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Eric C. Petersen
5.0 out of 5 starsLively Events in the so-called Dark Ages!
Reviewed in the United States on March 29, 2015
One book where I think the dust jacket reviews nailed it rather well. Two chosen at random: "An utterly beguiling journey into the dark ages of the North Sea. A complete revelation. Pye writes like a dream." Or another one: "A brilliant history of the Dark Ages showing the growth and development of science, business, fashion, law, politics and other significant institutions - a joy to read and reread." The period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance that the author puts from roughly 700 CE to 1400 has traditionally been seen as a period of human stagnation - the Dark Ages. As the author shows in endless intriguing anecdotes from the era, the area surrounding the Baltic and North Seas was a very lively place. This isn't a typical political history of kings and armies, rather more of a ground-level view of what people were up to in their daily lives, how they interacted with each other on not only a local level, but more importantly, in trade and business; the tale of the Hanseatic League is fascinating - the first international trading cartel, and one with no home address. The amount of research done by the author is staggering - and what makes it so much fun to read; where and how he managed to dig up the documents, personal correspondence and other material used in the book would probably make a book in itself, and draws the reader into personal communication with individuals and an appreciation of "what was in the wind" at the time. Pye also has a sly and at times wicked sense of humor. A fun and very informative book.
3.0 out of 5 starsLots of great information, but not always well organized.
Reviewed in the United States on September 7, 2015
As someone who grew up on the North Sea coast of East Anglia, I was really looking forward to learning more history about a body of water that was very influential while I was growing up in England. Well, I certainly wasn't short of new information after reading Pye's book, but I'm not sure how much I retained and very uncertain as to how much I enjoyed accessing it. I found his organizing structure difficult to follow, we seemed to meander back and forth over a millenium or so, and from topic to topic almost randomly. A chapter on money might suddenly veer into religion or politics, topics dealt with separately in other chapters. Also, at times, it was not clear to me what role, if any, the North Sea was playing in the saga that unfolded. Clearly, Mr Pye has assembled a wealth of interesting historical facts concerning periods of history that are fascinating, and not always well-documented. But a good editor would do well to re-organize this content to improve its accessability.
4.0 out of 5 stars‘Forgetting history or even getting it wrong is one element in building a nation,’ Ernest Renan
Reviewed in the United States on October 28, 2019
“‘Forgetting history or even getting it wrong is one of the major elements in building a nation,’ Ernest Renan wrote, and he said history was a danger to nationalism; Eric Hobsbawm added: ‘I regard it as the primary duty of modern historians to be such a danger.’”
Pye applies this maxim, in fact, he must. Why? His focus is on European history from 700 to 1700 CE. No national state exists in the modern sense anyway for most of that era.
“For national history has a way of being radically incomplete. The Irish were and are deeply attached to the notion of an island of saints and scholars, which is not wrong at all, except that it leaves out the raiders, slavers and traders. Some Dutchmen used to have a deep mistrust of anything medieval on the grounds that it was bound to be Catholic and therefore unpatriotic and wrong, but it’s tough to get right a history that has to be a perfect blank before the Protestant sixteenth century; and it can be silly.’’
Therefore much of this work will present people, ideas, events and connections that other histories overlook. Makes for interesting reading.
What does he highlight?
From introduction . . .
“This book is about rediscovering that lost world, and what it means to us: the life around the North Sea in times 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. This is not the usual story of muddled battles and various kings and the spread of Christianity. It is the story of how the constant exchanges over water, the half-knowledge that things could be done differently, began to change people’s minds profoundly.’’
Where? The North Sea . . .
“This cold, grey sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible.’’
“That created a community of people who did business, strong enough and self-conscious enough to go to war with royal and political powers: our world of tension between money and every other power. Humans changed the landscape and, in the course of learning to manage the damage to the natural world, they also spread the idea of being free and having rights. Travel around the sea made fashion possible, and visible, and desirable; we have not yet escaped.’’
Explains the importance of the Dutch voluntary cooperation to recover land from the sea and how this led to new type of political union.
“Women’s choices, including celibacy or pregnancy on their own terms or else marriage, changed the economic life of the North Sea in quite unexpected ways. Law changed from the local customs everybody knew to a language and a set of texts that needed lawyers: professions were born, first priests, who had to stay out of the secular world, then lawyers, who made law into a kind of religion, then doctors and all the rest. Without that, we would have no idea of a middle class: people whose power came from being experts.’’
As these slices indicate, Pye presents considerable history of different groups and influential thinkers. For example, index shows - Abélard, Alcuin, Albertus Magnus, Alfred the great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aristotle, etc., etc., and that is just under ‘A’! Makes for colorful, educational panorama.
Introduction 1 The invention of money 2. The book trade 3. Making enemies 4. Settling 5. Fashion 6. Writing the law 7. Overseeing nature 8. Science and money 9. Dealers rule 10. Love and capital 11. The plague laws 12. The city and the world
One theme reappears regularly . . .
“Above all, the world is ready to be counted and engineered, to put mathematics at the heart of building a fort or a windmill, keeping the records of a business or laying out a town. Antwerp knew that change, but rebellion and a war of religious denominations took out the city’s sense of order. Amsterdam inherited the idea. Both cities shared the same shining, seemingly reasonable faith which we still maintain. That faith has roots very deep in time.’’
Mathematics became (still) a key to modernity. He explains how and why surfaced. Well done.
Last page . . .
