The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea (Michael Pye)

“The Edge Of The World” is an ambitious book. Its subtitle is “A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe,” and its core thesis is that the cultural impact of the peoples bordering the North Sea has been ignored. I think that thesis is false—such cultural impact can be seen everywhere, from the current TV series “Vikings” to New York Times articles on rotting fish cuisine of the North Sea. And the book is more a series of cultural anecdotes grouped by topic than a fully-synthesized cultural history. So the book fails in its stated goal. But it succeeds in being very, very interesting.

The book’s great virtue is that it treats its subjects with respect. Instead of buying into the common but false notion that medieval Europeans were brutish and stupid, Pye richly elaborates the lives of people of the time, which were in many ways not that different from ours. His basic framework is to cover a variety of topics, from early trade and warfare after the end of the Roman Empire, to fashion, to later scientific developments, to engineering projects to control nature, and finally to the rise of law, universities and cities. Pye also attempts to weave recurring themes through these topics, notably the emergence of money and its translation into its modern forms and uses, and the role and limitations of various forms of social control. He covers three basic peoples and times: the Frisians, from 600 A.D. to 900 A.D., the Vikings, from 800 A.D. to 1200 A.D., and the Hansa (i.e., the Hanseatic League), from 1250 A.D. to 1550 A.D. Only the Vikings have any real currency today, so Pye’s book does show the impact of forgotten times and peoples.

Judging from the notes, Pye has actually done a lot of research. This is not simply a popularization summary like so many cultural histories. He seems very familiar not only with famous sources like Bede, but many other sources, including academic periodicals and truly narrow areas (e.g., “The Frisian Monopoly Of Coastal Transport In the 6th-8th Centuries,” from a collection of conference papers, which I am pretty sure is not light reading).

Pye’s book is full of fascinating facts. For example, English priests were given lists of sins to ask only lawyers in the confessional, to jog their memory in case they “forgot” sins to which lawyers were prone. We could probably use a recurrence of this practice, or could if people still went to confession. Another example is that since letters were unreliable at best, merchants sent copies of their previous letter with each fresh one. Many of Pye’s facts relate to religion, since religion was the warp of all social fabric. He discusses the “Heliand,” a Saxon transliteration of the Gospels into a set of military metaphors, used to convert Vikings who could not comprehend and had utter contempt for pacifism. So John the Baptist is a “warrior-companion for Christ” and the disciples are “a powerful force of men from many peoples, a holy army.” All these facts give a real flavor for the life of the time.

Pye does an excellent job of describing the development of modern law from a stew of canon law, private law, public law, customary law, and Church law. One interesting aspect of this development was the ordeal system of trial. Pye does not discuss its rise and fall not in the simplistic way it is usually discussed, as a sign of the stupidity and barbarism both of people and Church. Rather, he shows how in close-knit, near-pagan communities without written, universal law or central government it made a type of sense, and how the Church, with its universal law based in Roman law, always strongly disapproved and finally stamped out the ordeal system.

Pye gets into a little bit of trouble, or potential reader dissatisfaction, when he tries to shoehorn his pet ideas and themes into the narrative. For example, he talks at length about the Black Death—then repeatedly tries to analogize its impact on government and social control to that of Islamic terrorism. “Plague, like the threat of terror nowadays, was the reason for supervising people’s lives, examining, controlling and disciplining.” This is really a bridge too far. But he keeps beating it, even ending the chapter with “Plague justified the rules that kept a person in her place.” Actually, as Pye himself discusses, the rules binding people to their place were a result of the economic impact of the deaths of farm laborers, which has not much to do with terrorism or social control in the abstract at all. But Pye wants to seem relevant to today, which here is a mistake, and he wants to expand on his theme of social control. He doesn’t need the Black Death to do that, though—people have never needed a specific incentive to want to control others. Even today, or perhaps even more today, control is the theme of those who push more government, as can be seen from the many forms of control that are pushed by those with power, ranging from forced celebration of sexual deviancy to the desire to control and regulate the entire world under the guise of stopping global warming. Not that Pye talks about these things—he sticks to his own topics.

In any book like this, where thousands of facts are accumulated, one is bound to encounter head scratchers. Pye states that Viking women fought “with such military skill that their own lovers did not recognize them in armour.” He provides no cite, and that’s extremely unlikely, since Viking women were not trained to fight (though they certainly fought when necessary, along with children, cripples and others not expected to fight in the normal course). It is true, and Pye implies this but does not draw the contrast, that as with most northern European women, they had vastly more rights than those women had in southern Europe, and infinitely more rights than women in the Muslim world—a commonplace complaint of Muslims during the Crusades was that the Franks let their women tell them what to do and allowed their women to not only come into the streets by themselves, but then to publicly berate their husbands for their failings. Similarly, Pye says in passing that the Vikings knew that the “Earth itself was a sphere and not a pancake on top of a ball as learned men were supposed to think.” Again, there is no cite for this, and it’s not clear which “learned men” he’s referring to. But all European learned men knew, since the time of the Greeks (which knowledge did not disappear) that the Earth was a sphere (as did Columbus). In any case, these are small faults in a book that covers so much ground, and is well worth reading to enhance appreciation for medieval Europe, as well as to give the reader factoids to impress his (doubtless irritated) friends.


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