Fish and Ships

Weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse"

Welcome to the weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse". The aim of the project is to investigate the economic and cultural connections of merchants from Northern German cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland and Faroe during the 15th to 17th centuries. The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven and funded by the Leibniz Association (2015-2018).The research is carried out by four team members, each with their individual research objectives and disciplinary background. With this blog we want to provide information about the current state of our research, and create a platform to make available results and new knowledge. Read more...

The cultural impact of German trade in the North Atlantic

Natascha Mehler, 19 October 2016

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland, and to some extent also Faroe, were closely tied to the cities of Bremen and Hamburg. Merchants from these hanseatic cities regularly travelled North to exchange goods such as grain / flour, beer, timber and tools for stockfish and sulphur. In the second half of the 16th century about 500 to 750 merchants, sailors, craftsmen, priests and others from Hamburg and Bremen spent their summers in Iceland. On the other hand, a considerable number of Icelanders used Hamburg and Bremen ships to travel to the continent, e.g. to be educated in jurisprudence or theology at the universities in Copenhagen, Rostock and Wittenberg. They brought back new knowledge that changed the insular societies.

The German presence on the islands and the stay of islanders in Northern Germany had a profound impact on the North Atlantic insular societies. Tracing this impact will be the main aim of an interdisciplinary research seminar that takes place from 26 to 28 October 2016 at the museum Schwedenspeicher in Stade near Hamburg. It is organized in cooperation with the archive Stade and the museum Schwedenspeicher Stade.

The main aim of this seminar is to trace and disentangle the forms of impact. The topics and questions we want to discuss during the seminar include:

  • What role did the German connections play in the assertion of the reformation in Iceland, Shetland and Faroe? What was the position of the Danish and Scottish crown? How did religious life change on the island?
  • What was the cultural effect of the reformation and how did the new scholarship change the insular societies? How did knowledge transfer happen?
  • What role did hanseatic measurements (e.g. the Hamburg ell) and coinage (e.g. Reichsthaler) play on the islands and how were their values converted into the Icelandic, Faroese and Shetland value system? Did the different value systems effect the economic connections?

For more information on the seminar click here to download the flyer for the cultural-impact-research-seminar.

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Wrong place, wrong time: the theft of Gerdt Hemeling’s ship on Shetland, 1567

Bart Holterman, 28 September 2016

Sumburgh Head (Sweineburgkhaupt), the southern tip of Mainland. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sumburgh Head (Sweineburgkhaupt), the southern tip of Mainland, close to which the harbour must have been which was used by Gerdt Hemeling. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the early months of 1568, Bremen merchant Gerdt Hemeling (the brother of the deceased Cordt Hemeling, about whose death we wrote in an earlier blogpost) complained to king Frederick II of Denmark about the theft of his ship in Shetland by a “Scottish man”. This man had promised to return his ship, or to compensate him for it, but was taken captive by Danish officials and was now in prison in the castle of Bergenhus in Bergen, Norway. Now Hemeling, a “poor and extremely desperate man”, appealed to the Danish king to compensate him for the loss of his ship and his goods, which had been thrown overboard when the ship was taken, and most of which he had to leave on the shores of Shetland.

Gerdt Hemeling had traded peacefully for years between Bremen and Shetland, staying on the islands every summer to trade commodities from mainland Europe for fish. In the summer of 1567, however, this happened to be just the wrong time and place. While he was loading his ship the Pellicaen with fish in the harbour of “Ness in Schweineburgkhaupt” (probably Dunrossness near Sumburgh head, the southern tip of Shetland Mainland), a ship appeared from Scotland with a few hundred men on board, who offered Hemeling to buy his ship or to rent it for two months. Hemeling claimed to have had no choice but to accept this offer. The men from Scotland threw all merchandise on the shore and left, never to be seen again.

Portrait of James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, 1566. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, 1566. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gerdt Hemeling’s case was in itself not unique. Piracy on German merchants on Shetland occured more often, especially in these years. In the previous year (1566) the Shetland merchants from Bremen filed an official complaint to the city council in which they stated that at least six of them had become the victims of robbery. Scottish pirates had attacked their ships and trading booths and stolen their merchandise, money, weapons, and sailing instruments, to a calculated total damage of 1008 thaler. Two of the pirates’ captains, James Edmistoun and John Blacader, were arrested and executed the next year by the Scottish authorities.