“Alongside this need to control went a new appetite for experiment: for finding things out and then testing and proving them. The process that Simon Stevin would develop had already begun out of terror of Mongol hordes and the end of the world. In the new universities mathematical thinking was tangled up still with the idea of money, of moral trading and just prices: the connection that began with the Frisians was still shaping minds. Trading became a power in its own right. The towns of the German Hansa formed an alliance which could make its own treaties, see off kings, blockade a nation into starvation and force surrender. Money went to war with political powers. The modern world is taking its shape: law, professions, the written word; towns, and what they do to the natural world; books and fashion, business and its relationship to power. We are not on the margins of history any more; we are dealing in the essential, the changes of mind that made our world possible.’’
“In Antwerp all this produced a glittering civilization which spawned so many of our attitudes: to art, insurance, shares, genius, power as a great show; to the possibility of engineering the world as we want it. When war broke up Flanders, when the northern provinces broke away, those attitudes came to Amsterdam. They came in glory. They look like something both new and brilliant, but the truth is that they grew out of the light in what we used to casually call the ‘dark ages’ and the central importance of what we used to call ‘the edge of the world’. Around the cold, grey waters of the North Sea, the old, the marginal, the unfashionable made us possible: for much better, and for much, much worse. It is time now to give them all their due.’’
Easy reading. Draws clear, even vivid portraits of many. Also, paints understandable panoramas of groups; i.e. medieval monks, Frisian traders, Viking raiders, catholic theologians, Dutch rebels, etc., etc..
Closer to a good novel than school textbook. Nevertheless, tremendous scholarship!
Provides insights that adds understanding of where present came from.
However, his writing could use a good editing. Too much repetition, too many words, too many ideas, too much opinion, too many sentences.
I did skip a lot.
Hundreds and hundreds of references (linked). Outstanding!
4.0 out of 5 starsA fine book with a misleading title.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 4, 2019
This is an absorbing and unusual book. As far as the title goes it’s very odd as the scope of the work covers a far greater area than the North Sea as we are given to understand. “North Seas” might have been closer to what it is. An irritation is the minute size of the maps, printed on the insides of the covers with near illegible wording. How did that get past the editing process? That apart the work is absorbing and fascinating. I cannot understand anyone saying that it’s a boring book, far from it. Mr Pyle is to be congratulated on his research by which we are rewarded with a wonderful history of the people of the northern countries. A great read.
I found this an interesting read, though at times wandering afar rather than staying on the shores.
Areas covered well included Viking age travel, the Hanseatic league and the transformation of the Netherlands from fen and sand dunes to towns with windmills and dykes thriving on cheese exports.
More could have been made of the persecution of cod, which have shrunk in size and age to maturity, due to overfishing, but it's clear that herring were so common people could dip a net into a shoal by shore and fill it, while salt cod was a massive export from Bergen, with a shelf life of ten years.
I liked the accounts of the beguinages where women could stay and work in a quietly religious atmosphere without being troubled by men or having to devote their entire lives to the community. The satirising of the beguines in plays of the time is expected for men holding power.
Travel of ideas, crops, pests and plagues via the North Sea is the central theme, with spread of genes and workers apparent throughout until the aftereffects of plague made officals want the scant peasants accounted for and in their places. The ease of travel by sea compared to travel by land at that time is the main reason shown for all this movement, though the North Sea is also shown to have been hazardous from nature and piracy as well as war.
I did think some concepts could have been covered more deeply and others went too much into town records of the day which had nothing to do with sea transport. But mainly we can see that the author has compiled a huge amount of research, and placed it at our disposal, with his references so we know where to start looking if a topic grabs our interest.
The book is not written for young people, with some adult themes and language. However anyone with an interest in history, geography and trade will find themselves drawn in to the smoothly-written text without need of a glossary.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 22, 2020
This is a wonderful book, very interesting and riveting from start to finish. The subtitle (how the North Sea made us who we are) had me a little confused, I thought it just meant people around the North Sea, I had no idea it meant the entire world! That should give you an idea. The ending of this book is the best as Michael Pye really takes it up a notch as conveniently recaps on what you’ve learned into a passionate crescendo. A real eye opener and well worth a read!
3.0 out of 5 starsInteresting, but lacks coherence.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 18, 2020
The book is primarily organized into thematic chapters, covering subjects such as fashion, the development of science and technology and human modification of the environment. Unfortunately, Pye has a habit of moving rapidly between different times and places and being very vague about when/where the changes he’s describing happened. He also does relatively little to integrate his chapters together and link them to many of the great themes and events of the period, such as the feudal revolution, the long economic boom, and the growth of the state.
As many other reviewers have noted, this means that the book functions as something of a stream of consciousness. The reader learns all sorts of interesting facts and anecdotes about subjects as varied as the heraldic associations of fish, Viking fashion and the impact of dairy farming on Dutch culture but doesn’t come away with a clear understanding of what societies in the North Sea region were like in this period and when and why they changed.
5.0 out of 5 starsI DIDN'T KNOW THAT! BUT I DO NOW....
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 14, 2018
A FASCINATING INSIGHT INTO THE HISTORY OF THE NORTH SEA COUNTRIES. VERY WELL DOCUMENTED AND FULL OF KNOWLEDGEABLE FACTS THAT YOU WILL CONTINUALLY BE SURPRISED BY. IT IS NOVEL IN ITS STYLE AND APPROACH TO HISTORY...BUT IT IS NOT A NOVEL!!!