The Edge of the World

In his new book The Edge of the World, Michael Pye illuminates the so-called Dark Ages of Northern Europe by showing how cultures evolved on the shores of the North Sea, from the terror of the Vikings to the golden age of cities. Pye profiles the saints and spies, pirates and philosophers, and artists and intellectuals who crossed the gray expanse stretching between Scandinavia and the British Isles, revealing the beginnings of modernity in Europe. The seas and waterways of Northern Europe were once as important a tool as the Internet is to today’s society – serving as a highway for communication and commerce, a sea of connectivity. The North Sea was a fabric that held disparate groups together through established trade routes and pitted them against one another by providing a medium for war, terror and, of course, the legendary Viking raids.

Pye describes the communities that inhabited the shores of the North Sea, often showcasing whole cultures through the examples of individuals found in the dusty pages of forgotten manuscripts. He introduces us to characters like Ohthere who “lived furthest north of all Norsemen,” and who told King Alfred in southern England that he had sailed “as far north as the furthest the whale hunters go.” Pye tells the story of women’s subjugation and triumph through Katelijne Vedelaer who was taken from a community of beguines, or holy women, in Bruges and forced to marry. The kidnappers were caught, and Katelijne returned to her quiet, independent life at the beguinage. He devotes a whole chapter to the Venerable Bede and the book trade, ruminating on the doodles on sacred manuscripts that allow glimpses into the daily life of monks, like the scribbled aside of one disgruntled brother who wrote: “It is hard to bend the neck and furrow parchment for twice three hours.”

Through these stories, Pye depicts a culture slowly enlightened by exposure to lands across the seas, like a manuscript illuminated by the scribe hunched in a scriptorium whose complaint carries across the sea-distance from his era to our own. With painstaking research, Pye’s book functions like the monks’ marginalia, a corrective and elucidating annotation to a neglected history. His book throws light on an area of Europe long obscured, revealing the rich cultural tapestry of the northern lands and seas discovered in the margins and byways of history.