Gerdt Hemeling, however, found himself in a much more complicated situation. The “Scottish man” turned out to be none other than James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, an opportunistic nobleman who played a rather controversial role in high politics of his time. In 1567, when Hemeling accidentally met him, Bothwell was a man on the run. He was suspected of having murdered the second husband of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, of having kidnapped her (possibly with her own consent), and subsequently married her. Among the Scottish nobility, tensions with the catholic queen had risen in previous years, among others about religious matters, and Mary’s marriage to the protestant alleged murderer of her previous husband proved to be the limit. A coalition of nobles revolted, and faced Mary’s army in the battle of Carberry Hill. Mary eventually surrendered and was imprisoned, finally leading to her abdication, but Bothwell fled and tried to leave Scotland by ship to Shetland.

Bergenhus castle, Bergen, Norway. The so-called Rosenkrantz tower was constructed in the 1560s by Erik Rosenkrantz. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bergenhus castle, Bergen, Norway. The so-called Rosenkrantz tower was constructed in the 1560s by Erik Rosenkrantz. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

However, Bothwell was being followed by two Scottish lords who controlled the navy. In these chaotic circumstances, Bothwell lost one of his ships which struck an underwater rock, and desperately tried to acquire more ships for his fleet in Shetland. Luckily for him, every year there were a few German trading ships in Shetland, and thus he took Gerdt Hemeling’s ship and another one from Hamburg. However, he was not able to get rid of his persecutors, and a battle resulted in which the mast of one of the ships broke.

A storm subsequently forced Bothwell’s fleet to sail towards Norway, where he was first held for a pirate, taken captive, and locked up in Bergenhus castle by Erik Rosenkrantz, the governer of Bergenhus. When his true identity became known, Frederick II realised the potential of Bothwell in Danish captivity as a pawn when dealing with the English and Scottish crown, and had him transported to Denmark. Bothwell (who had been made duke of Orkney and Shetland by Queen Mary) promised to return these insular groups (which Christian I of Denmark and Norway had lost to Scotland in 1469 as a pawn for the dowry of his daughter to the Scottish king, which he had been unable to pay) to Denmark if the king helped him to free Mary. The Danish king never made use of this offer: Bothwell was locked up in Dragsholm castle, where he would eventually die in 1578.

And did Hemeling ever get his ship back? Frederick II was unwilling to help Hemeling directly, but stated to him twice that he could press charges against Bothwell in Denmark if he wanted to. There are no sources pertaining to a case of Hemeling against Bothwell, so it is likely that Hemeling realised that a lawsuit in Denmark in such a complicated situation would not be worth the trouble, and he must have accepted his loss.

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Worth a fortune: Icelandic gyrfalcons

Natascha Mehler, 11 August 2016


A white gyrfalcon on a falconer’s hand (Photo: Elena Gaillard, New York / Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the medieval and early modern period, Icelandic gyrfalcons were highly valued at the courts of European rulers and they were worth a fortune. Indeed, Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor, already noted in his treatise De arte venandi cum avibus that the best falcons for use in falconry were gyrfalcons (…et isti sunt meliores omnibus aliis, Girofalco enim dicitur). The reason for this was that of all falcon species, gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) are the largest and most powerful. Their plumage varies greatly from completely white to very dark, of which the white variety was the most valued hawking bird in the Middle Ages, and still is today. They only inhabit sub-arctic and arctic areas, with their highest population density in Iceland (one pair per 150-300 km²). During the breeding season (roughly February to June) there are today 200-400 nesting pairs in Iceland, and in the winter the population increases to 1.000-2.5000 individuals, due to migrating birds from Greenland.

Written sources from the 16th century, when German merchants from Hamburg and Bremen dominated the trade with the North Atlantic islands, give us a better insight into the falcon business with Iceland. Matthias Hoep, a Hamburg merchant, has left behind a collection of account books (1582-1594) which show us that he traded in many commodities such as fish, timber, and tools, and specialized in the trade of falcons. Hoep employed falcon catchers to catch birds in Iceland for him and he made specific contracts with them. The books record a great number of falcons and other birds of prey that he bought from falcon catchers and which he then sold on. On 5 April 1584, Hoep made a contract with the falcon catchers and brothers Augustin and Marcus Mumme which he commissioned to travel to Iceland to catch falcons. The contract specified the bird species, the conditions of the birds upon delivery, and the prices Hoep was going to pay after the successful return of the Mummes from Iceland:

“On 5 April [1584] I have dealt in my house with Augustin and Marcus Mumme, in the name of god, that they shall sail to Iceland in the name of god, and we agreed that I will give for each pair of falcons 11 ½ daler, and 2 tercel [male falcons] for 1 falcon, and what is blank shall be counted as a red [unmoulted] falcon. But what is white and moulted once, or moulted twice and beautiful, for those I shall give them 20 daler for each falcon and 10 daler for a tercel. But what has moulted three times we shall agree upon with good will, and if god and luck provides them with white falcons, I will give the one who catches them black cloth for a jacket of 2 ½ ells, all of this is validated with a denarius dei of 1 sosling each, and both brothers have promised with an oath to bring the best birds they can get and to take no birds away, neither in Iceland nor during the journey back, until they have all been delivered to me.“

Roughly five months later, in September 1584, the brothers returned from Iceland and handed over 49 birds to Matthias Hoep.

Carta Marina

Detail of the Carta Marina (1539) showing the coat of arms of Iceland (stockfish), with a gyrfalcon (FALCO ALBI) above.

Later documents tell us how the shipping of the falcons was done. During the 17th century, a Danish falcon ship went to Iceland annually to transport falcons from Iceland to Copenhagen. The falcons were kept below the deck and sat on poles which were lined with vaðmál. During the journey, the birds were fed with meat of cattle, sheep or birds, dipped in milk, and when they were sick, they were fed with a mix of eggs and (fish) oil. Upon arrival of the birds in Hamburg, Mathias Hoep checked their health and quality and he considered them in good state after they had eaten three times and their feathers were not broken.

Most of the birds that Hoep received were sold to English merchants such as John Mysken who bought 55 birds of prey in 1584 and had them shipped to England, most likely to be sold to the English court. It is likely that Hoep also had good contacts with Icelanders, both in Iceland and in Hamburg. His professional network may have included Magnús Jónsson (c. 1530-1591), who had studied law in Hamburg, probably until 1556. In Iceland he became chieftain and sýslumaður (sheriff) at Þingeyjaþingssýsla and Ísafjarðarsýsla, districts in the North of Iceland with a very high density of falcons. No wonder his seal from the year 1557 shows a gyrfalcon in the centre.

Siegel_1 small

Seal of Magnús Jónsson, dated 1557. The priest Ólafur Halldórsson, a contemporary of Magnús Jónsson, described the seal in a poem: „Færði hann í feldi blá, fálkann hvíta skildi á, hver mann af því hugsa má, hans muni ekki ættin smá.” (transl. „he carried in a blue field, a white falcon on his shield, so that everybody shall think his family is not insignificant“).

In the second half of the 16th century, king Frederick II of Denmark-Norway (1559-1588) started to regulate the export of falcons to foreign countries. From the 1560s onwards, foreign falcon catchers needed to buy a permission (Icel. fálkabréf, falcon letter) to catch falcons.

Were falcons also caught in Shetland or the Faroes?

We have not found any written evidence for that. The obvious reason for this is that there are not many falcons around in Shetland and the Faroes. Gyrfalcons only appear as vagrant birds, and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) exist in Shetland only in small numbers. However, it is worth pointing out that in the years 1601 to 1606 one Tonnies Mumme is recorded to have sailed each summer from Hamburg to Shetland. We do not know whether this is the same Tonnies Mumme that is reported as falcon catcher in Iceland in previous years, or whether Tonnies is related to the Augustin and Marcus Mumme mentioned above, but it seems very likely. He may have tried his luck in Shetland, or might have changed his profession and have traded in other items.

Further reading

Natascha Mehler, Hans Christian Küchelmann and Bart Holterman, The export of gyrfalcons from Iceland during the 16th century. A boundless business in a proto-globalized world. In K.-H. Gersmann and O. Grimm (eds.), Raptor and Human – Bird Symbolism and Falconry through five millennia on a global scale. Centre of Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology Monographs (in press).

Kurt Piper, Der Greifvogelhandel des Hamburger Kaufmanns Matthias Hoep (1582-1594). Jahrbuch des Deutschen Falkenordens 2001/2002, 205-212.

Björn Þórðarson, Íslenzkir fálkar. Safn til sögu Íslands og íslenskra bókmennta (Reykjavík 1957).


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Medieval Stockfish recipe: Stockfish with peas, apple, and raisins

Bart Holterman, 14 July 2016

On the 11th of June 2016, a “Gastronomic stockfish symposium” took place in the city of Bergen, Norway, during the International Hanseatic Days 2016. The symposium highlighted the important role of dried fish for the history of the city. After all, without the high demand for stockfish in pre-modern Europe the city would probably never have become the medieval and early modern trading hub for northern Europe. Until c. 1500 stockfish coming from northern Norway and Iceland was brought to Bergen, and from there traded with merchants from the European mainland and the British islands, in exchange for grain and other commodities. This led to the establishment of the Hanseatic Kontor, the remains of which still exist as the Tyskebrygge quarter in the city, dominated by merchants from Lübeck, who had a near monopoly on the stockfish trade for centuries.


