Its amazing how a little shift in focus can change the way that we perceive a region. Recently, it’s become popular to talk about sea-zones as entities in their own rights, in much the same way that we talk about regions and nations on land. The technique has wide applications, particularly in early modern history where scholars want to distinguish between the great maritime powers–England, Holland–and more traditional land-based empires, but its also particularly appropriate for the Middle Ages.
After all, travelling overland in the mediaeval period was slow, costly, and dangerous, and those who could afford to preferred to sail. Thus, although most Crusaders walked from western Europe to Jerusalem on the First Crusade, subsequent campaigns relied heavily on Venetian ships to transport troops to the Holy Land.
Unsurprisingly, Britain, a hodge-podge of islands, headlands, and wide river mouths, has been as much influenced by its seaborne influences as by developments on the main island itself. When we look at the ‘Irish Sea Zone’, for example, its easy to see why Christianity in Ireland and Wales had such close ties, as well as to understand how Vikings coming south from Scotland were able to make such an impact.
The Vikings themselves are a good illustration of the interconnectivity of the mediaeval seas. Having sailed from the shores of Canada all the way to the rivers of western Russia, the Vikings presaged the greater political control which would come with mastery of the seas. Acting mostly as independent bands of marauder-traders, however, they never unified their possessions, and often adapted to the local cultures over which they established power. (Think of the Normans, ‘Northmen’, of France.)
It would take another type of commercial venture, the Hanseatic League of the 14th century, to fully exploit the sea-lanes that the Vikings used so effectively. A loose confederation of (largely German) trading towns, the Hanseatic League came to dominate trade across the Baltic and North Seas, as well as the fisheries in the North Atlantic. With four major trading offices (London, Bruges, Bergen, and Novgorod), they monopolised major commodities like timber, fish, and cloth, which they traded for luxury goods from the Mediterranean.
In Bergen, the life of the Hanse traders is well illustrated by the remaining buildings of their kontor, where they lived secluded from the locals according to their own rules and regulations. Unsurprisingly, the Hanseatic League was opposed by other ambitious nations around the Baltic, and fought several wars throughout the 14th and 15th centuries in order to retain their monopolies. By 1500, however, the newly ascendant Dutch and English, as well as the Kalmar Union, had broken their power, setting the stage for the voyages of trade, discovery, and empire that would usher in the modern world.