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19.05.07 Ayers, The German Ocean

19.05.07 Ayers, The German Ocean

This is a book about later medieval archaeology, written by a scholar who has spent many years as the county archaeologist for Norfolk. He has also regularly attended a series of biennial colloquia at Lübeck on the archaeology of the Hanse region, and it was his attendance there which sparked his interest in the North Sea as an archaeologically coherent region.

I am a historian, a specialist of the urban history of later medieval southern Europe (Catalonia in particular), who is working on a general urban history of later medieval Europe. My hope was that this book would broaden my insight into the scope and development of urban archaeology (broadly conceived) of the "greater Hanse" region.

The book is very ambitious in scope, as can be seen from the six chapter titles: 1) The Region in 1100; 2) 12th- and 13th-Century Consolidation; 3) The 14th Century: Increasing Wealth and Increasing Pressures; 4) The 15th Century: Towards Greater Sophistication; 5) Merchants and their Impact; and 6) The 16th Century: A New World. From an archaeologists's point of view, this work is likely to be valuable as a source which pulls together work from the UK, the Low Countries, and northwest Germany, into a single reference. But I cannot really speak to that, beyond noting that many field studies from these regions are referenced and noted in the text.

What an historian would ideally like to see from a book of this kind, written by an archaeologist, is an author who has read and digested some of the main historiographical debates, and has then deftly adduced the sum of archaeological evidence in such a way as to challenge or extend historians' current theories; in addition, the ideal archaeologist-writer will also reveal specific blind spots or fixations of historians, helping them to broaden and balance their own discussions. Barring that, the archaeologist in question will summarize existing archaeological work in such a way that they can be easily mined by historians for use as datapoints or parameters which balance gaps in the documentary evidence.

For the early medieval period, the interplay of the archaeological and historical disciplines have in recent decades been bearing a good deal of fruit--or at least, so it would seem from the historiographical side. I confess that I have not read many early medieval archaeological papers, and so I am not aware to what extent their authors have been keeping up with developments in the historiography, but I do know that major historians such as Chris Wickham have, over the past two decades or more, made it virtually de rigueur for any early medieval historian to show a real familiarity with archaeological work pertaining to their subject.

When we move into the later middle ages, however, historians' sense of the "need" to rely on archaeology has remained very low. For the 1200s and certainly the 1300s, historians feel that they have so many documents to hand, that one could easily spend a lifetime working on a narrow topic and engage with only a tiny percentage of what is available. And the range of topics we can discuss are, as decades of mushrooming historiography show, very large. And existing material fabric of all kinds is, of course, also overwhelmingly impressive, so that one feels little instinctual need to "go underground" for more.

So I admit to coming to Ayers' book with a bit of a "so what can you do for me?" attitude. And on first sight, I might be forgiven for concluding: surprisingly little. Ayers has, in fact, read surprisingly little of the historiography of the medieval towns of his chosen region; David Nicholas' major general survey, for example, which covers Northern Europe much better than it does the South, does not appear in his bibliography; and references to specific historiographical debates are few. So, fine: we are disappointed in this (probably unrealistic) hope, but Ayers does say in his Introduction that his purpose is to approach his subject specifically from an archaeological point of view--to help us to see the region through an archaeologist's eyes.

Still, in this instance, I would have loved to have seen many more graphs, maps, and charts, which I know that archaeologists do compile to good effect. There are a number of interesting illustrations here, but the only maps at the beginning are of "places mentioned in the text." No maps showing distributions of pottery, fish bones, timber, house structures, or other material goods discussed in the text, are present; nor are there any graphs showing e.g., a chronology or geography of the very interesting "fish event horizon" mentioned in the first few pages, which suggest a revolution in fishing consumption and trade networks in the years before 1100. Most figures are indeed of local sites or artefacts, and do little to really bring together the region which Ayers hopes to construct in his narrative.

