An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 11, 2013

Hudson: Studies in the Medieval Atlantic

Hudson, Benjamin, ed. Studies in the Medieval Atlantic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 

Reviewed by: Jana K. Schulman (

This collection of seven essays originated at a conference, Sailing the Western Sea: The Atlantic Ocean in a Medieval Perspective, held in March 2009.  The volume’s purpose is to draw attention to the Atlantic Ocean, in all its vastness, and its impact on those who lived along it.  Hudson, in his Prologue, sets the context for the essays that follow, tracing references to the Atlantic from the earliest times, specifically those that highlight the distances and the interconnectivity, by means of travel, of those sailing it.  In the next four sections, he discusses the coming of Christianity and how it brought more deep sea navigation as saints and missionaries traveled by sea; the Vikings and their mastery of the sea; how the ocean contributed to trade and commerce; and, finally, how the Atlantic led to conquest, colonization, and subsequent support of commerce.   What is unusual about Hudson’s Prologue is that he does not discuss the seven essays at all, which is both good and bad.  The good is that the focus stays on the ocean itself, the bad is that there is no attempt to explain how the essays relate to each other; as someone whose field is more literary than historical, more focused, perhaps on Anglo-Saxon England and medieval Iceland, I would have liked an expert’s introduction that not only established the importance of the medieval Atlantic, but also explained the relevance of and connections between the seven essays.

Part I, Transnationalism and Environment, includes three essays: Alfred Siewers’s “Desert Islands: Europe’s Atlantic Archipelago as Ascetic Landscape”; Vicki Szabo’s “Subsistence Whaling and the Norse Diaspora: Norsemen, Basques, and Whale Use in the Western North Atlantic, ca. AD 900-1640”; and Thomas Haine’s “Greenland Norse Knowledge of the North Atlantic Environment.”  All three of these essays actually focus on the environment, but it is not obvious to this reader how any of them relate to the first word of the section heading, Transnationalism.

Siewer’s essay is very theoretical, and is also philosophical in tone.  Siewers, who has written on the environment and on ecocritical approaches to literature, argues that literature has an environmental function and that such literature is important because it illuminates the role the Atlantic played in the lives of the literature’s authors. The essay focuses mostly on early Irish literature, but Siewers also mentions Beowulf and frames the essay with reference to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Deerslayer.  Siewers argues that the sea is both a connector and a divider, that it is otherworldly, particularly as articulated in early Irish literature, that it is more fluid than one would expect, and that close study of diverse, early texts informs us as to how to read the image of the sea.

Szabo’s essay is a fascinating analysis of how the Norse used and acquired whales.  She argues that, unlike the Basques who actively pursued whales and eventually developed a reputation for and a business of this, the Norse did not.  Instead, the Norse made use of whales only when they drifted ashore.  Consulting legal texts, sagas, and the archeological record, Szabo concludes that whales “were not the chosen food for the boldest Norsemen” (84); that people in Iceland were glad to have whale meat only in times of famine; and that a cultural reluctance or refusal to actually hunt whales might have contributed to the Norse extinction in Greenland. 

Haine’s essay examines what the Greenland Norse knew about the North Atlantic; focusing on oceanographic phenomena—such as the tides, non tidal ocean currents, surface water properties, and sea ice—and their relationship with and need for wood, he argues that they, because of their environment, had to know much about the sea, weather, and ice surrounding them. The section on wood is fascinating. Haine begins it by discussing what the Greenland Norse would need wood for (most necessary was good quality wood for building and repairing ships) and how they could obtain wood.  He identifies four sources of wood: native Greenlandic wood, which was inadequate for building large structures; imported Norwegian wood, which was a vital source; harvested timber from Markland, also a vital source; and driftwood, whose supply would vary from year to year.  The Greenland Norse, Haine concludes, would have paid close attention to ocean currents and sea ice as these would have an impact on the kind, amount, and quality of driftwood that came upon their shores. Unfortunately for the Greenland Norse, “these wood sources declined during the Norse Greenland occupation, especially toward the end” (115).

