When I first saw Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe I though “huh I don’t really know anything about life around the medieval North Sea.” And that’s kind of Pye’s point. You ask “what is the historical significance of the Mediterranean” and all kinds of hands shoot up. Not so much with the North Sea.
The book has a great introduction. I normally skim the into but this one is worth a close read. He opens with describing the things that have appeared on the North Sea coast of England over the years uncovered by storms. Everything from temples to long forgotten gods to coffins with sword bearing skeletons in side. One of the overriding themes of the books is a challenge to the idea that the lands around the North Sea were economic and cultural backwaters. Using the example of the Frisians (Frisia is what is today the coast of the Netherlands and parts of Germany and Denmark) Pye shows that the very fact that they lived in a marshy region forced them to go out into the world to trade. Likewise with Vikings, although we mostly know them as savage raiders (and you will get to see them at their worst), Pye points out that as traders they worked their way far into Russia and as far south as Constantinople. From there he covers fashion, settlement, agriculture and all the other things you’d expect in a cultural history.
The book is filed with stories drawn from Norse saga’s and chroniclers around the sea. This gives the work a narrative tone. Jumping from one story to another to prove a point. Sometimes the stories were so compelling I found I couldn’t remember what the point was.