When we think about Europe in the centuries between late antiquity and the Renaissance, our viewpoint often tends to be heliotropic; that is, we direct our attention to the continent’s sunny parts, to the civilizations centered on Rome, Provence and Constantinople. By contrast, the more northern regions seem to be shrouded in a cold, gray mist, dimly viewed as the abode of Druid infidels and warring tribal chieftains. But, as Michael Pye shows us in “The Edge of the World,” the people living around the North Sea were crucial to the birth of a new Europe.
Pye’s book isn’t an orderly work of history; it doesn’t track the succession of kings in early Britain or chronicle the “barbarian conversion” (to borrow the title of Richard Fletcher’s excellent book about how pagans accepted Christianity). Instead, in a series of essayistic chapters, Pye looks at the Viking urge to explore, the increased use of money, the rise of legal documentation and the law profession, changes in fashion, the evolution of a scientific outlook, the status of women, the development of modern business practices and much else. His geographical focus is largely Britain, including Ireland, the Low Countries, Iceland, the Hanseatic towns along the Baltic and the port cities of Denmark and Norway.
Water is central to Pye’s story. The time between 600 and 1200 CE, especially, was one “when water was the easiest way to travel, when the sea connected and carried peoples, belief and ideas, as well as pots and wine and coal.” Over time, “the constant exchanges over water, the half-knowledge that things could be done differently, began to change people’s minds profoundly.” Instead of “the dark ages,” he contends, this period should be viewed as “the ‘long morning’ of our world.”
As a former journalist and broadcaster, Pye writes without jargon, his prose is punchy (even a bit melodramatic, with an excessive use of colons), and he loads his pages with facts and anecdotes. Discussing the Venerable Bede (672-735), he tells us that his monastery library at Jarrow contained 200 manuscripts, reminds us that books circulated widely — one codex at Jarrow came from Sardinia and later ended up in Germany — and notes that Bede inaugurated the use of Anno Domini in dates.
“The Edge of the World,” then, is something of a grab bag or, perhaps, a Viking hoard. You never know what you’ll learn. “When the Norsemen began to settle the empty, ashy spaces of Iceland around 870 they took slaves from all around the Irish Sea and more than half the women on the island were Gaelic.” A heroic poem called “Heliand ” retells the story of Christ with a Northern twist: “the disciples of Jesus are like the band of men a chieftain might assemble in the expectation of their personal loyalty.” The apostles are even referred to as thanes, “warrior-companions.” As Pye notes, “When warrior lords decided to follow Christ, they needed what ‘Heliand’ provided: a sense that their warlike occupations could be Godly.”
The Vikings conquered parts of Ireland, made Dublin their unofficial capital, then moved on to Britain. They took over a tiny town called Eoforwic, the religious center for the kingdom of Northumbria. “When they left, the town was Jorvik, which became York: grown in less than a century to a thriving, stinking city, all cesspits and middens and waste, where the hot-metal industries were alive and thriving as they had not been since Roman times, smelting iron, silver and gold, turning lead into glass.” These same dauntless marauders even sailed down Russian rivers to the Black Sea. Many became “Varangian” mercenaries in the employ of the Byzantine emperor, including young Harald Hardrada, the future king of Norway. Still others discovered Iceland, Greenland and that part of North America they called Vinland, establishing a settlement that lasted for between three and 10 years.
Vikings, it turns out, could also be dandies, and this fact leads Pye into a wide-ranging chapter about clothing and fashion: “Church councils in the ninth century had to order nuns and monks to wear their habits” because too many were going to Mass “indecently dressed” in lay clothes. “Monks were particularly forbidden to wear anything split, tight, short, pleated or, worst of all, with the new-fangled buttons.” Clothing was, then as now, theater:
“At fourteenth-century tournaments, the women all wore the same colour, had the same devices embroidered on their sleeves, led the knights out to the jousting field with colour co-ordinated ribbons, as consciously designed for a deliberate effect as any chorus line in a modern theatre; at Saint-Denis in 1389 the frocks were a rich dark green, the left sleeves were embroidered in silver and gold with the king’s device of a broom pod set in May foliage, and the ribbons were green silk splashed with gold. The ladies became a walking sign of solidarity, nothing individual about them, and a flattering background to the queen who chose to wear scarlet from head to toe.”
Pye, like a scholarly magpie, picks up his glittering bits from the most up-to-date academic research. Baronial fish ponds and deer parks, it turns out, were for conspicuous display rather than food. “Just writing out the ‘futhark,’ all sixteen Viking runes in order like an alphabet, was a good-luck charm.” Draining the lowlands of Holland and Flanders damaged the peat industry, which led farmers to concentrate on cow products like cheese and butter. Because the manufacture of butter requires “immaculate conditions, or else it spoils,” this necessitated perfectly clean dairy rooms, which helped foster a Dutch culture of exceptional neatness, tidiness and purity. There is a particularly fine chapter on the beguines, a sisterhood that wasn’t an order of nuns but rather a community of women, who — without men — worked and lived together. In the beguines lie some of the roots of modern feminism.
Pye also reminds us that the “spiritual riddle of the age” was money. To the medieval mind, price and value were moral decisions, a balancing act between the wish to be just and fair and the desire for profit. Big business, as usual, changed everything. In Norway, tons of cod were packed into barrels with brine and an international “commercial machine” was born, “moving fish through Europe, buying it fresh, processing it in a standard way, packing it so that anyone could recognize it, branding it and standing by its quality, and sending it by sea, by river, by road.”
Pye ends his fine, if somewhat diffuse, cultural history with an account of the 14th-century Black Death. Because of the plague — which in two years killed one person out of three — governments became watchdogs, imposing strict edicts and sanctions. “Plague, like the threat of terror nowadays, was the reason for supervising people’s lives, examining, controlling and disciplining.” Soon everyone needed papers, “certificates of health, exit permits, passports, visas.” The age of faith and feudalism was over: The modern regulatory state had arrived.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.
The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe
By Michael Pye
Pegasus. 394 pp.