“How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are” trumpets the cover of Michael Pye’s history. Unfortunately, that isn’t a true reflection of what this book is about. This isn’t a history of the North Sea. Rather it’s a potted history of Medieval and early modern European culture. For the most part, it meanders around topics which are sometimes dull (a whole chapter on legal life in late Medieval Europe) and others which are utterly shocking (disease and the black death).
Ironically, it is the book’s failure to follow up on its promise that I found most thought-provoking. Pye doesn’t address the question but I was left wondering why we, the peoples of the North Sea, don’t share a common identity or culture as the Mediterranean peoples do.
An Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Catalan would all agree that they have a Mediterranean diet. They would say they live in a Mediterranean climate and share a Mediterranean culture. However, the peoples of the North don’t think like that at all. A Norwegian, Dutch person, German, Breton or a Scot wouldn’t recognise a common culture in that way. The closest equivalent would be the concept of being Nordic shared by the Scandinavian peoples, Iceland and Finland. Otherwise, there is no shared North Sea identity, although it feels like it ought to have existed.
That aside, when Pye does actually look at the North Sea and its peoples, there are some wonderful nuggets here, such as the Arab merchant who recounts his first encounter with a Viking:
‘I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees,’ he wrote. They were tattooed all over with intricate designs in dark green. They were dirty, they hardly washed except in filthy communal bowls, they were like ‘wandering asses’
Ibn Fadlan was not alone in finding the North and its peoples both hostile and terrifying. In the Dark Ages, traversing the North Sea was a perilous enterprise, taking its sailors to the edge of the known world. Around 1075 the bishop Adam of Bremen wrote that
‘Beyond Norway, which is the farthermost northern country, you will find no human habitation, nothing but ocean, terrible to look upon and limitless, encircling the whole world’. Black mist would come down here, the sea would go wild, and you would come to a point where all the tides of the sea are sucked into the deeps and then vomited back.
The evocative descriptions of landscapes both real and imagined is set alongside intriguing facts of how difficult it was to navigate terrain in the Dark Ages:
If you think in terms of the time it gets to places, [if you were in Ipswich] then Bergen in Norway is closer than York in England, even if your boat to Bergen depends on the muscle power of rowers; but York is only 340 km away by road … You could be over the water and in … modern Belgium in half the time it took to get to London overland
Pye has a deft ability to put flesh on the bones of this long-forgotten world. Curiously, the final chapters of The Edge of the World are much the best part of the book, where he turns to looking at plague, the lives of women, and the decadent barons who ruled the Low Countries during these turbulent times.
While it’s not really fair (or rational) to critique a book for what it’s not, this history could really have done with some serious editing to get rid of the more pointless sections. It would also have helped to bring the story closer to the modern day by looking at the North Sea in later periods. As it is, this volume is not as good as other books on the area which reveal more, despite having a tighter focus, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin.