This paper concerns the book ‘The Conquest of the North Atlantic’ by G. J. Marcus. Marcus, a historian specializing in the early middle-ages, provides a narrative of excursions into North Atlantic territory by a range of people, including Irish Monks seeking places to worship and Viking warriors. It covers the period from the 5th until the 16th century. The book contains narrative accounts of the voyages undergone by these people and includes extensive descriptions of the varying degrees of success which they encountered on their voyages. It also contains a series of discourses on the changes in navigational and ship building technology which made such expeditions possible in the first place. Primarily it seeks to refute existing narratives of how areas such as Greenland were first discovered and to draw attention to the ways in which individual ingenuity and bravery led to impressive feats of discovery and endurance. As such, its prime concern is not with studies of politics or society, but with individual narratives and particular events.
Although the book is primarily an account of narrative history, it does contain several theses which are important for understanding how its narrative can be seen to create a teleology of exploration and of the apparent ‘taming’ of a hostile and difficult environment. These include explanations for the failure of certain specific expeditions as well as theses concerning the success of others. However, these individual thesis cannot be spoken about outside of the wider context of the book and the specific narrative episodes which it contains. The book as a whole offers no one essential thesis to explain this moment in world history.
One such particular thesis concerns the invention of the ‘curach’ which was an easily produced, but sturdy early form of a ‘hide covered canoe’ (30). According to Marcus, Irish explorers, behaving under almost entirely religious motivations were able to complete long expeditions into the Atlantic as a result of this invention of this vessel, which included the capacity to keep out water, store food and provide enough space for several men to sail, thus allowing for something equivalent to a ‘shift’ system operating on board. This enabled the sailors to avoid the worst of the crippling exhaustion which has previously plagued and ruined attempts to voyage into the Atlantic.
Another thesis attempts to explain the motivation for Viking expeditions into the area. Marcus claims that the most obvious reason for these exhibitions lay in domestic politics, most especially the actions of Charlemange in northern Germany and an increasing threat to Denmark. Marcus also claims that this desire for new territory was accentuated by a problem of over-population in Denmark. Finally, he claims that the Viking expeditions could be explained by “some secret and powerful urge like that which inspired the Crusades” (80). In this way, Marcus also draws attention to the early formation of what may be described as a ‘navy’ and of sea-faring patterns which, rather than consisting of an exploration by a small group of people, took on the form of well a planned and strategically motivated journeys.
Later in the book, Marcus provides several possible reasons for the decline of the Scandinavian presence in Iceland. These reasons include the presence of plague in the area, an over-taxing involvement in wars on the continent and the damaging effect of commercial competition countries including England and the early German cities (200). The book therefore provides a way of thinking about increasing naval presence in the area of the north Atlantic as a precursor to the activities of Spanish and English ships in the wider Atlantic and therefore as a precursor to a dominant system of global trade, exchange and recognisably modern international relations.
One major weakness of the book is that it does not actively connect these theses in to a wider theoretical framework in order to explain how this moment in world history can be thought about within the context of later events. It would have been possible to develop an early Marxist narrative of commodity exchange, for example, however Marcus does not do this and simply aims to refute existing theories and writing about the period without extensively tying his book to larger ideas.
In conclusion, ‘The Conquest of the North Atlantic’ tells the story of the rises and declines in North Atlantic exploration as a result of varying social and technological developments . However, as a piece of historical writing it suffers from the lack of a wider theoretical frame-work.
- Marcus, G.J. The Conquest of the North Atlantic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.