The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are

Written by Michael Pye
Review by Tracey Warr

Michael Pye recounts the “furious and brilliant history” of the lands and peoples around the North Sea in the Middle Ages. This is a geographical and temporal whirlwind tour of travel and trade in the northern hemisphere and oceans told with tremendous brio. He describes Frisians coping with inundations and salt marshes, living in water like fish; Vikings, pirates and merchants at the medieval markets of Dorestad, Hamwic, Quentovic, Dublin and Bergen. Pye’s vivid account is a thematic romp through history considering topics such as love, money, plague and fashion. He describes how “even the mighty codpiece was sliding down the social scale, going from aristocrotches to the private parts of even quite unrich and ungrand men”. He often jumps from one century to another in the space of a few sentences, leaving the reader floundering with a lack of structure or argument. The book is crammed to the gills with research but everything is relayed in an anecdotal, reductive style that makes it all seem rather ridiculous. Reading this book feels like being in one of those fantastic idiosyncratic bookshops where there is no order, simply an adventure in a chaotic jumble, and you never know what you will come across next.