The Scottish Referendum prompted much soul-searching about Britain's place in the world. The Scots, it seemed, were looking warmly at Scandinavia. Michael Pye's book reminds us of a time when all the North Sea nations shared a culture. It was admittedly a long time ago but this is the kind of book that can open up new vistas.
Pye begins obliquely and brilliantly by considering the beginning of "the seaside" cult in the early 18th century, at the end of the North Sea relationship as far as Britain was concerned. Imperial Britain might have boasted of its mastery of the oceans, but it forgot or disdained its local sea and those who lived just across it. Against that, Pye writes of a time when it was quicker, easier, and more profitable to travel from Frisia to York than from London to York.
His alternative route to modernity goes not through the Renaissance but via the trading culture of the Lowlands, and he sets out to rescue the period between the collapse of Rome and the middle Ages from its contemptuous tag – the Dark Ages – and its monks-and-barbarians stereotype. The life of trade and invention wasn't nearly as moribund as is commonly supposed.
The Lowlands feature heavily in the book: Pye roots out the source of those swept-clean, 17th-century courtyards of Pieter de Hooch we so admire, tracing the line through land reclamation, cattle and butter. By the 17th century half the population of Holland kept cattle, and butter making was a cottage industry. Butter requires extreme cleanliness. As he says, even before Calvin, Holland was the cleanest, tidiest, primmest nation on earth.
Pye's is a stream-of-vignettes history and although he draws big conclusions, the chronology and direction can sometimes seem confused. He is carried along by his fervour, and at times so is the reader. When it doesn't work so well, in the midst of endless stories of superstition and brutality, it is moot whether his aim of rescuing the reputation of the Dark Ages (he calls it "the Long Morning") is succeeding.
Overall, though, this is an inspiring book, full of surprises: Irish monks inventing punctuation; the Hanseatic League foreshadowing the conflict between nation states and global capitalism; medieval scribes applying their skills to forging institutional charters besides their better-known work of illuminating manuscripts. The book might just rekindle a sense that Britain really is a North Sea nation and not just a rootless post-Imperium searching for a niche in the global emporium.
Viking, £25. Order for £20 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030Reuse content