The second part of the volume, Colonialism, includes four essays: Christopher Fee’s “Med Lögum Skal Land Vort Byggja (with law shall the land be built): Law as a Defining Characteristic of Norse Society in Saga Conflicts and Assembly Sites throughout the Scandinavian North Atlantic”; R. Andrew McDonald’s “The Manx Sea Kings and the Western Oceans: The Late Norse Isle of Man in its Norse Atlantic Context, 1079-1265”; David Beougher’s “More Savage than the Sword: Logistics in the Medieval Atlantic Theatre of War”; and Kelly DeVries’s “Into the Atlantic or into the Mediterranean? Spanish Military Choices in the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries.” The title of this part does not seem to be the best given the essays in the section; what is meant exactly by “colonialism”? Fee’s essay is not necessarily about taking over or settling a country, but about the importance of law as evidenced in place names. McDonald’s essay examines battles between the Manx and those peoples on neighboring islands among other things that set the Manx kings apart. Beougher’s essay focuses only on logistics, on how different countries organized and supplied their armies; at no point does he discuss anything to do with attempts to take control of another country.  Finally, DeVries’s essay is about colonizing the New World to some degree, but is more an analysis of why it took Spain so long to actually realize wealth from the New World.  The title of this section does not encompass the ideas or investigations of the essays contained within it.

In his essay, Fee investigates place names on the Isle of Man, Shetland, and Iceland, focusing specifically on the names Tynwald, Ting Wall Holm, and Thingvellir.  All three names contain the element “þing,” which in Old Norse-Icelandic refers to the parliament and the assembly site itself.  According to Fee, the fact that all three islands have places that are physical monuments to assembly places in addition to the relevant place names provides evidence of the importance of a cultural self-identification as Norse as well as the importance of law throughout the Atlantic where the Norse settled. 

McDonald examines the position of the Isle of Man and the role of the Manx kings in the broader context of the North Atlantic world. Noting the strategic placement of Man, between Britain and Ireland, McDonald argues that it is not at all surprising that the Manx people were excellent sailors.  Much of the information about the Manx comes from a chronicle, the Chronica regum mannie et insularum or Manx Chronicle. From this, we learn that the ruling dynasty was founded by Guððr Crovan and that his descendants ruled until 1265.  We also learn that the Manx were well respected as sailors and warriors, often hired as mercenaries. McDonald’s essay establishes and stresses the connections that the Manx had with Norway, Shetland, the Orkneys, and the islands—Lewis and the Hebrides in particular—both in terms of trade networks and sea voyaging.

Beougher’s essay is absolutely fascinating.  In his examination of the logistics necessary to feed and provision armies, he focuses on four different military theatres (Carolingian, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and Irish), and three different aspects of logistics (assembly of troops, rations and what people ate, and transportation of those provisions). Beougher demonstrates that Charlemagne got around some problems of provisioning troops by requiring his men to appear with three months worth of food supplies (187).  He also analyzes what a daily ration would need to be (1-2 kilos of bread daily supplemented with meat and drink) and how many carts would be needed to transport all the food, clothing, tents, baggage, and equipment to prepare the food.  Given the magnitude of this undertaking, it is not at all surprising that having waterways to transport food and other provisions makes it easier. Iceland and England provide Beougher’s second and third logistical models, differing from the Carolingian and the Irish.  In Iceland, most battles were small and involved groups of men moving over the land, either with their own provisions or with access to supplies freely provided from others. Beougher cites Flosi’s gathering of men from his quarter in Iceland and their movement over land to attack Njal. In England, the Anglo-Saxons were involved primarily in coastal defense; the nobles came when called and farmers and workers supported them.  In Ireland, little information exists about how people moved about, but it is clear that people involved in battles relied on horses and cattle because they moved themselves (and thus the men had beef to eat). In other words, having cattle to eat made the lack of roads less of an issue.  All four of these models combine to demonstrate that extended fighting could not be sustained, with one exception, and that the kings and peoples of these four countries were well aware of how to work with what they had.

