Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vikings and the Edge of the World

If you liked my book Ivory Vikings, and want to learn more about the North Sea culture in the Middle Ages, then the next book on your reading list should be The Edge of the World by Michael Pye.

There's some overlap. Pye covers some of the same ground--or waters--as I did. We're both fascinated by the Sea Road that connected the cultures bordering the North Atlantic and permitted ideas and art, as well as people, to travel freely around the north. But while Ivory Vikings emphasizes Iceland, The Edge of the World is centered on Amsterdam and the lands that will become the Netherlands. Reading the two books back to back shows how two writers can tackle the same topic--and produce completely different, if complementary, stories.

Pye has a wider historical sweep, too. While I focus on the years 793 to 1266, he is fascinated by the 14th, 15th, and even 16th centuries. Sometimes his grander sense of time can be confusing. In a paragraph on the history of written laws, for example, he jumps from the birth of Christ to the 12th century.

And, from my perspective, Pye gets some things wrong. His understanding of Iceland and Greenland, particularly their settlement, is a bit outdated and contradicted by newer research, as is his discussion of the Viking voyages to the New World. I found myself putting a lot of question marks, and a few exclamation marks, in the margins of these sections.

But though I might quibble with a few of Pye's conclusions, I learned quite a lot from the book.

His chapter on Fashion is particularly fun. "The great sagas from Iceland have everything you expect," he writes: "heroes, killings, dragons, feuds, great voyages, and great horrors. They also have something less likely: they have dandies."

Here he introduces one of my favorites, the future Earl of Orkney, Kali Kolsson. In Ivory Vikings, I discuss the references to chess in Kali's poetry; Pye zeroes in on his clothes. Fashion, he says, "is about choosing to reinvent yourself and your status."

How exactly were the Vikings reinventing themselves? To explain, Pye tells me about some archaeological finds I was unaware of. The port town of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, he points out, burned down repeatedly in the Middle Ages, leaving treasures for today's archaeologists.

"In the layers from the 11th to the 13th centuries, there are shoes--shoes for women, men, and children--and a startling number of them are decorated with embroidery in silk. Now, Lucca [near Rome] was beginning to produce silk in the 12th century, and grumpy Paris clerics had begun to denounce the wearing of 'worm's excrement,' but silk still seemed a luxury to Southerners, mostly imported from the Middle East. In later illuminated manuscripts, embroidered shoes are worn by grand and powerful people to show rank and to show money. But the Bergen evidence does not come from the parts of town with castles or riches; it is everywhere. There are so many shoes, even grown-ups' shoes cut down for children, that it's clear that silk yarn was being brought in quantity to the Norwegian coast long before it was the mark of social-climbing persons in Paris..."

Finally, I have often wondered why Norway did not live up to its side of the bargain in the century after Iceland became subject to the Norwegian king. According to the agreement made at the Althing between 1262 and 1264, Norway was to send frequent ships carrying grain, timber, iron, and other staples Iceland needed: "Six ships are to sail from Norway to Iceland during each of the next two summers; from that time forth their number shall be decided according to what the king and the most judicious farmers in Iceland believe to be in the best interests of the country."

Yet in historical hindsight, this agreement seems to end Iceland's years of prosperity along with its independence. The Golden Age was over. Iceland descended into its own Dark Ages of colonial repression. Until about 1600 the island was known to the rest of the world only for its rich offshore fishing grounds, its barbaric, uncultured people (said to wash in urine and dine on candle wax), and its volcanoes, one of which—Mount Hekla—was known as the Mouth of Hell.

As Pye explains, it wasn't Norway's fault. The Norwegians, too, were short of food at the end of the 1200s.

"The Norwegian ports, Bergen in particular, were waiting for the last shipments of the things they needed for the winter: grain for bread and beer, peas, beans, malt and flour. They had come to depend on these shipments; their year was measured out by the ships from Lübeck that took away their butter and dried cod, their furs and their good axes, and brought back basics from around the Baltic—where there was land to grow things, not like their own narrow fields between mountains and fjords and forests. They had once done business with the English as well, but now they depended on the Lübeck merchants of the Hansa."

The merchants of the Hansa League, a loose confederation of trading towns in what is now Germany, "seemed to do business just as they liked." Having gained a monopoly, they refused to sell "the winter essentials"--grain, flour, vegetables, and beer--to Norway until the Norwegian king gave them better terms. They blockaded the Norwegian ports until they got what they want. "Everything the Norwegians did after that seemed only to make them more dependent on the Hansa," Pye writes. They didn't send ships full of grain to Iceland because they couldn't.

"Something is beginning on the edge of the world: the kind of multinational power that does not depend on where it is based, which flirts or fights in the modern world with the obvious kinds of political and state power, which usually gets its own way," Pye concludes. Something that brought the old Viking world to its knees. "The modern trade-off between politics and money had begun."

The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe by Michael Pye was published by Pegasus Books in 2015.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

1 comment:

  1. Nancy, I loved THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, and warmly second your recommendation. I look forward to reading your IVORY VIKINGS.