Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Coal Wood

 So, this: from the start of history, Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (6:24ff):

"And there was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine. Accordingly, the Volcae Tectosages, seized on those parts of Germany which are the most fruitful [and lie] around the Hercynian forest. . . . The breadth of this Hercynian forest . . . , is to a quick traveler, a journey of nine days. . . . . It begins at the frontiers of the Helvetii, Nemetes, and Rauraci, and extends in a right line along the river Danube to the territories of the Daci and the Anartes; it bends thence to the left in a different direction from the river, and owing to its extent touches the confines of many nations; nor is there any person belonging to this part of Germany who says that he either has gone to the extremity of that forest, though he had advanced a journey of sixty days, or has heard in what place it begins. . . 
. . . .

And from its end:

It is time to talk about forests.

If you've poked around in Caesar's Commentaries long enough to cherry pick his description of the "Hercynian Forest" long enough, especially with reference to the ongoing debate over Edward Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire thesis, Caesar's agenda comes clear. The reason that the Hercynian Forest is endless east-to-west. but "nine days journey" north-south is that it functions, as forests and "wilderness" always function in Classical writing, as a boundary rather than as the new continent aching to be discovered that it has come to imply to the North American imagination. Thus, too, the discovery that the battle of the Teutoburger Salis wasn't an ambush deep in some dreary, trackless forest, but rather on a road that picked out its path between sandy hill and marshy clay bottom, as roads in this part of Old Europe were wont to do.

Of course, the boundary of merit here is between the known and knowable part of the world where rivers flow south (as Aristotle apparently pointed out, per good old Wikipedia), and the deeply spooky, beyond-liminal parts where they run north. I've suggested that the actual boundary is picked out by the latitude where much less biotically productive conifer forests come to predominate over the European temperate broadleaf forest ecosystem; and, what do you know but that "Hercynian" seems to derive from Perkunos, "Indo-European" god of oak and thunder. (Scare quotes to signify that I've gone to annoying-ass Dumezil country.)

Moving forward, or back, as the case may be, geologists picked up the word to designate the middle-European component of the Variscan Orogeny of the Old Red Aeon. This orogeny raisedsome, but not all of the relict series of mountain chains that extend around the North Atlantic from Morocco to Scandinavia to Greenland to Georgia. Specifically, the Hercynian component is the one that begins with the Taunus Mountains of Hesse, between the Main, Rhine, and the Lahn; then vaults the Rhine at Koblenz to become the Hunruck up to the Moselle, then becomes the Eifel, which terminates in the High Fens in the north and the Ardennes country of Belgium and Luxembourg. Which, in turn, gives way to the "Coal Wood," a series of (very gentle) hills rolling across southern Belgium/northern France to the coast at Boulogne-sur-Mer, crowned and tangled and impenetrable from the oak and beech old growth forest that, in recent historic times, came down to the very gates of Bruxelles.

The mountains of the Variscan Orogeny are typically slate overlaying mineral deposits, primarily of coal and iron, but also of the copper group in places. That isn't actually embarrassing mineral richness, except...

Well, the Coal Wood is even less mineral rich. The heights are formed by old sea bottom sand that has rolled up over the landscape over the past many glaciations and then been uplifted by the postglacial rebound. The country below is where the clay forms its mucky, impermeable beds. At the boundary of sand and clay is the stream line, where  the waters that the Atlantic so bountifully showers on maritime Europe find an end to their rapid downwards percolation through the sand and have to bed and pool and cut to find their way the rest of the way to the sea.

It's a lot of rain: 55" annually on the High Fens, the highest annual precipitation of the continent. Even as a Vancouverite, I enjoy significantly less than that down at work in Richmond, albeit a little more (60") on the famously rainy North Shore when I visit my family there. And it really has to work to get to the sea.

Okay: what have I done here? First, let's orient ourselves with a map:

Wikipedia: And, yes, I remembered to make my contribution this month. Still have to pay my credit card, though.

