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The Edge of the World

How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are

Michael Pye


There is no prouder monument to the history of Shetland than Lerwick Town Hall. An inimitably Victorian fusion of Gothic and Scots baronial, its true glory is its stained glass windows. Downstairs, emblazoned on one of them, appears a quotation from the Roman historian Tacitus: Dispecta est et Thule - 'And even Thule was glimpsed'. The allusion is to the circumnavigation of Britain in AD84 by a Roman war fleet as told by William Flew; and whether 'Thule' does indeed refer to Shetland, or else to Fair Isle, or even to Faroe, it concisely conveys the sense of achievement felt by those who had sighted it. The northern Ocean, it seemed to the Romans, stood at a forbidding remove from everything that made life bearable: sunshine, wine, olive oil. Its slate-grey waters, icy and teeming with monsters, marked the boundaries of the world itself.

A thousand years on, though, and Shetland had come to serve navigators, not as a frontier, but as a crossroads. Climb the stairs of Lerwick Town Hall to the magnificent chamber hall on the first floor, and you will find, illustrated in best Victorian stained glass, a pantheon of Viking heroes. There bristles Olaf Tryggvasson, the pirate who brought Christianity to Norway, and Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian who perished in 1066 making a land grab on England, and a whole host of other pirates, explorers and sea kings. They serve as a reminder of Shetland's role as a service station for Vikings travelling the sea lanes between Scandinavia and Iceland, and of how, throughout the middle ages, the island was ruled, not from Scotland, but from Norway. The North Sea, no longer the final frontier, had become a thoroughfare.

Michael Pye's study of how this phenomenon came about, and of its momentous long-term consequences, rides the crest of a much broader historiographical wave. Ever since Fernand Braudel, in 1949, published his groundbreaking work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, historians have been alert to the role played by seas in the development of civilisation. The past few years have witnessed a particular efflorescence. Monumental studies by David Abulafia and Cyprian Broodbank have continued the Braudelian tradition of tracing the longue duree in the Mediterranean, while Barry Cunliffe has been doing the same for Europe's Atlantic seaboard. Now, in The Edge of the World, Pye turns the spotlight on to the life and traffic of the medieval North Sea. His justification for doing so is twofold: that hitherto it has been neglected by historians in favour of more glamorous stretches of water; and that its history matters. 'This cold, grey sea in an obscure time,' declares Pye in his introduction, 'made the modern world possible.'

In that sense, the title of his book is ironic. The accomplishments of those who lived on the shores of the North Sea in the middle ages did indeed place them, not on the edge of the world, but in the very mainstream of European civilisation. Some of these are well-known: be it Bede, devising the calendar that we still use today, or the merchants of Antwerp and Amsterdam, preparing the way for modern capitalism in their bourses and counting houses. Others, though, are less obvious; and it is the measure of Pye's achievement that he can breathe life into the traders of seventh-century Frisia or the beguines of late-medieval Flanders as well as into his more celebrated subjects. The Lowlands, in particular, emerge from his study as having as much claim to be the womb of modernity as anywhere in medieval Europe. From fashion to feminism, from money to marriage customs, Pye makes a convincing case that they pioneered them all.

Not, of course, that this is entirely what the book sets out to prove. Pye's ambitions for it are altogether broader: for what he wishes to demonstrate is not merely that the various peoples bordering the North Sea contributed towards the forging of the modern, but that it was the North Sea itself which, in the words of his subtitle, 'made us who we are'. Clearly, as the representation of Viking luminaries in the council chamber of Lerwick reminds us, there were times when the North Sea did indeed constitute a lake, and it can make sense to think of the various peoples along its shores as constituting a civilisation distinct from the rest of Europe. Throughout the early middle ages, there remained a self-sufficiency about them that not all the countervailing attractions of Latin Christendom could overcome. Even in England, where Northumbrians such as Bede and Wilfrid looked to Rome as the lodestar of their church, the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms defied absorption into Charlemagne's empire, and spoke a language that aligned them more closely with the pagan Frisians and Danes than with the Latin-speakers of Christian Francia. To that extent, then, the Viking firestorm that swept over the British Isles in the ninth century marked less a rupture with what had gone before than an intensification of it. By the year 1000, it was not only the North Sea that shared a common culture, but Ireland, Iceland, and even a few precarious outposts in North America.

The apogee of this trend came in the reign of the Danish king Cnut, who dominated both Scandinavia and Great Britain, and all the shipping lanes in between. Remarkably, though, Pye does not even mention his sea empire; nor does he trace the twin processes which, over the course of the 11th century, saw the realms of the North Sea drawn decisively into the orbit of Latin Christendom. First, there was the conquest of England by the Normans: erstwhile Vikings who had evolved to become French-speaking chevaliers, and whose cultural loyalties were not to Norway or Denmark, but to France. Secondly, combined with the emergence of an increasingly assertive papacy, there was the final defeat of paganism in Scandinavia. By the 1070s, Gregory VII could seriously attempt to bully the Danish king into holding his realm as a fief from himself; in 1164, Alexander III confirmed the Norwegian warlord Olaf Haraldsson, who had died in battle against Cnut's forces and been the half- brother of Harald Hardrada, as a saint of the Roman Church. The North Sea had turned decidedly Latin.

