Fish and Ships

Weblog about pre-modern international trade in the North Atlantic

Welcome to the weblog about research into the late medieval and early modern international trade on the North Atlantic islands. It investigates 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 research is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven in cooperation with the University of Highlands and Islands in Orkney. 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...

A greasy business: the trade in Shetland butter

Bart Holterman, 18 December 2021

Among the commodities exported from the North Atlantic islands in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, few are as enigmatic as butter. As rents and taxes were partly paid in butter on the islands, they frequently appear as a trade item in the dealings of the authorities or the church with foreign (German) merchants. However, the role of butter in the North Atlantic trade is not well understood.

A clump of medieval butter with remnants of a container found in a peat bog in Shetland (‘bog butter’). Shetland Museum and Archives, photograph courtesy of Ian Tait.

On the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus of 1539, barrels of butter are displayed near the monastery Helgafell in Iceland, indicating the significant butter production of the Icelandic church (see the header image of this blog). Magnus described in his 1555 Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus that salted butter was produced in Iceland “partly for consumption at home, but more particularly for barter with merchants”. It is indeed known that German merchants bought butter in Iceland, but but they imported butter to Iceland as well, which is puzzling. Probably, this was butter of a different quality, but the sources do not say much about it. Butter exports are also known for the Faroes in the late 16th century.

Where the relevance of butter as a foreign exchange product was probably limited in Iceland and the Faroes, it seems to have played a much more prominent role in Shetland and Orkney. Especially in the 17th century, there are frequent mentions of German merchants buying butter from Shetland sheriffs, lairds or tacksmen. On many occasions, they even entered into considerable debts for taking the butter to Germany.

This is remarkable, given that the export butter from Shetland and Orkney does not seem to have been of a specifically good quality. Farmers kept the better quality “meat butter” for home consumption, whereas the butter with which taxes and rents were paid was the low quality “grease butter”, full of hairs and dirt, unfit for consumption. According to Gordon Donaldson, it “was fit only for greasing wagon-wheels”. It was exactly this grease butter that was sold abroad. Already in the 16th century, it is known that salted Orkney butter was sold very cheaply in Scotland.

On a more closer look, it seems that the German merchants in Shetland were not so keen on buying the Shetland butter, even though they bought it in considerable quantities. Various letters of the 17th century tell about the negotiations of Shetland tacksmen and the servants of lairds with German merchants about the price of butter. For example, James Omand wrote to Laurence Sinclair of Brugh in 1640 that he could only sell the butter to the Germans for a lower price than expected. Two letters from Andro Greig to the Baron of Brugh from 1655 mention his dealings with Hamburg merchant Otto Make, who was not interested in buying butter for the reason that he could not get a good price for it on the German market. The letters of the tacksmen Andro Smith to his brother Patrick from the early 1640s also speak of the difficulties he had with selling the butter to the German merchants; he had to sell the butter in Leith in the end.

Even more explicit is a letter from David Murray to Andrew Mowat from 1682, in which Murray instructs Mowat to “use all possible means” to make the German merchants take the Shetland butter. This included threatening them, although he also presses him “to deall civellie with them”.

All in all, it appears that Shetland officials did not always have an easy time trying to sell the butter abroad. It also remains the questions why the Germans took the butter with them after all, especially since good-quality butter was produced in northern Germany as well, for example in East Frisia. Were the Germans exaggerating and only playing hard-to-get to keep the prices low? Did they give in to the pressure that the Shetlanders put on them? Or did they perhaps feel obliged to take parts of the butter from their trading partners for fear of losing access to the much more profitable Shetland fish trade, even if they could only sell it at a loss? It seems that further research will be needed to solve this riddle.

References and further reading

Ballantyne, John H., and Brian Smith, eds. Shetland Documents, 1612-1637. Lerwick, 2016.

Donaldson, Gordon. Shetland Life under Earl Patrick. Edinburgh, 1958.

Fenton, Alexander. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. Edinburgh, 1978.

Holterman, Bart. The Fish Lands. German Trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroe Islands in the Late 15th and 16th Century. Berlin, 2020.

