Michael Pye’s History of the North Sea Disappoints

The author fails to come up with a theory for everything that happened around the North Sea.

The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe

In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye sets out to explain “how the North Sea made us who we are.” He at least succeeds in showing how, through the centuries, the lands around the North Sea were in constant communication with each other and influenced developments in law, science and trade, perhaps more than most historians assumed.

But he does so while tearing down a familiar narrative about the rise of capitalism in the region without volunteering an alternative interpretation.

Pye’s book is organized around themes: the invention of money, the writing of law, fashion, urbanization. The book as a whole covers centuries but most chapters deal with a much shorter time and dwell longer on the stories of individuals — whom we have to assume are representative of bigger trends — than they do on tying in events to produce something resembling a theory.

It’s interesting to learn how Roman law was rediscovered in Icelandic and Irish monasteries and then spread to other parts of Northern Europe. But why is this relevant? What is the meaning of this?

Pye gives a fascinating history of conflict between the Norwegian crown and Hansa merchants who would rather sell wine than the grain Norway needed. But he doesn’t take the chance to reflect on the interaction between the medieval state and early capitalists. There is no relation to earlier and later such conflicts, no comparison with other places.

Much of The Edge of the World reads like a missed opportunity. There is no overarching theme beyond the presence of the North Sea — which is actually mostly overlooked. How climate and geography shaped European history doesn’t seem to occur to the author. Nor does a compelling theory of why things happened the way they did emerge.

What Pye does accomplish is casting doubt on the notion that the Protestant and individualistic north of Europe “invented” modern capitalism with its emphasis on city and property rights, trust, insurance and trade. All those things were there, he shows, but he doesn’t believe there was anything inherent about Northern Europe that made it necessarily the birthplace of capitalism. The Antwerp markets spoke Italian, were driven by the need to raise money for a Spanish overlord, did business constantly with the Portuguese and every other Catholic power. “Capitalism came out of circumstances long before the divide over theology complicated the picture,” Pye writes.

Capitalism, in The Edge of the World, just “happened” as trade expanded and more money had to be found for bigger ships and bigger loads. Northern Europe just “happened” to be in the right place (free of war) at the right time.

Everything just “happens” in The Edge of the World and that is its weakness. Pye gives us a lot of stories and raises a lot of good questions but doesn’t use the one to answer the other and only leaves the reader more confused about an era and a region that remain underappreciated in the histories of Western civilization.