Reviews The sea as a space for circulation. Ideas, people, and goods beyond barriers

Marta Grzechnik, Heta Hurskainen (ed.), Beyond the Sea: Reviewing the Manifold Dimensions of Water as Barrier and Bridge. Cologne-Weimar-Vienna, Böhlau -Verlag GmbH, 2014, 269 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, 125-126
Published on on November 19, 2015

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Beyond the Sea: Reviewing the Manifold Dimensions of Water as Barrier and Bridge place water — the sea — at the center of the analysis, and attach new meaning to it and emphasize its crucial role as a barrier and a bridge.

Beyond the Sea tries to overcome the physical determinism that characterizes the work of Fernand Braudel, which emphasizes the influence of the physical environment on living conditions and economic development in the Mediterranean countries. Most of the papers focus on the Baltic Sea region, using it as a case study to corroborate the twofold nature of water. This collection builds on the research carried out on the Mediterranean by Peregrine Horden, Nicholas Purcell, and David Abulafia, and on the Baltic Sea region by David G. Kirby. The editors are Marta Grzechnik and Heta Hurskainen.

The papers in the book were presented at the conference “Beyond the Sea: Reviewing the Manifold Dimensions of Water as Barrier and Bridge” held at the University of Greifswald in 2012. The underlying question posed by all the authors in the book is this: Why do some rivers and seas act as barriers, while others act as bridges that foster social and cultural interaction?

The book opens with an interesting contribution entitled “‘Why Do We Violate Strange Seas and Sacred Waters?’ The Sea as Bridge and Boundary in Greek and Roman Poetry” by Boris Dunsch. An ambivalent vision of the sea emerges from his analysis of Latin texts and epitaphs: it is perceived as “sacred boundary”. At the same time as a source of opportunity: “The sea is often seen and described as a sacred domain not to be violated by mortal, an alien and inimical element, unfit for travelling, a watery desert inhabited by monsters.” The sea was used a symbol of moral corruption because in the Greek mentality the navigation associated with trade had a negative connotation. Positive characteristics were also attributed to the sea in relation to its importance for cultural development through the exchange of goods, skills, and knowledge. “If you wanted to have commerce with other nations, you had to set out onto the sea.” There is, therefore, a dual track consisting of “realm of (human) techne” versus that of “(divine) tyche”. Because the sea was viewed as a sacred domain alien to mortals, those who traversed it using their navigation techne when conditions did not permit it challenged the gods and committed the sin of hubris. The author concludes his paper by claiming that “the techne of navigation and seafaring came to symbolize the dangers an opportunities that human aspirations and enterprise may create when subjected to the forces of tyche” (p. 42).

Alexander Filiuschkin reflects in “Image of Seas and Rivers as a Frontier between the Different Worlds in Russian Medieval Narrative” on the role played by water (seas and rivers) in Russian medieval history by analyzing chronicles from that period. The perception of seas and rivers was conditioned by biblical images and everyday experience: rivers, and not villages, marked out roads, while the sea was associated with the idea of a peripheral element. Above all, Filiuschkin explains, it is essential to first consider that the desire to have access to the sea only became a key element of the Russian mentality in the second half of the seventeenth century. During the Middle Ages, the idea that the sea should be characterized by mobility and permeability was entirely absent. In the chronicles of the time, the sea was perceived as a border that “separates worlds, a border between the worlds: exactly a border, not a frontier” (p. 51).

Lethi Mairike Keelmann’s paper entitled “Amber Rosaries, Baltic Furs, and Persian Carpets. The Tallinn Mary Altarpiece as an Object of Hanseatic Conspicuous Consumption?” examines the Mary Altarpiece, which dates to the apogee of the Hanseatic League period (1493). The author shows how the twofold dimension — local and cosmopolitan — of the towns on the Baltic coast promoted the circulation of ideas and contributed to the creation of an artistic and cultural network in the Baltic Sea region. The art from this area reflects “a hybridity of local and cosmopolitan influences” (p.83).