The map here instantly locates us in historic times, with the division between "Salian" and "Riparian" Franks. You know who else divides Belgium into two? Everybody. In one version of the story, which might even be in the Wikipedia article, the incoming Germanic Franks-becoming-Vlamands drove the Romans-becoming-Walloons out of the low country into the high woods, where they lived like free men, raising pigs and smelting iron. The map, which has at least some of the virtues of geographic clarity,makes this claim a little hard to make out. Fortunately, I'm not as interested in the details of the intersection of ethnology and Belgian constitutional history as Belgians (for entirely forgiveable reasons) are. What I'm interested in is this claim:

"A great Roman road forming a "strategic axis"[6] linked the Rhine crossing at Cologne with Maastricht, where it crossed the Maas at the head of navigation. Skirting the northern edges of the Silva Carbonaria, it passed through TongerenKortrijk and Cambrai to reach the sea at Boulogne."

It's not that the "Chaussé de Brunehaut" didn't exist. On the contrary, as the (French) Wikipedia article linked to suggests, there has been a route between Cologne and Boulogne-sur-Mer since prehistoric times, and Roman itineraries make it clear that it existed in Roman times. In a sense, it was a geographical inevitability that a road would follow the terraces between sand and clay, between the tangled forests above and the equally tangled gorges below. Brunehaut actually had many roads. The Romans, unfortunately, don't make much of a fuss about the Silva Carbonaria at all. One very late Roman writer (Gregory of Tour) gives us permission to think of the Coal Wood as stretching all the way to the Rhine, but, for the Romans, it's all the "Ardenuenna Silva," not surprising when emperors lived in the middle of it at Trier, and the great poet Ausonius writes an elegy to its second river, the Moselle, incidentally telling us how the Romans exploited its greatest natural resource with a marble-cutting saw mill running in the stream of the Kyll, which falls from the high and inaccessible Eifel down into the Moselle at the Imperial city itself. The Moselle is beautiful, full of plentiful vinyards and (supposed, I think) marble quarries, a land of horsemen fit to ride beside an Emperor --and in the middle of this great forest that marks the change of the world to north-flowing rivers. 

So, if, as I've blithely suggested, the Coal Wood is a pretty small deal compared with the true Hercynian ranges of the Variscan Orogeny, inflated by Belgian folk history and political squabbles, why am I making a big deal of it? 

Good question: remember that I've been reading about the early fighting of WWI a great deal. It's in Army Quarterly, of all places, and this last month, no less, that I first heard about the "Silva Carbonaria." And the phrase that stuck there had nothing to do with the Ardennes or ancient geology. It talked about the old Roman road that formed the front and axis of so much of the fighting in the fall of 1914, the road that stretched from Cologne to Boulogne, gradually climbing as it went. 

Gradually climbing. From Cologne. To Boulogne. See? This is what I like about the everyday history of technology. Facts this basic about the world just blow my mind away, even if I have to wait 'till I'm 48 to learn them. (As it turns out, it's true even at the most basic level. Cologne is 37 meters above sea level, while the citadel of Boulogne is 63 meters.)

Oh, right: a map: 

Add caption
 the scale's a bit big, but you get the drift. 

Here's another way of looking at it, from a contemporary, pictorial history of WWI, from which we'll hear again.

Here's another way of looking at it. As my dead old military writers point out, as you follow the summit of the Coal Wood north and west, you come on the headwaters of one stream after another. The Escaut, the Lys the Deule, finally the Aa. This is how rivers start in Belgium. Even the Yser rises on the isolated height of Cassels before running through Ypres to Nieuwport, where the great sluices control the flooding of Flanders and let the water of the Yser out to the sea, simultaneously making Nieuwport a port, Vlamand Flanders dry, and Nieuwport the citadel anchoring the Allies' flank on the Flanders front during the Great War. 

