Book review: Giving North Sea civilization its due
M. Michael Brady
The ancient Romans believed that civilization ended at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. In a sense they were right to so believe, as they took their civilization with them, leaving traces of it in the British isles and southern lands around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Asia, and Africa. But if journalist and author Michael Pye is right in The Edge of the World, the North Sea rivals the Mediterranean Sea as a cradle of European civilization.
Pye’s story spans the eras from the fall of imperial Rome to the 17th century. In those centuries, ships with sails and oars in the water comprised a faster and more convenient means of travel than walking or cart-riding people with their boots or the hooves of their draft animals on the ground. The sea interconnected peoples, allowing them to exchange beliefs and ideas, as well as to trade in goods from near and far.
The book classifies as a historical work. But it isn’t history in the conventional sense. Its 12 chapters are not arranged in a chronology defined by the reigns of monarchs and the outcomes of the battles they waged. Instead, each chapter is dedicated to an aspect of life as experienced by the peoples of the societies evolving around the North Sea. Each of the themed chapters—The invention of money, The book trade, Making enemies, Settling, Fashion, Writing the law, Overseeing nature, Science and money, Dealers rule, Love and capital, The plague laws, and The city and the world—reads like a novelette, yet is historical non-fiction, meticulously referenced, chapter-by-chapter, to 48 pages of references at the back of the book.
Readers of this newspaper may enjoy knowing that Vikings are the most mentioned people of the book, influencing the happenings reported in all 12 chapters, starting in the Introduction with an account of a raid in the year 832 on the town of Domberg, now a seaside resort in the Dutch province of Zeeland. In Chapter 4 on Settling, which the Vikings practiced wherever they went, it’s reported that in 866, Vikings then in Ireland “broke into England and took Eoforwic…When they left, the town was Jorvik, which became York: grown in less than a century to a thriving, stinking city…” In Chapter 5 on Fashion, we learn that “The great sagas from Iceland have everything you expect: heroes, killings, dragons, feuds, great voyages, and great horrors. They also have something less likely: they have dandies.” The chapter goes on to describe the elegant dress of men of means, who settled in Bergen. In Chapter 9 on Dealers rule, we learn that Bergen became a Kontor (Office) of the Hanseatic league of traders, a function it fulfilled for 400 years. One of the functions of the Bergen Kontor was to trade in fish, mostly cod packed in brine in barrels, and exporting it throughout Europe, an undertaking that led to branding and market recognition. That, of course, entailed the reinvention of money, which allowed the conduct of business to change everyday life forever. In short, Pye shows that the Vikings had a significant influence on the evolution of European civilization.
Refreshingly, Pye writes without slang, particularly not of the British variety that sometimes perplexes American readers, an achievement honed in the 1980s and 1990s as he shuttled across the Atlantic, writing for British publications from America and contributing to American periodicals based in New York. He uses the techniques of lucid description as well as those of good storytelling. The Edge of the World is an engrossing, sometimes demanding, yet unfailingly enjoyable read.
The book: The Edge of the World, original UK edition published 2014 in London by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, with the subtitle “How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are”; U.S. edition published in 2016 in New York by Pegasus Books with the subtitle “A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe”; hardcover and paperback editions stocked by online and physical booksellers in the UK and the USA.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.