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

The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are by Michael Pye Read Free Book Online

Book: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are by Michael Pye Read Free Book Online
Authors: Michael Pye
even experimenting with it: seeing the world in mathematical terms.
    Money was going to change people’s
     minds.
    That story is easy to miss, but then it is
     extraordinary how much Pliny missed and he was there. He saw ramshackle shipwrecks on
     the little hills, most likely fishermen’s shacks, and missed the solid houses with
     their sod walls a full metre thick. He didn’t notice the real business of the
     marshes.
    He says nothing about the two temples facing
     each other across the water at the start of the open sea, on the very last point of the
     land: Roman temples dedicated to Nehalennia, a goddess of death and trade and fertility,
     almost everything that matters. On her altars, salt merchants gave thanks for voyages
     she had made successful, and so did men who dealt in potter’s clay and fish sauce,
     wine, clothand pottery and anything that was
     going out to England across the sea; sometimes the same merchant thanked her on both
     sides of the river. 3 At the temple in Colijnsplaat, to the north, the goddess was all
     business; the one to the south, at Domburg, where the stones later came back from under
     the sea, makes clear her darker side. Here she has a hound sitting by her, as she stands
     by a set of curtains that screen away a passage to the next world; she is watching over
     the dead as they go out to sea, sailing west to the isles of the blessed. 4 Practical
     cargoes and magical journeys, life and death, were all going over the beach at
     Domburg.
    A hundred years later there would have been
     nothing much for Pliny to miss. Domburg was abandoned. Pirates moved in, some of them
     local and Frisian, some of them from the Frankish kingdoms to the south. 5 Rome began
     to lose control. Then the water took over by force: the sea rushed in and drowned the
     temples around the end of the second century. The dunes moved, the channels for boats
     changed, and the site became impossible. All that was left was a fragile stretch of sand
     which a single wind storm could skirl into a new landscape, a coastline where a surging
     sea could wash away all the business that had made so many merchants give thanks to the
     goddess. There was no sign of life or business there for almost four centuries until the
     story began over again.
    But in the marshes there were heavy barges
     which had come down the Rhine from the middle of Europe, boats thirty metres long and
     three metres across, steering oars forward and steering oars aft: solid, flat-bottomed
     craft made out of thick slabs of oak. They were rowed and hauled down the river,
     carrying loads of slate and stone, or wine or pots, and when they reached the marshes,
     they moved their cargo onto sea-going ships. 6 From the marshes, the goods could go
     north or south by sea in the lee of the islands along the coast, down to where Calais
     now stands to cross to England or directly across the sea to markets where York and
     London and even Southampton stand now, or up to the start of the Danish peninsula, where
     they could cross by land and river into the Baltic and reach up to Birka and Helgö in
     Sweden. The marshes held the trade of half a continent.
    All this is unfamiliar in part because there
     is so little writtenevidence. We
     wouldn’t know that ‘Frisian’ meant ‘merchant’ in
     seventh-century London, except that Bede mentions in his
History
that some
     young aristo from Northumberland ended up in Mercian hands, and was sold in the market
     to ‘a Frisian’. This Frisian couldn’t manage to keep the kid safely
     tied up, and so allowed him to go off and ransom himself. 7 Bede says he checked
     the story with particular care, so we can assume that Frisians were practical merchants
     who did not deal in bothersome merchandise. We would find it hard to prove that there
     was a Frisian colony in eighth-century York, except that Altfrid wrote the life of a
     saint called Liudger and mentions the time a Frisian merchant happened to brawl with

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