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  • The Sea in History: The Medieval World ed. by Michel Balard
  • Sybil M. Jack
Balard, Michel, ed., The Sea in History: The Medieval World, Woodbridge, Boydell, 2017; hardback; pp. 1086; 48 b/w, 33 line illustrations; R.R.P. £125.00; ISBN 9781783271597.

This is the second of four massive volumes produced by a French programme — Océanides, modestly claiming to be the most significant programme in Social Sciences since the eighteenth century French Encylopédie — that seeks under the general direction of Christian Buchet, director of the Centre d'études stratégiques de la Marine, to answer the question of how and in what ways the sea has had an impact on the general evolution of peoples. The general conclusion, presumably for all four volumes and written by Buchet himself, in French and English, goes further, claiming that maritime activities anywhere in any age are 'the single most powerful impetus to create a positive impact on historical trajectories' (p. 102).

Not surprisingly when 260 (72 in this volume) experts in different areas are given a few pages to write about their speciality not all are arguing from the same base. Some have turned Buchet's question on its head by not examining the sea first but rather how it was exploited for internal political struggles and inter-state wars. Nevertheless, most of the articles are worthwhile in themselves and cast some light on one or another aspect of that protean subject, the history of the sea.

Michel Balard in his introduction to this volume offers us, in French and English, a focus on one matter for which the sea was critical, the birth of modern capitalism, which he judges started in the Mediterranean and spread to the rest of the world. This approach explains why the great majority of the entries are concerned with the Mediterranean, four on Venice alone. The studies of the transformation of ship styles, of navigational practices and of maps are tightly focused on particular predominantly European places and times.

What is provided is the important detail of places and practices; what is missing is any systematic attempt to bring together and compare developments in different places which were not in frequent, or perhaps any, contact with one another. One does not, for example, find an explanation for the relative similarity of smaller boats built in different places from different materials. There is no single paper that compares those gripping stories of people who set out onto the unknown in fragile boats and came back with accounts of strange places, even though such tales, some more sophisticated than others, can be found all the way from China, and Xu Jing's Gaolitjing analysis of the Korean peninsula, to the Jesuit accounts of South America.

Many readers may find most interesting the minority of accounts that consider the way in which non-European peoples living in other parts of the world went to sea, exploited sea resources and interpreted — some say appropriated — the sea. We are offered an intriguing interpretation of how [End Page 184] the symbolism attributed to the sea, the legends, myths and religious beliefs, affected the world-view of these people. One may hope for more studies in accessible places like that of Jorge Ortiz Sotelo, which provides a summary of the way the people of the Central Andes related to the sea.

Several of the papers offer explanations of when and why some cultures turned their backs on the sea, restricting themselves to fishing and leaving trade to outsiders. The political aspects of this tend to dominate the accounts, particularly where long-term conflict between places like China and Japan are involved. The role the sea played in spreading knowledge and creating a wider sphere of cultural approach is an interesting theme in the papers on the Pacific fringe.

What is surprisingly missing from the coverage is any paper on the thousands of small islands in the Pacific, many inhabited long before the Common Era by Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian people who were almost wholly dependent on the sea and who sailed long distances out of sight of land from one island to another. Surely they are critical to our...


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