Tyskebryggen in Bergen, Norway, site of the hanseatic Kontor

Topics during the symposium were very diverse, illustrating the multi-faceted influence of stockfish on the economy and culinary culture of Norway and the rest of Europe, in the past and today. The papers presented ranged from the influence of climate change on cod stocks to the culinary stockfish traditions on the Iberian peninsula, in Upper Franconia, and in Northern Italy. In the latter case, there even exists a stockfish brotherhood which seeks to preserve the culinary stockfish tradition in Italy. All presentations (with pdf files and videos) can be found here. I presented the stockfish consumption in medieval Germany, combining Hans Christian Küchelmann’s archaeozoological research and my own, based on written sources such as cook books.

This provides the perfect opportunity to present another medieval stockfish recipe which we tested a while ago: stockfish with peas, apple and raisins. As the name suggests, the recipe is an example of the same typical medieval combination of hearty and sweet tastes which was also prevalent in the previous recipe of Spanish puff pastry, and which might seem peculiar to modern taste. It is derived from a fifteenth-century manuscript from Flanders which is being edited by Christianne Muusers on her wonderful website Coquinaria. She interpreted the recipe as a typical winter recipe, since all ingredients were available in dried form at the time. We took fresh or deep-frozen ingredients (except for the stockfish), which tasted just as well. For Muuser’s transcription and interpretation of the recipe, see this page.


Cooking time: ca. 1 hour (+ 1,5 day preparation)

Ingredients (2-3 persons):

  • 100g stockfish (makes about 200g fish meat when soaked an cleaned)
  • 200g peas
  • butter
  • 1 apple, in pieces
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 100g raisins
  • pepper
  • cardamom
  • mixture of cinnamon, cloves, and mace (or nutmeg)
  • ginger powder


  1. Hammer the stockfish well for a while (if needed: some stockfish is sold pre-hammered). Soak the fish in water for 1-2 days, refresh the water a couple of times a day. When the fish is well soaked, remove the skin and bones. Take care to remove all the small bones!
  2. Fry the onion until golden. Add the apple and stockfish pieces and let it fry for a while, then sprinkle the spices over it.
  3. Add the peas and some water, stir and let it simmer with a closed lid on low fire, 20-30 minutes.
  4. Add the raisins during the last 10 minutes.
  5. Serve hot.

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Sailors, merchants and priests: people on board the ships heading North

Bart Holterman, 13 May 2016

The general history of the northern German trade with the North Atlantic is relatively well known but we know very little about the persons involved in this trade. This is especially true for the men that manned and sailed the ships that headed North.

Luckily, there are a couple of sources pertaining to the North Atlantic trade that give us a good insight into the people on board the ships. First, two boarding lists from Oldenburg for ships trading with Iceland in the 1580s have survived. Second, there is the magnificent book of donations of the Hamburg confraternity of St Anne, the socio-religious organisation behind the trade with Iceland, Shetland, and the Faroe Islands. From the 1530s onwards, the register lists the alms spent to the confraternity by the people on board of nearly every ship that returned to Hamburg, resulting  in a more or less complete register of boarding lists.

Bild Bart

On board a sixteenth-century ship: detail of the epitaph for the ship´s priest Sweder Hoyer (deceased 1565) from the St Jacob church in Lübeck. Note: this image does not necessarily reflect the situation on board the merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

From these sources we can learn that the number of people on board varied greatly, ranging from 77 on larger ships up to around 10 on board the smallest vessels. For Iceland, it was not uncommon to have more than 25 people on board. Ships sailing to Shetland and the Faroe Islands had less people on board, usually 15-20.

This difference in number of people on board was mainly caused by the number of merchants on board. The sizes of the crews were relatively similar on each ship, because 10 to 15 people were needed to sail the ship, regardless of its size. A typical crew consisted of:

– Skipper (schipper). He was the captain, the leader of the ship, often also one of the merchants, and (partly) shipowner.
– Helmsman (sturman), the one who steered the ship and had navigational knowledge.
– Chief boatswain (hovetbosman), the leader of the sailors.
Schimman, the officer responsible for rigging and other technical things.
– Cook (koch).
– Carpenter (tymmerman), responsible for repairs to the ship.
– Gunner (buchsenschut), responsible for the defense of the ship.
– Barber (bartscher), who had medical knowledge, but lacked on most ships.
– 2-4 sailors (bosman).
– 1-2 ship boys (putker), young sailors in training.

Besides these, ships transported merchants and their servants, falcon catchers, priests, and passengers from the islands which used the regular traffic to travel to and from the European mainland.

Further reading:

B. Holterman, Size and composition of ship crews in the German trade with the North Atlantic islands. In: N. Mehler (ed.), Traveling to Shetland, Faroe and Iceland in the early modern period (Leiden, in press).

F. C. Koch, Untersuchungen über den Aufenthalt von Isländern in Hamburg für den Zeitraum 1520-1662. Beiträge zur Geschichte Hamburgs 49 (Hamburg 1995).

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