The Mediterranean glows in our conception of the Continent, the warm source of everything that is best in us, the seat of civilisation, from which one delicious wave after another has washed up on our shores.
But what about the Mediterranean’s twin, the other great lobe of the Atlantic which defines the northern edge of the European peninsula, a sea of enormous fertility, its edges laced with islands, fed into by the richest of rivers, with, in the Baltic, its own inner chamber, giving access to the giant hinterlands of Russia. Surely the North Sea deserves its human history too?
That is Michael Pye’s question: do the North Sea and the connections across it constitute the missing half of the European story? How have its dynamics shaped our history? But more than that, is the north merely the ragged edge of the south, far less continuous in its culture, broken by a hostile climate and impoverished soils, the rough end of Europe? Or does it have a substance beyond that? Can you really say that ‘the North Sea made us who we are’?
He has posed it as a whopping set of questions, stretching over 1,000 years from 700 to 1700, and 100 kingdoms, one which would daunt any historian, however practised and however informed.