The waters separating the south coast of England from the north coast of France have helped to define relations between the two countries for centuries. However, as Renaud Morieux argues in this work, these relations have been characterised almost exclusively by rivalry, conflict and contestation between the two states. Morieux’s book sets out to correct that two-dimensional interpretation and to present a more rounded and nuanced view of the Channel that foregrounds exchange, co-operation and co-existence. His thesis is persuasive: borders cannot be conceived simply as lines or divisions that separate states absolutely; instead, border zones need to be seen as complex social spaces that encourage exchange and facilitate entanglement. In the case of the Channel, communications could be quicker, cheaper and more efficient between places on opposite sides of the water than between them and their inland hinterlands: Calais is half as far from London as from Paris, for instance. The historiographical traffic relating to the Channel has been brisk in the last fifty years or so. Since 1959, eight books have been published for a general readership. This interest has often reflected contemporary concerns and preoccupations, such as the building of new infrastructure links, the prevailing economic connections between the states or the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EEC. The meanings ascribed to the Channel, as Morieux points out, ‘came and went with time and tides’ (p. 32). It has long been a useful tool for those trying to peddle particular political agendas or interpretations of history. Historians have played their part here, too. For long periods in the writing of British history, for example, the Channel provided a powerful symbol of insularity, separateness and exceptionalism. In 1892, Edward Augustus Freeman, Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford, was horrified by the idea of building a Channel Tunnel, declaring ‘We are islanders: and I at least do not wish that we should become continentals’ (p. 6). His counterpart at Cambridge, John Seeley, was also interested in the Continental connection, or rather its opposite: insular isolation. For him, Britain’s geographical location acted as an insular incubator, encouraging the country to think beyond Europe and laying the foundations of a world-wide empire. Morieux begins by offering an overview of the naming practices associated with the Channel, and the ways in which these reflected the freight of ideological and political baggage carried by this border zone. Until the sixteenth century, the nomenclature of this maritime space was as fluid as its waters: neither ‘The English Channel’ nor ‘La Manche’ meant much for those who traversed it. But this situation changed as knowledge became codified and as political rivalries intensified. The effects of these naming practices are traced in subsequent chapters, which focus on boundary disputes and the issue of legal rights, as well as access to fishing grounds. The lived experience of those on the ground (and on the water) was somewhat different to the abstract space that appeared on charts and in dictionaries, and the political and legal space negotiated during the disputes between states and their subjects. French and English coastal populations interacted across this maritime region in a variety of ways: by fishing and consuming smuggled goods, as much as by privateering and the capturing of prisoners of war. As the book’s later chapters make abundantly clear, this focus on everyday social and economic practices which linked both sides of the Channel provides an opportunity to complicate and even subvert simplistic narratives of perpetual conflict. Morieux’s detailed study of the diplomatic efforts of fishermen is one of the most rewarding aspects of the study. Here is tangible evidence of the limitations of considering the relationship between France and Britain—or, more specifically, between coastal communities with much in common—solely in terms of national rivalry. The negotiation of fishing truces and the accommodation to each other’s economic success and material well-being were more important to coastal communities than state enmity. The sea was a polyglot space of multinational co-operation and multicultural exchange. As Abbé Pluche argued as early as 1735, the world’s seas and oceans were the ‘means prepared by God to unite all men’ (p. 239). To assume that the Channel is unique in this respect would be to do a disservice to the approach adopted by Morieux. It would also lead us down the same historiographical cul-de-sac that he repeatedly warns us against: treating maritime spaces in terms of simple binary oppositions. His book responds to new (or newly revitalised) trends in the writing of maritime history. No longer is it a subset of economic history or a thematic strand in broader histories of technology or warfare. At their best, maritime histories such as Morieux’s allow for expansive, inclusive deliberations on power and power relations that treat their subjects as complex human and social spaces created by the movements of people, goods and ideas across and around them. To the Mediterranean of Braudel, the Atlantic of Palmer and Bailyn, Armitage and Green, and the Indian Ocean of Bose, Pearson and McPherson, Morieux adds the Channel as a space of interaction, engagement and interdependence. There are a number of important implications arising from the approach adopted by Morieux. First, and more generally, to what extent can we (or should we) explore the unity and disunity of maritime spaces, what links them and what distinguishes them from surrounding areas, lands or seas? Is it desirable or even possible to write national histories if physical boundaries and borders are hazy and blurred? More specifically, what is the effect of this approach on histories of other parts of the British Isles? Although he does not develop this idea explicitly, Morieux points to new paradigms for thinking about this history. Perhaps the people separated by the Bristol Channel or the Solway Firth, or even St George’s Channel or the North Channel, have more in common with each other than they have been previously led to believe. Is there a pathway to a new set of regional histories here, and a more inclusive understanding of how the water unites people? In any case, Morieux’s contention is a powerful one: a maritime frontier is not just a physical space, or a political, military or economic notion used by contemporaries, but also a historiographical tool. His study offers a powerful antidote and alternative perspective to those who see Anglo-French relations only through the prism of conflict. It is a profoundly optimistic view and in that, as much as in the subject it deals with, it is a timely and welcome intervention. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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