Yet this may be far from the case.
In The Edge of the World, historian Michael Pye champions a different view, refuting the idea that the return of Western civilisation was driven from the Mediterranean. Instead we get a history where developments along the coast of the North Sea were key to the changing face of Europe: ‘This cold, grey sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible,’ Pye writes at one point.
Pye focuses his narrative on groups like the Frisians, the Vikings and the Hansa. In the late first millennia, when the rest of Europe was isolating itself, the Frisians opened up trade routes dormant since the days of Rome, and Pye even credits them with reinventing money. Later came the Vikings who, despite their reputation, developed trade routes and explored the edges of the known world; they could be found as far away as North America.
Pye takes the scant records available from this period and creates an evocative picture. Readers get to see the struggles faced after devastating plagues, religious pressures, and the pushback from the nobility against the upstart middle classes. Where possible, Pye does this through real-life individuals whose lives have been preserved in the records.
The Edge of the World is an impressive book, shedding a powerful light on the period inaccurately referred to as the Dark Ages.
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are by Michael Pye, Viking Publishing, £25.00
This review was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine