The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are
Michael Pye. Viking, 2014
Review by Jordan Ogg
Located between the British Isles and the western shoulder of northern Europe, the North Sea covers some 220,000 square miles before reaching out to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Norwegian Sea in the north and the Baltic Sea in the east. In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye dredges a wealth of information from this relatively shallow stretch of the world’s oceanic highway. His tome is not presented as an island book, nor does it have a stated island-related theme. Nonetheless, it contains a treasury of islandic references and stories.
From the earliest times, the far north was regarded as a primordial zone, a frozen place where dog-headed men roamed among cyclopses and human flesh eaters. Here too the mythical Thule might be found, an island first referenced by the Greeks in the 2nd century BC and a recurring presence in European maps and literature throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. In the eighth-century tale the Voyage of St Brendan, a group of Irish sailors travelling north encounter a black mountain, wrapped in mist and spewing vast flames into the sky. Chained to its shore is Judas Iscariot. By day he is washed by the cooling waves of the ocean, a temporary relief from his nightly torture inside the mountain, inside which lives the repulsive Leviathan and a group of demons that molest him for his sins. In another Irish tale, a monk called Dicuil references an isle in the far north where in summer the sun beamed so bright at night that a man had enough light to pick the lice out of his shirt. Pye notes that these islands sound a lot like Iceland, although Orkney, Shetland and Faroe have also been associated with the Thule legend.
Ireland and Iceland are not bordered by the North Sea, but their recurring presence in The Edge of the World anchors Pye’s main theory: that the expanse allowed for an exchange of cultures, ideas and resources which led to the development of modern Western world. He deploys a wide range of sources, taking into account economic, historical and religious literature, as well as examples of legend and lore. In the medieval tale of Audun, a Norwegian man living and working with relatives in the Westfjords of Iceland, we learn how a chance encounter with a captain resulted in him being offered passage to Greenland. There he managed to capture a polar bear and at great difficulty transport it across the North Sea in search of a buyer. Exotic creatures were in great demand by European royalty and Audun received a fortune when the beast was bought by a Danish king.
The exchange of living resources of another kind is described in Pye’s chapters on the Vikings. Scourge of nearly all communities bordering the North Sea from the 8th to the 11th centuries, the raiding Norsemen not only pillaged towns and wrecked monasteries, they also took thousands of slaves. Many were transported to markets in continental Europe then sold to Arabs, thus demonstrating not only the Viking capacity for barbarity, but a remarkable level of organisation which enabled the trading of human goods on a transcontinental scale. In one account of a raid on Ireland and Scotland, so many slaves were taken that the market suffered a global downturn due to an oversupply of stock.
In more recent history, we learn that the idea of the seaside as a place of recreation began in the British town of Scarborough around the beginning of the 18th century. The notion spread around coastal Europe, where it was championed by entrepreneurs keen to cash in on the emergence of the leisure classes. At Visby harbour in the Swedish island of Gotland, one developer claimed that its future could only be secured if the authorities allowed a bathing station to be installed alongside a place for people to change and enjoy a light refreshment.
Using the sole subject of the North Sea as its focus, The Edge of the World demonstrates what popular history writing can achieve when at its best. Pye sticks to his subject like a limpet to crag, mines a cavern’s worth of research, and presents his arguments with clarity and verve. I have only one caveat: there is little coverage of the 19th century and almost nothing of the years beyond. Of the twentieth century alone there are two World Wars to cover, as well as the coming of North Sea oil – more than enough to for Pye to fill a second book.