Posted in: General, Sources, Stories

The enigmatic Icelandic hare, which turned into a sock

Hans Christian Küchelmann, 4 January 2021

Writing about Hamburg trading connections with Iceland in 1899, Richard Ehrenberg mentions cursorily in a footnote that Hamburg merchants received hares from Icelanders (Ehrenberg 1899, 25). He refers to an entry in the donation register of the Annenbruderschaft (confraternity of St. Anne). The Annenbruderschaft was a caritative organisation, for which Hamburg merchants trading with Iceland, Shetland and the Faeroes regularly gave money after returning from their journeys. The account book lists goods bought in Iceland and the donations given as a share to the fraternity for the period 1533-1628. The specific entry concerns the donations of the ship’s crew of skipper Marten Horneman after their journey to Iceland in 1587 and reads:

item up der Öhe geschattet 15 hovet f und 1 par hasen darvor 5 s“.
(Staatsarchiv Hamburg 612-2/5, Kaufmannsgesellschaft der Islandfahrer, Annenbruderschaft, 1520-1842, 2, Band 1, folio 327r; see HansDoc, document ID 15330000HAM00).

Bart Holterman transcribed and analysed several hundred historic documents relating to Hanseatic North Atlantic trade for his PhD-thesis (Holterman 2020; Holterman & Nicholls 2018), which allows us to decipher the data given in the documents in more detail:
• „Öhe“ is a lower German term for island and since we know from the account book that Marten Hornemann traded in Keflavík (Kibbelwick), Reykjanes peninsula, from 1586-1595 it will have been an island near this trading station.
• „schatten“ is a legal term comparable to a monetary fine, indicating that somebody had to pay a fine for something not further specified.
• „f“ is the shortcut for fish used throughout the whole document. From the overall context we can be almost certain that „fish“ always indicates cod (Gadus morhua) prepared as stockfish. Stockfish made from cod is the bulk item bought by German merchants in Iceland and all other fish species or product types are usually indicated as such separately. We are not yet certain what „hovet fisch“ indicates in particular. „Hovet“ is lower German for „Haupt“ (= main, head, capital), so we assume so far that it is a large kind of stockfish.
• „Hase“ is the German name of the hare (Lepus europaeus).
• „5 s“ specifies that 5 shilling have been given to the confraternity as share of the items received.
• A term that will become crucial in the interpretation is „1 par“. The German speciality with the modern word „paar“ or „Paar“ is that it can have two different meanings. If written with a capital P as „Paar“ it means „pair“ specifying (exactly) two items which are connected to each other, like e. g. a pair of gloves or two people married to each other (Ehepaar). If written with a small p it denotes a small but uncertain number of items: „ein paar Kekse“ being „some cookies“.

Summarised, the information given is that skipper Marten Horneman received 15 (large?) stockfish and some hares as a fine from somebody on an island near Keflavík and gave five shilling to the St. Anne confraternity for this. Further research for hasen in the Iceland trade documents revealed that hasen appear in fact three times in the account book of the Annenbruderschaft in similar contexts:

folio 369 r (1592): “Noch van Jon lochman vor norden den armen gegeven 9 ele min 1 q(uart?) wadtman und 1 par hasen darvan gekamen in gelde.“
folio 398r (1596): “Otte Eddelman 1 par hasen darvor entfangen,“

Jon Lochman is better known as Jón Jónsson, lawmen (ĺögmaður) in northern and western Iceland at the end of the 16th century, who is known to have cooperated closely with German merchants.

Additionally, there is another document, which lists hasen being bought from Icelanders: An account book of merchants from Oldenburg trading 1585 in Neßwage (Nes), Snæfellsnes peninsula, mentions hasen four times:

page 38: “1 paer haesen
page 38: “1 par haesen 1 fordung […] 1 paer haesen
page 45: “3 par haesenn up 1 wett
(Stadtarchiv Oldenburg, Rechnungsbuch über die 1585 in Island verkauften Waren, Best. 262-1, no. 3; Holterman 2020, 45; HansDoc ID 15850000OLD00).

Hasen mentioned in Oldenburg account book of the goods sold and bought 1585 in Iceland, page 38 and 45.

