Urban networks and emerging states in the North Sea and Baltic Areas: a maritime culture?
By W. Blockmans and Lex Heerma van Voss
The North Sea and Culture, edited by Roding, J. and Heerma van Voss, L (Hilversum, 1996)
Introduction: The relation suggested by the title of this book, ‘The North Sea and Culture’ is not self-evident at all: what can be the relations between a geographical entity and a social one? In the eighteenth Century, such a remarkable spirit as Montesquieu suggested that climate and other physical conditions exerted some influence on the forms of government. If we pretend to have reached a higher level of sophistication in our thinking, by what methods can we avoid causalities as those which nowadays would generally be refuted äs simplistic?
What we would like to do here is to look into the argument that a sea can constitute a cultural entity. After these preliminary remarks, we will elaborate on the concept of the urban network as an approach to delineating a System of relations. Then, we will discuss the relations between emerging states and the coastal areas in the early modern era, after which we hope to reach a conclusion about the cultural impact of both urban networks and states around the Baltic and North Seas.
For a discussion of the concept of a maritime culture, Braudel is the inevitable starting point. Although it had been argued earlier that a sea can unite its shores, nobody has done so more convincingly than Braudel. His book has sparked off a series of studies claiming the same for other seas and oceans, which form a rieh störe of relevant arguments.
With the help of these studies, we can therefore ask ourselves under what conditions it is plausible that a sea can stimulate the growth of a common culture on its shores. If we have established that, we can try to determine whether these conditions apply in the case of the North Sea. To summarise our findings there are three ways in which these studies explain unity in coastal areas. In the first place, they look for a causal explanation to common geographical conditions. Secondly, they point to human contacts, especially trade. The third approach is to simply establish – without giving causes – that there are common cultural traits. Most often one finds these three approaches used together in one analysis.
We will discuss one aspect of potential commonness, state formation, in the third part of this essay. Human contacts in the form of trade networks will occupy us in the second part. Let us turn first to common geographical conditions.