A History of The Great Sea

In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?

Well, I love my Mediterranean (as you know to your cost). So when I say I worked my way through this book, I mean exactly that: work. With the best will in the world, David Abulafia managed to write a very boring book about something very interesting.

Of Zedoary & Galingale

Zedoary, aka white turmeric
Zedoary, aka white turmeric. Source: Wikipedia [Public domain]
Because The Great Sea, sadly, turned out to be little more than the relentless churning out of dates, names and trade goods. (If you want to develop your vocabulary with names of 15th century items of merchandise, I warmly recommend zedoary and galingale.) Of course, considering the staggering wealth of information Abulafia decided to convey within the confines of a single volume, you can’t really blame him in opting for the Laconic approach. Small wonder he felt forced to leave out all the embellishments, the good yarns if you will, and to concentrate purely on facts, economically presented. There’s no space here for the human touch, a flash of humour or a vivid description of ports, battles or the hazards of trade across the sea, let alone for stirring tales of the heroic deeds and spectacular pieces of villainy in which the history of the Mediterranean is so rich.

The simple truth is that the history of the Mediterranean deserves a whole library to itself, not a single volume. And in this lay Abulafia’s mistake: in attempting to write it up in a single volume. And mine, in believing that such a work might make a good read.

A Tale of Two Travellers

I won’t deny that The Great Sea had the odd moment: twice in the entire 650 pages of the book the human touch came to the fore. The first treated the journey of Wenamun, an Egyptian emissary from Karnak to the king of Byblos to buy timber in 1075 B.C. Talk about a journey on which everything went wrong! The second related the misery of an unnamed agent of Francesco di Marco Datini, better known as the Merchant of Prato, who had the (mis)fortune to be sent to Ibiza around 1400 A.D.

This land is unhealthy, the bread is bad, the wine is bad – God forgive me, nothing is good! I fear I shall leave my skin here.

Statue of Francesco Datini, the Merchant of Prato in his hometown. Source: Wikipedia [Public Domain]
Statue of Francesco Datini, the Merchant of Prato in his hometown. Source: Wikipedia [Public Domain]
You have to wonder what the summer nightclub capital of Europe must have been like 600 years ago!… I couldn’t resist the quote: I put it up on the notice board at work accompanied by pictures of paradise-like Ibizan beaches and quaint old streets… one man’s paradise, another man’s hell!

Incidentally, the Merchant of Prato was a true born bureaucrat (or a victim of OCD) because he kept every piece of paper that ever went through his hands. Every letter, every bill of freight, every packing slip. “To the great advantage of historians“, commented Abulafia, and then refused to share any more of these precious documents with us.

The Traveller Who Refused to Travel

In addition to the stories of the two travellers described above, Abulafia also mentions that in 1358, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (better known to the English as Petrarch) was invited by a friend to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To this invitation we owe Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land: Itinerary to the Sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Not that Petrarch went on the pilgrimage: although he was quite a keen traveller, an early kind of medieval tourist (he climbed Mont Ventoux in France just for the fun of it, which in those times was an idea unheard of), he had a horror of the sea and he prudently decided that he was much less likely to get seasick if he stayed on terra firma. Declining the invitation however didn’t deter him from writing about all the places he wasn’t going to see – a guidebook offered to his friend as some kind of a substitute travel companion.

It’s apparently the case that although the book is ostensibly a pilgrim’s guide, the Holy Land features in it somewhat scantily and the friend’s journey instead was to take in all the classical sites of Italy to finish by visiting the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria. I don’t know what became of the friend but Petrarch’s loss is our gain – I mean, visiting Italy with a guide book written 650 years ago? You could do worse.

Petrarch manuscript. Source: Wikipedia [Public domain]
Petrarch manuscript. Source: Wikipedia [Public domain]

The Great Sea: Final Verdict

Having eventually reached a tortured end to The Great Sea, my final verdict of the book could be summed up in two words:

Don’t Bother

If this seems a bit harsh, I refer you back to the paragraphs above for any good points this book has. Without doubt, it’s a highly informative book (too informative). But I object to it on the following grounds:

First of all, that it’s too heavy. You can’t take it into the bath tub.

Secondly, it’s too big. You can’t take it anywhere. I ask you: When do you most want a book on Mediterranean history? When you’re travelling around the place, of course! Well, you can’t take this book; it won’t fit in your backpack and you sure as hell don’t want to lug it from Heraklion to Knossos, not even if you keep in the shade.

And finally, it’s rather too boring. Read somebody else – there are plenty who can write better. Read Ernle Bradford: he wrote excitingly about the exciting bits. Read Roger Crowley: he zooms in and gives you close-ups of his protagonists and the world they lived in. And their books are small enough to slip into the outside pocket of your 33l Osprey or to accompany you into the bath tub.

Of course, if you’re a university professor of history, then you shouldn’t take books into the bath tub and you shouldn’t mind that they’re boring, either, so you can read Abulafia. On the other hand, if you’re a professor of history, you should already know all the facts he wrote about so…

…don’t bother.

Episodes from the history of the Mediterranean - as not told by Abulafia:
⇒ A quirky comic book take on The Misadventures of Wenamun. Much recommended!
⇒ When the crusaders attacked fellow Christians: The Siege of Zara, 1202The bombardment of Algiers, 1816
Throwback Thursday:
This post has been condensed from the following posts:
The Horrors of Ibiza 1400 AD - September 2015
Petrarch, the Stay-At-Home Tour Guide - September 2015
Final Verdict (The Great Sea)- December 2015

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