BMCR 2020.03.55

The boundless sea: writing Mediterranean history

Peregrine Horden, Nicholas Purcell, The boundless sea: writing Mediterranean history. Variorum collected studies, 1083. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. 228 p.. ISBN 9780367221263 $140.00.

Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea made a big splash (forgive me) when it was published in 2000. Taking their cue from the seminal work of Fernand Braudel, Horden and Purcell modeled a historiography that could analyze regions like the Mediterranean holistically rather than as mere “containers” for the empires and nations that rose and fell within them. To do so, they built connections between ecology and history; across the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods; and among the entangled microecologies that, in their view, formed the foundation of Mediterranean history for three thousand years. The project was provocative and prescient, as evidenced by the continuing growth of environmental history as a field over the past two decades.

That said, large comparative projects have their drawbacks, chief among them the fact that they lead to other interesting questions that cannot be effectively treated in the scope of even a large volume. For this reason, Horden and Purcell have long planned to write a sequel to The Corrupting Sea focusing not on the Mediterranean’s internal connections but instead on its nebulous frontiers and links with other regions. While work on that sequel continues, the volume currently under review provides a sort of preview. The Boundless Sea highlights some of the questions Horden and Purcell have been asking in the past two decades and where they think Mediterranean history might go in years to come. There’s a clue to their thinking in the title (borrowed from a line in Plato’s Politicus): the Mediterranean is “boundless” both because its frontiers are so hard to define and because there is no limit to the types of historical writing scholars of the region should embrace going forward.

The Boundless Sea is a collection of twelve essays, all but one already published elsewhere as journal articles or chapters in edited volumes. While Horden and Purcell published many of these papers as individuals, all have been revised in this collection to use the authorial “we” instead of “I” to indicate that they are the product of continuing collaboration. Aside from some light editing to reduce overlap, they are otherwise unchanged. Bibliographies have not been substantially updated and Horden and Purcell have, in their words, “resisted the bigger temptation to embark on rewriting—a process which once begun could become endless” (ix). This was probably a wise decision considering their plans for the forthcoming sequel to The Corrupting Sea. The result, however, is a volume that contains a lot of interesting ideas but is somewhat lacking in overall cohesion and feels repetitive at points.

There is no clear organizational scheme to the papers in The Boundless Sea, which do not proceed in chronological order of original publication and are not grouped into thematic sections. Nevertheless, the first few chapters might be broadly understood as Horden and Purcell’s responses to their critics. Chapter One addresses the challenge that Mediterranean history is an inherently flawed endeavor, burdened by a legacy of elitism and imperialism and redolent of a sense of European exceptionalism out of step with contemporary sensibilities. Horden and Purcell acknowledge the validity of this critique, chiefly associated with the work of cultural anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, but maintain that the Mediterranean is in fact unique (if not exceptional) due to the unusually high degree of connectivity among its distinctive microecologies. They assert that the Mediterranean provides a standout model for “the new thalassology”—a historiography of “seas” broadly defined—that can fruitfully be applied to various other world regions (17). Chapter Two continues this trend, containing responses to criticisms of The Corrupting Sea from classicists, medievalists, archaeologists, and scholars of religion. Horden and Purcell reiterate the challenge of crafting a master narrative out of a longue durée history of ecological connectivity, justify leaving out what they left out, and remind their critics that their goal is to do “history of” as well as “history in” the region (27). Chapter Three also addresses responses to The Corrupting Sea before moving to a discussion of the proposed sequel volume. The most pressing issue that emerges is how to define the Mediterranean’s boundaries, which in turn leads to questions about scale. If the Mediterranean’s frontiers were “connectivity gradients” that connected it to other regions like the Sahara or Baltic, then where do we stop our analysis when writing about such places (51)? At what point does regional history blur into world history?

The central chapters are broadly concerned with questions of power and money. Chapter Four seeks to disrupt what Horden and Purcell call “fixity”—a sense of unchanging stability that hangs over the study of pre-Christian classical antiquity. They rightly note that this impression derives from the writings of elite authors who had a vested interest in preserving a status quo that favored them, and show how archaeological and even literary evidence can undermine this narrative. While it’s not necessarily radical to assert that mobility rather than fixity was the norm in the ancient Mediterranean, Horden and Purcell stress that the reason for this was primarily environmental: because the region’s various ecologies were uniquely exposed to swings of prosperity and catastrophe, they needed to maintain close ties (65). Chapter Five continues this discussion by focusing on towns and cities to illustrate how various corners of the Mediterranean depended on each other. Horden and Purcell rightly maintain that cities must be studied as part of both their local hinterlands and the greater Mediterranean environment rather than as “worlds unto themselves.” To do this, they propose moving beyond a materialist focus on trade networks to adopt the idea of an ecological “meshwork” that captures nonlinear flows of resources, goods, people, political power, and ideas (75, 80).

