In the full flush of Brexit, Brian Ayers’ new book makes for compelling reading. Re-reading the results of countless excavations over the past 50 years and their 11th to 16th century meaning, Ayers concludes: ‘It is a maritime region where the seas bind communities together rather than dividing them’, the archaeology thus gives ‘timely reminders of the importance of the European interconnectedness that is provided by the North Sea’. The name ‘German Ocean’ for the North Sea has its earliest documented origins as Oceanus Germäic on printed ‘Ptolemy’ maps of 1477. Not surprisingly, this appellation was dropped during the First World War, with German cartographers falling into line in the 1920s. Ayers’ book, though, is really about medieval Europe around the North Sea, showing above all else the foundations of the modern European economy and tacitly challenging the importance of the Mediterranean.
Elegantly written and full of extraordinary detail, the book draws on a huge number of major archaeological excavations. In six chapters, Ayers reviews the region as its economic take-off is beginning, then charts the consolidation of the 12th-13th centuries, before focusing on the pressures of the 14th century and the era of the Black Death, and the ‘greater sophistication’ of the 15th century, before the New World becomes critical in the lives of merchant venturers and farmers. A lot is packed into fewer than 200 pages.
The interconnectedness of this region is brilliantly conveyed by using network analysis of objects, mostly small traded ‘things’ such as wine amphorae, jugs, hones, and querns. In AD 1000 the pivot around which the North Sea, England, and the Baltic danced for a period was the now-deserted town of Hedeby. From this time onwards, the pivot transferred to the great German towns that set the pace with their capacious seagoing cogs. Excavations in Lübeck demonstrate how Hedeby’s early rise was not only sustained but soon surpassed. Massive timber dockland buildings at the Gründsviertel excavations reveal the wealth of the new merchant class by c.1200 and, above all, their capacity to invest. The following century sees Ypres and many Flemish towns following suit. This was the ‘wooden century’. These front-line ports consumed timber at an astonishing rate, exceeding anything known before and imposing new demands, as Ayers skilfully shows, on the woodland management of their regions. Soon Europe was embedded in the avaricious consumption of goods.
Furs and grain were major staples of the industrialisation of commerce. But it is beer that commands most attention. With relish, Ayers describes the discovery of the hop field at Deventer and the first identified hops in England from his own excavations in Norwich. There is a reason for this. Three million litres of beer were exported from Hamburg to Amsterdam each year during the 1360s. The Dutch were not alone in liking a good tipple. Small mountains of Siegburg (Rhenish) beer mugs can be found from Bergen to Riga. England was also importing millions of gallons of wine in barrels and serving the vintages in mass-produced glazed jugs. No less important were fish. Cod was fished out fairly early from the lower North Sea, so attention turned to the shoals off Bergen. Herring, flounder, plaice, and sole were traded far and wide. Even Flemish pigs were being fed fish at Walraversijde.
Renaissance taste was soon a great unifier across this ocean. Building forms, fireplace embellishments, the shared use of alabaster, and the commonality of cheap and rich jewellery reveal an unanimity of cultural highs and lows. Most of all, the consumption of fish was enlarged, as live creatures were packed in barrels and dispatched to the inland regions.
Reading this book, Brexit seems so plainly ill-informed: Britain’s real roots lie in connections made across the German Ocean. Ayers’ story fascinates in its sweep and its detail, and above all it charts the indubitable case for a shared North Sea history based on common quotidian experiences, as opposed to the quixotic intrusion of politicians.
Text: Richard Hodges, President, American University of Rome