Pye, though, touches on none of this - and it severely unbalances his book. The focus on the North Sea that is such a feature of his early chapters becomes increasingly blurred. Descriptions of the Mongols, or the universities of Bologna and Paris, are all very interesting - but what they have to do with Pye's theme is not immediately obvious. The problem he faces is as simple as it is unacknowledged: so successful was the process of conquest and evangelisation by which Latin Christendom expanded into its northern periphery that what had been distinctive about the North Sea in the early medieval period was increasingly lost. England ended up an imitation of France; Scotland an imitation of England; only in Orkney and Shetland did anyone give much thought any longer to the Norwegians across the waters.

None of which prevents Pye's book from being hugely enjoyable; and whenever he touches on the Lowlands, or on the Hansa, the great league of merchants whose operations stretched from London to Novgorod, he does recapture his focus to a degree. Certainly, the claims he makes for the North Sea are sufficiently stimulating to keep the reader's interest; the anecdotes he tells, and the details he marshals, doubly so. Grey the waters of the North Sea may be; but Pye has successfully dyed them with a multitude of rich colours.

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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE did not write 'The Merchant of Antwerp', but if Michael Pye is right, it was a near thing. In his new book he argues that the North Sea rivals the Mediterranean as the cradle of European civilisation. The fall of the Roman Empire did not, after all, reduce its northern territories to a howling waste, fit only for rampaging Vikings. On the contrary, those Vikings, the Frisians before them and the Hanseatic merchants after them invented for themselves the conditions for modernity: international trade, money, credit, mathematics, law, the stock exchange, pensions and much else.

Mr Pye asks his readers to imagine a time before fixed national borders, when identity was not so much a matter of race, but of 'where you were and where you last came from'. The sea was a thoroughfare, quicker than rutted roads. It made it easy for 'Scandinavians to be in York, Frisians in Ipswich, Saxons in London'. Unburdened by territorial ambition or by the feudal and monastic oppressions of inland towns, these people looked outward. They braved the legendary terrors of whirlpools and monsters at the northern edge of the world and sailed as far west as Newfoundland. To the east they plied the rivers of Russia to Novgorod, Kiev, the Black Sea and Byzantium. Trading, settling or moving on, they spread goods, fashions and information wherever they went.

Mr Pye draws on a dizzying array of documentary and archaeological scholarship, which he works together in surprising ways. What links peat-digging in Holland with the famous cleanliness of Dutch cities? How did the marriage customs of northern Europe lead to the spread of windmills? He ranges everywhere, from the bookmaking monks of seventh-century Ireland to the beguines of 14th-century Flanders. The beguines were communities run by and for single women and they form part of a wonderful section on the choices and chances open to women left at home by their travelling menfolk.

A central theme of this book is the re-invention of money and its role in the development of abstract, scientific and, eventually, secular thought. As a sea-trading people, the Frisians needed portable cash, not the gold and treasure of chiefs and kings, often hoarded and inert. They began minting silver coins, as a currency, an exchange. Value became an idea, detached from the intrinsic nature of a thing. It could be calculated for different categories of goods, and more than that, it could be written down, arithmetically juggled, turned into ratios and equations. A new way of thinking was born, transactional and everyday, and yet with momentous philosophical implications.

Mr Pye advances on several fronts at once, following the overlapping currents of customary, religious and empirical ways of thinking. He writes about difficult concepts with vivid details and stories, often jump-cutting from exposition to drama like a film. It's complicated, but fun. (NY Times)

Michael Pye’s new book is bristling, wide-ranging and big-themed. It’s the sort of historical work whose thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but it’s also a reminder that history isn’t an exact science. At its most meaningful, history involves a good deal of art and storytelling. Pye’s book is full of both.

In “The Edge of the World,” Pye concentrates on a murky era — the Middle Ages — and on a region of Europe that seems always to have been blanketed in mist, the North Sea. “This cold, gray sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible,” he declares in his introduction. In the pages that follow, he doesn’t prove that grand statement so much as toss handfuls of paint at it, in many places coloring it in while obscuring it in others.