Chapter Six analyzes customs dues (i.e., harbor taxes) as a key tool that Mediterranean cities and states used to accrue wealth and power. In a world of constant motion and exchange, controlling movement was vital; in a world surrounding an inland sea, harbors were the infrastructure that made this control possible. Horden and Purcell make several interesting observations in this chapter, such as the counterintuitive fact that taxation of exports rather than imports was a crucial element in Mediterranean economies (87) and that the dullness of discourse around taxation can be considered an instrument of social control in both pre-modern and modern contexts that itself deserves to be made an object of study (85).

Chapter Seven takes up the important topic of colonization in Mediterranean history, looking especially at archaic Greek colonization in southern Italy. Horden and Purcell argue that Mediterranean maritime connections enabled elites to connect distant ecologies and engage in riskier agricultural ventures than those possible close to home, such as monocropping. Such practices, which outsource risk onto distant places at high cost to colonized landscapes and the people who work them, are part of the colonial project well known from modern history. However, Horden and Purcell make a strong case that we need to move past ethnicity when assessing Greek colonization in the Mediterranean. Unlike in the modern world, when ethnicity and “race” created dividing lines between colonizer and colonized, proximity to the sea was what mattered to the ancient Greeks (121).

Chapter Eight is the only paper not published elsewhere, written expressly for The Boundless Sea. It again takes up the concept of connectivity to try to get at the nature of the late antique / early medieval Mediterranean economy. This chapter feels a bit like a literature review that traces the longstanding debate about when antiquity ended, or more precisely when the maritime trade networks that powered ancient Mediterranean society finally sputtered to a halt. Horden and Purcell survey the arguments of scholars like Henri Pirenne, William McCormick, and Chris Wickham before attempting a compromise position. They also highlight their own view, based on close reading of texts like the Lives of St. John the Almsgiver and the Life of St. Willibald, that Mediterranean connectivity continued in late antiquity even after international trade had seriously ebbed, serving as a prelude to the economic resurgence of the high Middle Ages (152).

The final chapters return to the topic of water and “seas” both literal and figurative. Chapter Nine, which begins with an effective vignette about the healing waters at late antique shrine of St. Felix in Campania, shows how both Christian saints and classical sages demonstrated their power and helped their communities through mastery over water. Horden and Purcell show how religious texts provide useful evidence for a variety of water management strategies and assert that blending ecological and cultural history helps us see water management in the Mediterranean as a series of local responses to particular needs rather than the product of top-down systems (163-4, 167-8). Chapter Ten returns to the concept of “thalassology,” arguing that it can trace connections both within and between regions and thus point the way toward a new type of world history that moves past older ideas like Wallerstein’s world systems theory. This chapter also addresses the limitations of the thalassology model, which makes it strange that it doesn’t immediately follow Chapter One, where the concept was first introduced.

Chapter Eleven again makes the case that the Mediterranean is a unique region of intense inward-looking connectivity, where far-flung littoral communities resembled each other more than they resembled their closer inland neighbors. It then compares the Mediterranean to the Sahara, noting several potential parallels (e.g., oases as harbors, camels as ships) but deciding that important ecological and technological differences ultimately limit the comparison. Horden and Purcell tentatively conclude that because the Mediterranean is so unique, the Sahara might be better compared to other “seas” like the Great Lakes region or the Philippine archipelago (201). Chapter Twelve reiterates many of the same points about Mediterranean vs. Saharan connectivities but expands the discussion to consider the Silk Roads and northern Europe as further areas of comparison. Here, Horden and Purcell are again concerned with how regions of connectivity in turn connect to each other. To see how the medieval Mediterranean linked up to northern Europe, for example, they suggest studying the locations of preferred courier or postal routes, the placement of bridges and tolls, or the speed at which news or pandemic disease spread between cities and across landscapes (214-5). Horden and Purcell admit that this chapter is a preliminary investigation of a very large question; rather than drawing grand conclusions, they seek to demonstrate that there is “mileage” in the comparative study of connectivity on a continental scale (216).

The Boundless Sea does a good job making a case for a new kind of historiography. It’s easy to imagine how Horden and Purcell’s model of regional environmental history could be fruitfully applied to other regions that can in turn be connected to each other (India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia came first to my mind). There are many exciting possibilities for collaboration in such an endeavor, precisely because it’s too big for one person (or two) to tackle even over decades. In this sense, Horden and Purcell suggest that the new world history will be a team project rather than one person’s Grand Theory of Everything. The papers in this volume provide many insightful suggestions about how such a project might unfold.

That said, The Boundless Sea is not without limitations. Despite the authors’ hope for broad interdisciplinary appeal, it’s not clear that scholars working outside the field will find the papers accessible; little context is provided for major historiographical debates and there are a number of untranslated quotations. The lack of a clear organizational scheme makes it difficult to see how the chapters connect to each other, while reprinting papers published over nearly twenty years means that several chapters repeat the same points and even turns of phrase. Finally, this book costs much too much. $124 (marked down from an original price of $155 as of this writing) seems like a steep price for a slim volume in which all but one chapter has already been published elsewhere. Horden and Purcell aren’t to blame for this, of course. But it’s hard to see how the current model of academic publishing squares with their admirable vision of greater collaboration and boundless new horizons for historical scholarship in years to come.