The concept of utopia occupies a significant place in the papers by Magnus Ressel (“The First German Dream of the Ocean. The Project of the “Reichs-Admiralität 1570–1582”), Tilman Plath (“Naval Strength and Mercantile Weakness. Russia and the Struggle for Participation in the Baltic Navigation during the Eighteenth Century”), and Magdalena Schönweitz (The Öresund Region. Between Utopia and Reality). The sea has powerful symbolic power as an element able to shape a radiant future. From this perspective, the sea becomes a symbolic space on which to project utopian images of grandeur, unity, and the construction of regional and national identities.

Plath reflects on the role performed by the Baltic Sea — the point of contact with the West — in the construction of the Russian identity in the eighteenth century. He focuses on the city of Saint Petersburg, “window on Europe” and “contact zone between Russia and West or between land and sea” (p. 120). He writes, “the sea fulfilled a rather ambitious function for Russia, as it was a means of commercial and later cultural contact with Western Europe” (p. 127).

Schönweitz examines the various strategies developed in the Öresund Region to create a regional area of cooperation, and illustrates how cross-border region-building projects frequently drew upon utopian ideas.

The main purpose of the sea was to constitute a space for the passage not only of goods and men, but also of ideas.

In her paper entitled “From Moat to Connecting Link. Sweden and the Baltic Sea in the Twentieth Century,” Grzechnik analyzes how Swedish historiography has depicted the Baltic Sea as a link — which refers to trade, migration, and dynastic alliances — and as a “moat” or “trench” with regard to cultural divisions among the countries on the Baltic coast. Following the Cold War, in addition to supporting plans for political cooperation and the German initiative for the creation of a New Hansa, historians and political scientists began to promote the idea of the Baltic Sea region. They used “the metaphor of the moat as an unnatural, temporal state in the history of the Baltic Sea” (p. 143) to build “narratives that would present the region as a whole, for which one history could be written” (p. 145). In Grzechnik’s opinion, “the existence of the division across the sea was not only the result of the political rivalries of the Cold War, but can also be traced back to earlier cultural constructions and divisions” (p. 148).

In his paper entitled “Mining for Manganese Nodules. The Deep Sea as a Contested Space (1960—1980),” Ole Sparenberg deals with sea as a space over which dominion must be exercised, and at the same time a free area, with no restrictions on any party, where cooperation strategies can be experimented with. Sparenberg examines the exploitation of manganese nodules, and reflects on how the evolution of maritime law was based on changes in perception of the “water body” as economic and political interests transformed this resource into the object of disputes among states. Sparenberg maintains that “the idea of an internationalized resource exploited for the benefit of all mankind as envisaged under the common-heritage principle might seem utopian nowadays. However, there was at least a window of opportunity as there had been no precedent use of the resources of the deep seabed and no specific legal regime governing it” (p. 164).

The concept of governance is at the core of the treatments by Stefan Ewert (”Governance — an Analytical Concept to Study the Baltic Sea Region”), and by Tim-Åke Pentz and Daria Gritsenko (“Maritime Governance in the Baltic Sea Region. The EU’s Success Story?”). Ewert investigates the political and social dynamics of the Baltic Sea region by using the concept of governance in the sense of an “analytic framework” within which we can “connect this discussion with empirical evidence from the field of higher education cooperation in the region” (p. 186). In Ewert’s opinion, this concept “with its emphasis on networks and multilevel constellations” makes it possible to reconstruct social, political, and cultural developments in the region over the past twenty-five years.

Pentz and Gritsenko analyze the evolution of maritime governance in the Baltic Sea region, and study the evolution of Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) and the BaltSeaPlan, a European Union project. The authors say that these projects “represented the first attempt to plan sea space and maritime uses in a cross-border manner, including a wide array of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders” (p. 225).

In the final paper, “Logistic Revolutions and Territorial Change. Implications for the Baltic Sea Region,” Jan Henrik Nilsson analyzes the relationship between technological and economic development and territorial changes in the Baltic Sea region, applying the concept of logistical revolutions relative to changes in transport, infrastructures, and mobility. He uses the metaphor of the “archipelagic system” in which cities resemble islands connected by the sea: “The Baltic Sea region could be viewed as an archipelagic system, where cities float like urban islands in a sea of peripheries” (p. 251).

The book’s main merit is that it adopts an analytical perspective that focuses on the maritime element — the sea — which may be perceived both as a barrier and as a bridge.≈

  • by Deborah Paci

    PhD in history, researcher at the Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice, with interests in cultural studies and island studies.

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