Review: ‘The Edge of the World: How the North Sea made us who we are’

It is not often that one finds a history as fluent, erudite, and well-researched as Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World. Pye’s ambitious history of the North Sea, which by his own count covers ‘a thousand years and a hundred kingdoms’, is a tightly-knit narrative which embraces an astonishing range of information, from the complex sartorial cues of a joust in Burgundy, to the pig-scalding, eel-treading initiation rituals of Bergen’s merchant apprentices. But he does not bore us with detail. Each historical gem is woven into a highly compelling investigation of the North Sea as a site and source of intellectual, material, and cultural exchange since the retreat of Roman rule.

Given the UK’s recent imperial history, lofty wartime rhetoric, anguish over European integration, and the enduring pull of a ‘special relationship’ across the Atlantic, British readers may be inclined to view the territories that surround the North Sea — especially their own sceptred isles — as wholly independent entities. From this end of history, Britain, France, Germany, and their neighbours seem to have emerged into the present with distinct national inheritances, even if particular cultural caches are traceable to other traditions. Pye subverts our terrestrial imaginations by presenting the nautical space of the North Sea as a place in its own right, with its own people, past, and politics. The book’s title, The Edge of the World, thus acknowledges the North Sea’s peripheral position in the global imagination, while wryly suggesting that for its many inhabitants it was its own world, with its own edges.

Pye’s argument proves his firm grounding in recent historiography. Historians of maritime Southeast Asia (such as Amitav Acharya, Victor Lieberman, and Anthony Reid) have suggested that regions are as much ‘imagined communities’ as nation-states, in that they share a cultural vocabulary and common myths which set them apart from other areas. In the same vein, others have presented fresh regional histories of the Arctic, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean. What Pye attempts in this volume is perhaps comparable to Michael Pearson’s The Indian Ocean (2003), in which the author set out to write an ‘autonomous history’ of the ocean based on sources that, to a large extent, did not construe it as a region in our modern sense. While some of the unifying features Pye outlines about territories around the North Sea coast are now-established domains of transnational history, he also pursues more unconventional leads such as the interactions between disease and government, as well as the transmission of fashion trends and the concept of fashion itself.

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What enables Pye to cover so much ground (or water, to be exact) is his instinctive grasp of what makes a good story. Throughout this book, Pye accords due attention to the most fascinating sources and connections, unafraid to flesh out a point if it is illustrative of wider observations. As a result the narrative, though understandably brisk, does not feel dense or cramped – we are drawn into the cut and thrust of history by the accounts of Western European missionaries’ encounters with the advancing Mongol army, or Prospero da Camogli’s extensive descriptions of the Duke of Burgundy’s court. Pye’s special gift is his ability to extrapolate developments across the region from these colourful examples, and thus to make the intrigue of North Sea realpolitik both readable and relatable.

Unfortunately, Pye’s stylistic strengths are also his weaknesses. Caught up in the narrative, he is too often tempted by flourishes which condense history into a dramatic quip. In his chapter on environmental change and urbanization in the thirteenth century, he proclaims: ‘These are the chronicles of the war between man and the natural world’. Later, introducing another chapter on the cash economy and the Hanseatic League, he declares: ‘This is money at the start of its great war with nations’. These abrupt declarations, while endearing in places, do no service to the rest of the text, where Pye frequently provides refreshingly nuanced historical analysis. Too eager to package the story into soundbites, they distract from the more fine-grained truth that each development had a much vaster array of implications.

Pye’s history closes in the early 1600s, when the ‘golden age of Amsterdam is just beginning’, and the region’s early modern market cities are beginning to resemble our own. From this point, nations on the fringe of the North Sea begin to look more steadfastly outwards, to new colonies and their opportunities for profit and plunder. The outlook Pye presents is a distinctly capitalistic one. On the brink of modernity, the world is ‘ready to be counted and engineered’, and it is Amsterdam which sets for the tone for a new era – where the ‘importance of genius’ joins with the ‘importance of consumers’. This is an exciting, and brilliantly executed, iteration of the past. Still, one cannot help but wonder what other histories of the region are waiting to be written: histories which speak even more intimately of those who lived and thrived on the North Sea, and which explore in greater depth the connections Pye has drawn.

Theophilus Kwek

‘The Edge of the World: How the North Sea made us who we are’ is available in paperback, RRP £9.99

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