In fact, this brings up my greatest criticism of this book, which I will state before I conclude by pointing out the ways in which I believe it is indeed a good book, and a useful one for later medieval historians. I think that overall it suffers from not doing enough in the way of meta-analysis of mostly local studies. It does not attempt to state general theories or principles in a clear enough way; it will here and there commit to a general statement, but very often to state only that such-and-such a technique offers hope that further work might be done in a given direction (e.g., genotyping of skeletal remains for various purposes). In addition, it suffers from a lack of clear organization in the individual chapters. For example, chapter 2 on the 12th and 13th centuries contains the following subheadings (in order): mercantile and high status architecture--display of power--urban development, organization, and identity--rural organization--landscape change--parochial organization--rural/urban links--urban infrastructure--urban connections--urban hierarchy. While the first sections have some obvious logic to them, why do we return to the city again for many pages, after visiting the country?

One can imagine a schema were each chapter was organized by artefact type and/or by site type: thus, ceramics, foodstuffs, modes of transportation, rural sites, urban sites; with a general narrative at the beginning and/or end of each chapter. Then we could see what each object could add to the whole picture. Barring this, one would at least wish to have a clear rural to urban or urban to rural organization within each chapter.

Sometimes, the book promises a discussion of an important topic, such as the Black Death, only to give the impression that archaeology has relatively little to say on the subject, which I'm sure is not fair. The subsection "The Black Death and its Impact" runs from pages 89 to 92; in it we learn that cemeteries expanded in size; that some skeletons might be datable to the Black Death; and then that some of the so-called "deserted medieval villages" are not in fact attributable to the Black Death, but date from before or after. This seems like an interesting point--but at present the documentary evidence for sudden and severe population shrinkage is so entrenched, that one would need a comprehensive picture of deserted villages and their dates in order to be convinced that historians should re-examine their figures. No such numbers or definite statements are presented here, so the point is mostly lost.

Reading the first four chapters of the book is therefore definitely interesting, but frustrating, as one encounters a bewildering variety of artefacts and individual sites, presented in a way which does not seem to build on the types of theories to which one can cling. It remains mostly anecdotal and local. One chapter which stands out is chapter 5 on merchants: I read this with interest for the different things it could say about merchant material culture, and about the topography of commercial areas. But I still question theories seemingly favoured by archaeologists that merchants had a "definite impact" on the land: in general I am less of an environmental historian and more of an institutional one, and believe that e.g., notions that late medieval people could change the climate or conversely that the climate did much to change the nature of society, despite the so-called "Little Ice Age," are relatively marginal. Colder winters are unlikely to have caused institutional change. And during the middle ages, there were simply too few people to have a real topographical impact besides draining an occasional swamp or building a ditch. (The clearing of forests, one clear exception, has apparently not been addressed by archaeologists in a systematic fashion.) And again, even Chapter 5 suffers from a lack of definite definition of what a merchant was, where they lived, what they did even. These are all left as assumptions.

So with all of that being said, I believe that many historians will still find this book to be intermittently fascinating, and illuminating. Certainly any historian who works on material culture will wish to mine the relevant chapters for notes on the latest archaeological work pertinent to their artefact type: e.g., anyone interested in waterfronts, in domestic buildings, in brasses, in the movement of timber, will find a useful blurb and references to the relevant work. Also they will find discussions on some of the ways in which material culture is being made to do much more work (e.g., on gender and nutrition, forestry and public services) than it was allowed to do even two decades ago. For all of these reasons, Ayers' book has done a definite service.

Finally, let us not forget the main argument: that the North Sea littoral should be seen as a coherent region. Certainly in this regard, Ayers' book is relatively pioneering, and can teach historians a thing or two, especially in combining the Hanse area with the Low Countries and Eastern Britain. It is undoubted that this region became an important and interconnected commercial zone which, as Ayers argues, picked up immensely during his period, and which utilized urban centres as nodes. So in this regard, the overall argument here is an important one, even if the details presented inside the book, including occasional dubious matches of architectural styles, can seem wanting, and one gets the feeling that not nearly enough is said on, e.g., tile or ceramic distribution, which one imagines could do much more to prove the chronological and geographical development of specific commercial networks than is done here.

All in all then, this is still a significant and pioneering work for historians, which apart from its important main argument, if read dippingly, can introduce historians to many ways in which material culture can round out their ideas of the medieval past. Hints of many debates present and emerging in archaeology can be found here, and at the very least, it is good to have this general survey of the material record in one's time period, and archaeologists' engagement with aspects of this record, as a background to one's writing and teaching about the period.