Book review: The Edge Of The World, by Michael Pye

NEW WAVE The ferry to Raasay from Skye. Gaels became accustomed to seeing the sea as the edge of their remote world, rather than a gateway to others as it used to be. Photograph: Carol Anderson
NEW WAVE The ferry to Raasay from Skye. Gaels became accustomed to seeing the sea as the edge of their remote world, rather than a gateway to others as it used to be. Photograph: Carol Anderson
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COMPELLING account of societies around the North Sea will make you see the world in a different light

The Edge Of The World

Michael Pye

Penguin: Viking, £25

IN BARRY Cunliffe’s work on the Celts, he suggests a clever method to remove our modern-day preconceptions and get back to the Bronze Age: turn the map upside down. Suddenly, the coasts of Britain, Ireland, Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula seem more like roadways. The sea is not a barrier, a border between nations, but that which connects them. Michael Pye does a similar sort of thing in this excellent book. It is subtitled “How The North Sea Made Us What We Are”; the kind of bold pitch that publishers love and authors – as here – aver in their introductions. Pye is not belittling the enormous impact of the post-Roman Mediterranean in creating modernity; instead offering a complementary story about the role played by Frisian traders and Viking raiders, Irish monks and Dutch moneymen.

The individual chapters, dealing with such topics as the beguines (communities of religious women who were not actually nuns throughout Cologne, Flanders and Strasbourg), the impact of the Black Death and the pre-Columban attempt to colonise America from Scandinavia, add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.

The claims are bold and thoroughly researched. Societies around the North Sea were actively engaged in trade. Trade brought with it a number of necessary changes: a legal system to deal with disputes, an abstract sense of value made concrete in money, banks to organise credit, and even, in the Hanseatic League, a set of loose, local corporations managing to create an effective international trade network. Trading meant standardising products and knowing their provenance: in effect, capitalism is invented on the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic, rather than in Venetian double-entry book-keeping. As men were typically the traders, away from home for periods of time, women took a more important role in the day-to-day running of businesses. It’s a bit of a leap from that to the Church encouraging love matches over dynastic alliances, but Pye stacks up the evidence for a radical change in the idea of marriage. Equally bold claims are made about the book trade, the scientific advances often made for theological reasons (calculating the date of Easter for example) and the emergence of engineering to deal with the floodings of the Low Countries. When the rise of Protestantism galvanised northern identity further (and accelerated the dominance of capitalism) it did so against the backdrop of areas which had already changed many of the fundamentals of feudal life.

The introduction to Pye’s book highlights one of the strangest ironies. Why do we now think of the sea as the littoral, the edge of our worlds, rather than its gateway? The rise of the city is part of it, despite so many cities being ports. Consider the simple question: when did you last take a car journey, a train or a flight, compared with when did you last take a boat?

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is the way in which little anecdotes and curiosities offset the big picture. Who would have thought, for example, a farmer near Stockholm possessed a statue of the Buddha in the sixth century? Or that in Danish churches one can recognise Cain as he is mostly presented wearing striped socks (multi-coloured fabrics being a sure sign of moral turpitude)? Or that the Irish invented punctuation? A keen grasp of such details often illuminates the wider concerns. The Viking reputation may be fearsome, but Charlemagne, supposedly the model of chivalry, could be equally brutal (Pye’s reassessment of the Vikings can be read in parallel with Philip Parker’s recent book, The Northmen’s Fury, which has the delightful fact that Vikings were so vain combs invariably turn up on archaeological digs of Viking sites).

Perhaps slightly more could have been included on the cultural life of the North. It was, after all, German romantic critics such as Schiller, Schlegel and Herder who advanced the idea of a distinct Northern aesthetic, different from and not inferior to Mediterranean classicism. The rediscovery of Icelandic sagas offered an alternative to the southern epic; collectors such as Scott, the Grimms, Wagner and Elias Lönnrot in Finland were practically inventing cultural nationalism. But even here it elides with the rise of capitalism: the Sampo, the mysterious artefact the heroes steal in the Kalevala, may have been a Byzantine mint. The only other omission that concerned me is that oil is barely mentioned. The North Sea is now resource as well as conduit.

The Edge Of The World does what good non-fiction should, in making the reader see the world in a different light. It is a serious undertaking, weaving together practically every aspect of life from fashion to pickled fish, and reading into yesterday’s everyday the invention of the modern.