What Pye — an English novelist, journalist and writer of popular history — is taking issue with is our packaging of the past. Of necessity, we simplify. The Romans gave us paved roads and running water. Monasteries preserved knowledge. Humanism and three-point perspective came out of the Italian Renaissance. Pye notices that there’s a bias in all this toward the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocratic regimes that ruled Western Europe. This bias, he says, has much to do with the kind of documentary information that was preserved, and with the people who preserved it. “A letter about planting crops or buying shirts may disappear,” he notes, whereas “a charter for land belonging to the church is very likely to survive.” Official chroniclers of the past recorded what mattered to their bosses, but much of the substance of an era is to be found in what was left unrecorded.

The impulse to get beyond the standard texts leads Pye to compile an exuberant amalgam of sources: Angle and Saxon, archaeological and scatological. Since much of this is below the level of recorded history, neglected or demonized by official narratives, he has to pull and tweak his material. Pye follows in the wake of a number of academic historians, many from the parts of Europe he writes about, but the synthesis and presentation are all his own. They are usefully, and often delightfully, jarring. He’s interested in the Vikings, the Frisians, Iceland, “the ‘farmers’ republic’ of Dithmarscha.” He looks for lost clues to the birth of modernity not in Leonardo’s drawings or the court of Louis XIV but in the fens and marshes of the North Sea.

Coastal England is one of the places the North Sea washes, and Pye starts by providing a corrective to our common understanding of how England came to be. The traditional version comes from the Venerable Bede, the eighth-century monk whose “Church History of the English People” tells of the invasion of the island by Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes), who displaced the people they found there and set the foundations of English language and culture. “But what if there never was an invasion?” Pye asks. He is looking at archaeological evidence that shows a much more gradual takeover, involving centuries of peaceable trade and commingling. Bede’s compact and serviceable creation myth obscures a history in which those tribes, along with others in present-day Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, pushed European civilization onward, inventing or reinventing concepts, coining new terms and new ways of seeing.

Much of the story Pye reports involves money and the making of it. The people he writes about lived marginal lives; they inhabited the marshy and unpredictable coastal lands that kings and noble families tended to stay clear of. But the tenuousness of their position gave them an advantage, since it meant they weren’t locked into the rigid feudal system. They learned to do things on their own, as individuals. The Frisians, and then other groups along the Dutch and Flemish coasts, heaped soil up into artificial hills and used dams and dikes to reclaim land from the sea and rivers. They began buying and selling this new territory, developing a ­real-estate-based economy. The reclaimed land was good for pasturing, which led to the herding of cows and then to another Dutch innovation, cleanliness, because butter- and cheese-making demanded it.

These coastal peoples did business with one another. If you are in Ipswich, on England’s east coast, Pye notes, and “if you think in terms of the time it takes to get to places, then Bergen in Norway is closer than York in England.” The North Sea became a community of traders. Their activity required a currency to give relative value to various goods, so the participants resurrected the Roman practice of using coin money. The Frisians minted silver coins and, Pye says, “the Anglo-Saxons in England imitated the Frisians.” These northern peoples also, he suggests, may have had a hand in promoting double-­entry bookkeeping. Later, the first stock exchanges came into being in this part of Europe.

Pye devotes a good chunk of his book to the boogeymen of medieval Europe, the Vikings. He follows them on their swaggering voyages, stating that they not only plundered Ireland but also settled in and reshaped Dublin, turning it from “an accident of a holy place” into “a base for trading.” It’s a bottom-up argument: that as the Catholic Church and Europe’s monarchies became bloated and slow, these small-scale innovators found openings to exploit. They enriched themselves, and in time their innovations were adopted by others. The cities that participated in the Hanseatic League — which ranged around the North and Baltic Seas and made free-trading alliances with little regard for national boundaries — are prime evidence for this argument.

Pye’s book starts to get a bit clogged as he pulls other types of change under the explanatory paradigm of his argument, sometimes with sweeping generalizations. Thus he says the traders of the North Sea adopted “the idea of thinking of weather as a phenomenon in itself, not the expression of some higher power,” and asserts that thanks to such changes “magic was becoming self-conscious.”

But this isn’t to complain that Pye goes too far with his argument on behalf of these northern peoples. On the contrary, he has made such a compelling case that I would have welcomed more development of these far-flung connections. To take one provocative example, he observes that in the 1330s, while the pope was selling indulgences, French theologians were “measuring ratios for grace and love and charity.” The clever aspect of this lies in his conclusion. He’s not out to condemn the cheapening of faith but to delineate the spread of traders’ math: “When both virtue and sin can be turned into numbers, and calculated and assessed, mathematics has entered the minds of theologians and philosophers and not just engineers and merchants.” This is a lively notion, but to prove it, or at least make the connection persuasive, would require exploring it for more than two paragraphs.

Then again, maybe to complain about such things is to complain that Pye has written only one book instead of a series of them. He has embarked on a fruitful way of reorienting our thinking about the past. By bringing back to life a mostly forgotten cast of medieval shippers, marauders, thinkers and tinkerers, he challenges us to consider how we got to be where — and who — we are.

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