Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

In The Edge of the World Michael Pye gives us a brilliant rethinking of the way in which medieval Europe became modern Europe. This is the story of seafaring and trading people – the Frisians, the Norse, the Hanseatic league and all the peoples who engaged in the economy of the North sea.

His method reminds me very much of Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the primary sources as evinced in Dancing with Strangers, or Philip Jones’ analysis of post contact Aboriginal artefacts in Ochre and Rust. Pye focuses on very specific historical detail – be that a known historical event, a clause in a contract, or a physical artefact – and  by interrogating them for meaning is able to draw plausible wider inferences.

Thus he focuses on the meaning of cash hoards as opposed to hack silver; silk trimming on shoes found in the ruins of an 11th century Norwegian town; the specifics of the construction of Norse buildings at Anse aux Meadows in New Foundland; the details of marriage contracts. Combined with the surviving literary sources this close reading of the sources yields rich insights.

Pye is particularly interested in the way in which the use of money as an abstract measure of value is related to the development of mathematics and science. In the world of the North Sea this dynamic had its most immediate application to trade, navigation and ship building and windmills. There were implications for politics, capital formation and the status of women.

Along the way he manages to recover innumerable fragments of past lives and by relating them to the larger patterns he infers give them a meaning beyond what the physical artefact or contractual clause alone could achieve.  An unusual work and highly recommended.

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)