Michael Pye 2014. The Edge of the World. How the North Sea made us who we are. London: Viking. 394 pp.

Michael Pye’s wonderfully readable history is about the North Sea lands in the period after the retreat of the Roman empire and up to the Dutch renaissance of the 1700s. He aims to dispel the myth that this is a dark age in which nothing much happened, to offer a counter-point to the history of the Mediterranean countries and the Italian renaissance. The book is deeply researched and has extensive endnotes but unlike many others of similar depth, is still a pure pleasure to read. Pye’s method is to connect quotes from original manuscripts with his own interpretation of what the original material says about the environment and cultural setting.

The list of chapter titles gives an indication of the scope and of the momentum of the narrative, and indeed of the trajectory of the North Sea lands through this period: 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, The city and the world.

The Introduction is a big mouthfull to begin with, a veritable Wagnerian prelude, a rich and compelling exercise in world-building. Beginning with the seaside in the early 1700s changing from an industrial zone to a playground for the idle English upper class; then a story from the start, ca. 700, of the Frisians from the intertidal marine marshland of what is now the Belgian coast. Pye wants us to think of this broad period into which he will paint as not the Dark Ages but

“the ‘long morning’ of our world.” (p. 12)

The invention of money, takes us deeper into the intriguing lives of the Frisians, seen by the Romans to be too poor to be bothered conquering, yet they reinvented money and were great traders making use of their own resources to aquire food and building materials they could not get at home. The book trade is about the church and monks who preserved and copied religious and other texts, valued as gifts to nobility and as information. Bede is the best known of these, and he not only copied Bibles and other texts but created new knowledge making use of observations from his network of colleagues from as far away as Ireland and the Faroes. For example he came to understand and predict the tides and established the correct date for Easter. Making enemies and Settling inevitably revolve around the Vikings who despite their marauding and destruction, eventually settled and created towns with institutions and layouts that we would recognise as modern. Even Fashion (which I was tempted to skip) held my interest. It was during this long period of history that clothing changed from something valuable enough to be bequeathed into something that had to change according to popularity, according to fashion. Writing the law starts with the Church’s value to rulers for law-keeping and keeping administrative records, almost an arm of the state. Up to about the 9th century, guilt or innocence was determined by ordeal (of water, or fire). To be declared innocent, an accused had to sink when lowered into holy water (if the accused floated, this meant the water, a proxy for God, rejected them). Ordeal by fire was worse. Clearly this non-method resulted in many errors and enough of these were so obvious that eventually some new solution to disputes and crimes was needed. By 1215 the Church decreed itself to be above such grubby matters and a separate legal profession (with no such qualms) filled the gap. As it does today.

Overseeing nature is about how humans interacted with (more often imposed on) the natural world. Peat extraction (in Britain and what is now Holland) and resulting subsidence and flooding. Fish. Diets changed from largely freshwater fish before about 1000, then becoming more and more dominated by saltwater species thereafter (although sea fish were eaten much earlier on the Norwegian coast). Sea fish, especially herring and cod, became more accessible as boats became ships and could be dried and salted to feed towns over longer periods. Siltation of rivers due to agriculture. Urban garbage polluting rivers. Artificial ponds for freshwater fish, by the gentry, for status, not for food. Norwegians by 1200 had regulations prohibiting ground trawl nets that would catch flounder and the like, only herring nets in surface waters were allowed. (And this 700 years before the Sierra Club.)

Science and money, is a microcosm of the method and thesis of the entire book. It commences, like many other chapters, with a seemingly unrelated anecdote or historical event which is then connected with the larger topic. Thus Science and money begins with an account of the Mongol art of war and it’s threat to Europe in the 13th century (a threat that abated only on the death, probably from drink, of the Khan in 1242). But better machines of war were clearly needed, and Pye connects this with a need for, and trend towards, more objective and more effective thinking rather than a blind adherence to the supernatural forces that were previously thought to control the natural world and human destinies. The Mongol threat demanded methods that worked. God wasn’t enough. Thus from the 12th century, figures like Adelard of Bath, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon come to the fore, championing progress towards a more reasoned understanding of nature and discovering details of anatomy, optics, even inferring functions of different parts of the brain (from studying patients with various brain injuries). Pye is less convincing connecting money with this narrative, the link seems tenuous and revolves around the business of running universities as businesses involving fees for tuition and rent. I would sooner have had much more on the story of mathematics coming to Europe via the Islamic world, which took and developed the teachings of the Greeks. But perhaps the author decided this material is well-covered in other places, for example The Crest of the Peacock by George Gheverghese Joseph.

In the last few chapters of this wonderful volume, the narrative rushes towards a very recognisable modernity in the state of peoples surrounding the North Sea. Dealers rule is all about the Hansa trading cartel that once stretched from London to Riga. Providing a clear model for modern multi-national corporations, the Hansa replaced the previously dominant Norse and exercised ruthlessness and profit before all else in a way that often made a mockery of the power of local rulers. Love and capital describes the surprising independence of women that was an outcome of the Hansa trading empire with the often absent men. By the 1300s, or perhaps before, groups of women in what is now Holland and Belgium were able to establish a level of independence in beguines, societies of women who did not wish to marry, or were widowed, or were pregnant. Like convents, but largely secular, the women in beguinages supported themselves by earning wages and they were learned and allowed to teach (only other women, however). Outside the beguines, women also had considerable independence in this world where trading ruled. Plenty of knowledge was available (especially, it seems, in the monasteries!) on herbal and physical methods to prevent conception and induce abortion; these were allowed outside marraige but not within. And the sexual adventures of the cross-dressing John Rykener, circa 1394 (who presented as ‘Eleanor’) are hilarious. The plague laws is a devastating account of the Black Death, responsible for killing 4 in 5 of the population in parts of Britain; across all of Northern Europe 1 in 3 died of it. Pye traces our modern border controls and fear of the foreign, of the asylum seeker, of the unknown, to the plague years where

“something had to be done, but there was nothing to be done, so it was necessary to control everything, just in case.” (p. 268)

The city and the world is another set of engaging quotes from original sources and events, illustrating how by the 1500s the North Sea lands were, if not truly cosmopolitan, at least fully engaged with the rest of Europe in trading, politics, art, science and engineering:

“The golden age of Amsterdam is just beginning … Everything is ready.” (p. 322)

A truly magnificent history, to be read for the pure pleasure of it. In style, scope and vision Michael Pye’s history of the North Sea lands is comparable with Robert HughesA Fatal Shore and Van Diemens Land and 1835 by James Boyce.