DeVries analyzes what Spain preoccupied itself with in the fifty years after Columbus died: the Spanish monarchs focused on their interests in the Mediterranean because these interests were known producers of wealth.  He argues that the New World needed to pay its way and that until this happened or was perceived to happen, Spain would invest its funds in known commodities (209).  For some sixty years, from 1494 to 1559, therefore, Spain was at war with France over holdings in Italy. According to DeVries, Italy was so much more important economically to Spain that Spain chose to ignore the threat of the Ottoman Empire; even though Columbus’s voyages were couched in the language of conversion, the Spanish did not pay attention to the Muslims.  Greed trumped spreading the Christian faith as a motivation to wage war (221). 

The volume, while a collection, lacks not only an introduction to the essays, but also standardization of spelling; it is truly as if each essay stands alone and no one has sought consistent spelling or proofread the essays.  There are typos in the prologue and most of the essays (I mention only a few: “upstream on even on minor rivers” p. 10; “for those who refuse to divided fairly” p. 69; “must have seem” p. 217).  Spelling of personal names and foreign words is inconsistent both within essays and between them. In Fee’s essay, he spells lögum in his essay’s title with an umlaut, but does not do so in any other words where one would expect that: lögberg, lögsögumaðr.  The absence of the appropriate diacritical marks is made more noticeable because the author of the next essay, McDonald, does not omit any of the special characters. Furthermore, Beougher mentions two of the same people that McDonald does, a certain Svein and Holdboldi, but spells one of their names differently from McDonald, who uses the Icelandic spelling (Sveinn).

Other inconsistencies and lack of proofreading abound.  In Fee’s essay, the quote from Njal’s saga has vort ‘our’, but the word has been translated as the definite article, ‘the’. Also, referring to Njal’s saga both as Njalssaga and Brennu-Njal is confusing for a reader not familiar with the Icelandic titles of the saga. In two quotations from an essay by Gillian Fellows-Jensen, Fee has introduced errors. In McDonald’s essay, there are fewer errors, but one particularly irritating error is a reference in note 14 to note 186 for a further discussion.  While I would have liked to read the promised discussion, there is no note 186. 

Further problems that may derive from the essay authors’ diverse backgrounds and/or from an audience that is never defined include a reference to Njal’s saga as an historical romance (Beougher, p. 189); Siewers’s contention that Beowulf’s fights with Grendel and his mother reflect “Anglo-Saxon colonialism” (37); and Haine’s figures that seek to provide information about the sea’s currents, temperature, and salinity.  What is Siewers’s evidence for Beowulf’s fights reflecting Anglo-Saxon colonialism?  Given that Grendel comes into Hrothgar’s hall, who is the colonizer? Speaking to the issue of saga-genre in Beougher's essay, Njal’s saga is not an historical romance; it is one of the sagas of Icelanders, which means that it has historical elements; it is never classified as one of the romances.  Finally, Haine’s figures, found in his essay’s first section, Norse Environmental Knowledge, indicate currents, temperatures, and salinity respectively, but these are very technical, hard to read, and there is little discussion of what the figures indicate and/or why they are relevant. While Haine is a professor of physical oceanography, as indicated in his contributor’s biography, he does not consider the fact that many of the book’s readers may not be.

Studies in the Medieval Atlantic does allow the reader to appreciate the Atlantic Ocean, its image, and its significance in the lives of those who lived on its shores. While I was extremely frustrated by the number of typos and errors in general—errors that could have been so easily caught and fixed—I enjoyed the essays and found myself thinking about the Atlantic Ocean in ways other than I have previously.

Jana K. Schulman
Western Michigan University