Monday, March 14, 2016

The Sea: A Barrier or Trade Route?

by Mark Noce 

The British Isles are surrounded by water, lots of it, and this has no doubt contributed to the character of the people who inhabit these islands. But so what? How can water change the course of a people and does it do so for the better or worse?

Well, think about it for a second. The English Channel alone has deterred plenty of would-be invaders (although not all). Few can doubt that holding off Napoleon or Hitler would not have been as feasible had their massive armies simply been able to walk to England. Not to mention the development of ports and harbors from Bristol to Portsmouth doubtlessly contributed to the British naval culture that allowed them to expand across the globe and create the most powerful maritime power on Earth for a time.


But I digress. It’s just water, Mark. Does anyone really care?

Believe it or not, historians and archaeologists do and it’s a contentious debate.

From the Celtic era through the Middle Ages right down to today, various authors, anthropologists, and historians continue to debate whether the waters around the UK and Ireland have isolated the peoples there or made them even more interconnected with the rest of the world. Simply put, the argument goes two ways.

Isolation Argument - Water acted as a barrier that allowed cultures such as the Celts and later unique “Insular” lifestyles to flourish in the British Isles long after such practices had died out elsewhere.

Interconnected Argument - Water acted as a superhighway, allowing for a larger portion of goods, ideas, and culture to be transported at a time when land travel limited the scope in which cargo and other ox-bound trade items could move.

In truth, I believe it’s a little of both, and I’m not just saying that as a cop-out. As a sailor myself, I know that there are days when the sea gives me the freedom to go where I please, but at other times it’s so rough I wouldn’t dare go out on it. My guess is that the waters around the British Isles acted in this pendulous, moody way. Some days the sea connected the local peoples with the rest of the world and other days it grew rough and stormy, thus isolating them from external influences. 

In a way, I think this introduces a very positive aspect to cultures in the UK and Ireland, because it allowed native people to pick and choose what they liked from external trade and culture, but to also insulate themselves from aspects of the continent that they did not like. A unique situation that most other nations did not have simply due to chance geography and weather patterns. It makes one wonder just how much of human history has been shaped by climate and chance.

So what do you think? Is the sea a barrier or a trade route? Does it connect people or cut the off from them outside world?







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Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.

Learn more at marknoce.com or preorder his novel here.






28 comments:

  1. I never thought about how the seas served to insulate island countries, keeping time to develop. And, yet serving as a means to reach out.
    We lived in Ireland for a few years, where my husband's family has
    many relatives. One thing among many was the restricted gene pool. A dentist told me that he loved working on American mouths, because they were so "roomy". He said that Irish mouths, due to lack of new genetic intro, had small mouths, bad teeth from generation to generation.

    But I never thought about the sea in this way. Thanks.

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    1. Ireland is great, I have relatives there too, and the sea is often a big part of the culture, especially in the west. I wonder about the dentists thing though...could be diet related too;)

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  2. I never thought about how the seas served to insulate island countries, keeping time to develop. And, yet serving as a means to reach out.
    We lived in Ireland for a few years, where my husband's family has
    many relatives. One thing among many was the restricted gene pool. A dentist told me that he loved working on American mouths, because they were so "roomy". He said that Irish mouths, due to lack of new genetic intro, had small mouths, bad teeth from generation to generation.

    But I never thought about the sea in this way. Thanks.

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  3. Nice post to think about. It's hard to know how isolated the sea really left the British Isles. Parts, maybe, like Ireland. But what we call England now was invaded many times. The Romans, the Normans, the Saxons, etc., which is why the English language is such an interesting combination of influences by these cultures.

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    1. Very true! Although genetic studies have borne out that the majority of the population is still descended from the original ice age inhabitants of the British Isles. When invasions did occur, it was only the elites who were truly replaced. A real advantage to being a peasant, I guess;)

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    2. The Wellcome Trust/Oxford University People of the British Isles study which was published in 2015 is a fascinating read. It states for instance that 'the majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry). This settles a historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, the existing populations.' Lots of wonderful information in there related to this very topic- here's the link! http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/Media-office/Press-releases/2015/WTP058941.htm

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    3. Fascinating stuff, Elaine:) I hadn't heard of that study, thanks for letting me know:)

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  4. I think it was a little of both. Kept them safe but still allowed for the outside world to visit.

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  5. Interesting! Had never been aware of either of these arguments before. I agree, I think both isolation and interconnection happened fairly equally...

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    1. Yup, it's finding evidence that directly supports one notion or the other that can prove difficult.

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  6. I'd definitely think it would work both ways. They were able to ship out (and ship in), thus getting them to more places than, say, someone in the center of Asia (though...Silk Road, so maybe a bad example), but their trips had to be purposeful, as it involved planning and gathering of supplies in advance.

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    1. I definitely think there were major advantages to water-travel in ancient times. Even the pyramids at Giza were built by huge blocks ferried down the Nile.

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  7. Interesting arguments, Mark. You can see, in the British Isles, how both of them have shaped the history, culture and language.

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  8. I think it's both too. Being surrounded by water typically deters major invasions, but the water also gives them a pathway to visit back and forth between cultures.

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    1. It also makes me wonder about artifacts found in Britain and Ireland. Were they made there by migrating peoples or imported via trade? Difficult to tell sometimes.

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  9. What a great article! I've never really thought about this before, but you presented sound arguments on why it could be both isolation and interconnection. I would agree with you.

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    1. Thanks, Kristin:) Sometimes I don't even agree with me;)

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  10. Hi Mark - it's quite a broad subject - the Irish on the west coast - had lots of invading travellers too ... while the wild waters between Ireland various parts of England as a whole helped traders and invaders alike. Exploration was always there ... hence the Vikings getting to Greenland and on to Canada etc ..

    Trade across the Europe and into Asia was happening for millennia - they followed the tracks and the rivers/lakes .. right into China ... it always amazes me how far we travel and how much was overcome.

    I can believe the dentistry aspect ... interesting and thought provoking post .. cheers Hilary

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    1. Yup, definitely thought provoking:) I've got relatives on the West Coast of Ireland...and I'd fear more for the invaders than the locals;)

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  11. I think I'm on your side, Mark. It can't only be one or the other, or logically, the culture and history would have been different.

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    1. Definitely. I guess it's really a question of how much of one or the other throughout the centuries, interconnection or isolation.

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  12. I agree, water both connects and insulates, even on a small scale. I used to live on an island in Lake Washington. On a normal day, the bridges leading from the island were the easiest route across the lake. On the rare days it snowed heavily, the bridges closed, and no one could get on or off the island. It created a strong and slightly surreal sense of community, a completely different mind-set.

    VR Barkowski

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    1. I kind of like that sense of community caused by an island, there's something distinctly human to that experience.

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  13. i learned a bunch about water strategy, thanks! and love your cover, wishing you well with your release!

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  14. Great post, Mark. I've never really thought a lot about what you've discussed. The sea to me, especially the Channel, means home. Seeing the White Cliffs of Dover approaching as my ferry from Dunkirk sails across is the best feeling. I used to fly back to the UK but much prefer to taste the salty air as home calls and drags me nearer. I am learning so much about my homeland reading your posts than I ever did in 18 years of school :) It makes me even more eager to read your book. Have a lovely weekend.

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