The heights above Boulogne shown so dramatically by the illustrator are the source of the farthest westward of these little rivers, the Aa. In the map of the Silva Carbonaria above, notice that "Therouanne" is given as the major city of western Belgium. This is because, once, long ago, when the flats were marsh from north to south, it was. This was where St. Omer came to build his cathedral in the mid-600s, where he preached to the local Gallic tribe, which was either pagan or backsliding, depending on the source. St. Omer became famous enough that eventually the port town on the Aa, St. Omer, was named after him. Not, one would think, that a port town in the marshes just over the hills from the great Roman port of Boulogne would have amounted to much. At least, you would think. One of the morals of the "gradual ascent" from Cologne to Boulogne is that it tells us why the town was so important to the Romans for so long, and why this road is apparently the axis of connection between fourth century Britain and the imperial residence city of Trier (in other words, arguably, the reason that Britain remained in the Empire so long, and that Roman culture there collapsed so utterly in paradoxical rebound when the empire withdrew from Trier) is that there aren't exactly many other places where Roman civil technology could reach the Atlantic shore in this latitude. 

It was to here that, in 861, that the eighteen-year-old former mother-in-law of Alfred the Great, Judith, eloped so that she could marry Baldwin "Iron Arms" of St. Omer in defiance of her father. Nowadays, the old cathedral of St. Omer is as obscure as Therouanne today, eclipsed by the three towns lined up at the edge of the estuary of the Aa where land meets sea: Calais, Gravelines and Dunkirk. 

Do the names put a shiver down your back? They do mine: The Dunkirkers are out! Judith outlived the outrageous imputations of immorality imposed on her name by the snakepit politics of Wessex to become the mother of a dynasty, a nation, perhaps of modernity itself: Judith of Flanders. Her husband, first Count of Flanders, founded and named Bruges, albeit on the site of another old monastery. Long before Judith's direct descent in heirs male expired, as is the way of dynasties, Flanders was the richest province of the north, and home to its greatest port, one of the greatest in the world.

I know that I harp on the point a great deal, that the Aa's way to the sea, like that of the Yser and even the Escaut to the north, should not be taken as something given by nature when it was so obivously, rather, built by the hand of human society. Places like Dunkirk and Nieuwport could not have been the fortresses they were without the control of water made possible by human engineering skills. Nor could they have been the ports they were, had it not been for those fortiifications, which allowed them to defy hostile interests to landward and create a privileged place where, yes, piracy, but also smuggling and simple tax evasion could flourish.

What makes this post worth doing is the revelation of the Coal Wood. That, behind the water-filling, sand-choked coast lay hills that, however low and underwhelming by comparison with the greater forests inland, furnished the charcoal, later coal and iron and oaken lumber without which these ports could not be built, their sawmills supplied, and the ships built. The Coal Wood was a dominating feature of Roman geography because the road that linked Ocean to Emperor had to skirt it. Insofar as the Romans understood it in its own right, it was a realm of mystery and wonder. Something not quite in their authority, which instead ran at the boundaries between zones of inaccessibility, from which the indigenous folk, by some magic that the Romans exploited without understanding (hint: money) fetched out pigs and cows to feed the great and the good.

It was the dominating feature of the medieval geography of Judith and Baldwin for quite another reason; because it was the source of the tools that remade the Lowlands into rich, productive country, and cut a path from them to the sea to make their commerce flourish. A commerce inseparably linked to piracy, of course. But, from upland of pigherding bandit to sea of corrupted pirates, are we looking at a feature, or a bug?

 I say 'feature,' and distinguish this difference between the Roman and the nuptial bed of Judith the runaway bride and her iron-armed suitor: commerce, credit, and money. The Romans let that go, and lived in the midst of a vast and trackless "Ardennes Forest" that gave way to an even more mysterious Hyrcinian forest beyond the Rhine. The House of Flanders did not, and lived on the slopes of the Coal Wood.


  1. Of course, many years in the future when the woods were gone, the good roads would be the route Sichelschnitt took to the sea, and where the chalk ridge drops into the marshes would be where Alexander drew the Dunkirk perimeter. No need to talk about golden bridges, the bridges that mattered over the regulated rivers had been blown, and then the sea was easier to travel over than the land again.

  2. "For tomorrow, it's the Rethel road map!"