of my own immediate family fought.

Cockpit of Europe

A bloody box of land

How very convenient for students of military history, you may be thinking, that all these famous and fascinating battles took place in the same small box of land two hundred miles wide by a hundred miles deep. But it is no coincidence at all, and it hasn’t exactly gone unremarked before now.

This bit of the Earth is called the Cockpit of Europe (after the pits in the ground where cockerels would fight each other to death for the amusement of our less enlightened ancestors) and it is one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in the world. There is scarcely a town that doesn’t have a rich and bloody history – some places have been fought over many times.

Why is this area so impossibly war-torn? I hear you cry. It is because it lies on one of the major linguistic (and cultural) fault lines of Europe, where the Latin-based French language butts up against Germanic languages such as Flemish and Dutch. Belgium itself is divided culturally between Walloons, in the French-speaking south of the country, and Flemings in the north. And there are tensions even to this day between the poorer south and the richer north – unemployment in Wallonia is currently twice that of Flanders.

Wars are regularly fought on these fault lines. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, in the 1990s where the Orthodox Christians of Serbia fought a fierce bloody civil war with their Muslim neighbours, who were culturally remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In Africa, the zones where different tribal areas meet, inside colonially constructed nations, are often the scenes of horrific massacres and other violence. The Himalayas hold a massive fault line between India and China, two powers who came to actual blows last week when a score of Indian soldiers were battered to death by Chinese soldiers. Iraq and Iran fought a million-plus casualties war in the 1980s along the ancient fault line where Arab meet Persian and Sunni meets Shi’a.

A river runs through it

I have discovered, quite by chance, another such historical fault line. One that I had not known about before and only came across when I was researching my latest Outlaw Chronicles novel – Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones. It lies on the River Saône in eastern France, which in the 12th century was the border between the linguistically Latin Duchy of Burgundy and the Germanic-speaking County of Burgundy. This slow wide green river formed the border between two distinct medieval cultures.

The dotted lines in the map above, which comes from the brilliant Atlas of Medieval Europe, edited by Angus Mackay, with Davis Ditchburn, show the linguistic fault lines of Europe in 1200AD. The Duchy of Burgundy is located in the central triangle labelled “Franco-Provençal”, and the Free County of Burgundy – now known as the Franche Comté – which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, is on the other side of the line that runs along the Saône. At the top, you can also see the line that runs through the Cockpit of Europe.

I wrote about another cultural fault line in my last novel, Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, which you can buy by clicking here, and this was located where the Muslim Empire of the fanatical Almohads – who were ruling North Africa and most of Spain then – smashes into the expanding Christian Kingdom of Aragon. The final battle of the Caliph’s Gold takes place at the castle of Ulldecona, which is a few miles south of the River Ebro, the 12th century border, and was manned by the shock-troops of Christianity and military propagators of Western culture, the famous Knights Hospitaller.

That’s pretty much all I have to say on this subject for now. I’m about two-thirds the way through writing The Castle of Bones, and it should be ready for people to read by mid-August. In the meantime, check out Robin Hood and the Caliphs Gold, which is available as an eBook or paperback here.

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