This is a good example for the advantage of interdisciplinary research. From the historic point of view the interpretation here is clear and unequivocally: hares were among the goods bought in Iceland (see Holterman 2020, 45). They were not an item of major importance, but at least appear several times in the 16th century Hanseatic trade in different locations in western Iceland on the Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes peninsulae. From the zoological point of view, however, a major interpretation problem evolves here. According to zoogeographical sources, hares do not inhabit Iceland, neither the European hare (Lepus europaeus) nor the snow hare (Lepus timidus) (see e. g. Grimberger et al. 2009, 211-212, 214-216; see also the list of mammals of Iceland). There are neither archeozoological nor palaeontological records of hares from Iceland, indicating that the genus ever inhabited the island.

Important here, and even more convincing from the historic point of view, is an account of Arngrimur Jónsson from 1593, who states in his “Brevis commentarius …“ that:

Eodem crimine tenentur, quicunque; Islandiæ, coruos albos, picas, lepores, et vultures adscripserunt: Perrarò enim vultures, cum glacie marina, sicut etiam vrsos (sed hos sæpius quam vultures) et cornicum quoddam genus, Islandis Isakrakur, aduenire obseruatum est. Picas verò et lepores, vt et coruos albos, nunquam Islandia habuit.
(Jónsson 1593, sectio 14, quoted after Hakluyt 1598).


Jónsson refers to the description of a not specified author, who claims the mentioned species (white ravens, magpies, hares and vultures) as resident species of Iceland. He is very precise in his comment and disclaims this notion clearly as being wrong, except for vultures, which sometimes reach Iceland with the sea ice. Thus, zoological, archaeozoological and additional historic evidence points to a wrong interpretation of the Low German term hasen as hares here. However, there is one slight possibility that needed to be cross-checked before refuting hares and searching for alternative interpretations. One species frequently mistaken for hares, at least by non-specialists, is the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits spread in Europe from the 12th century onwards, first as gifts changed between monasteries. They were high status animals first, jealously guarded by monastic circles and the gentry, becoming more widespread since the 16th century (Benecke 1994, 356-361; Küchelmann 2010, 183-184). Therefore, an introduction of rabbits to Iceland in medieval or early modern time is theoretically not impossible. I am grateful to Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir (Institut of Archaeology Reykjavik), who kindly checked this question:

Rabbits are a modern intrusion to Iceland, being imported as pets, which were let loose, mostly around Reykjavík but they have also become an ecological problem in Vestmannaeyjar since they are using puffin holes as habitation and the puffins usually use the same ones again and again. They are also living in areas around Akureyri at present. The oldest example of “wild” rabbits in Iceland (that I know of) is from 1942, a farmer in Saurbjæjarhlíð in Hvalfjarðarströnd started to breed rabbits around 1932 but some had gotten away and had started to breed in the wild at least in 1942 (see Morgunblaðið 7.3.1942). Rabbits had been imported earlier to Iceland but had never been able to survive the winters but now they can. At present the numbers of them are rising instead of declining which is not good since they are causing havoc to the quite sensitive Arctic environment.“ (Guðmundsdóttir, personal comm. 16. 11. 2020). 

Summarising the historical and zoological information, it seems unlikely that hares could have been bought by the Hanseatic merchants in Iceland. Even the slight possibility of introduced rabbits is extremely unlikely. Reanalyzing the historic accounts and searching for alternative interpretations the above mentioned word „par“ becomes important. In all seven evident cases of the term „hasen“ bought in Iceland, they appear in combination with the word „par“. They never occur as single items (1 hase) nor in an uneven number (e.g. 3 or 5 hasen). This makes it likely that in this case „par“ does not mean an uncertain small number of hasen, but that instead hasen are a good regularly traded in pairs. The most probable solution here is that of a sound shift from o to a. „Hosen“ is the German term for trousers, which then would make perfect sense as a „pair of trousers“. Indeed, there is historical evidence for a sound shift from o to a in several Middle Low German words related to hosen, which are listed e. g. in the Middle Low German word books of Köbler (2014) and Schiller & Lübben (1876/1995, 212, 305-306). Vaðmal and trousers – two textile goods – donated by Jón Jónsson in 1592 would also fit well together. The term „1 par hasen“ also appears in another document related to Icelandic trade: The account book of the Bremen merchant Clawes Monnickhusen, who traded 1557-1558 in Kummerwage (= Kumbaravogur, Snæfellsnes), lists hasen two times. But here the hasen appear in that part of the document listing debts of his customers in Bremen 1560-1577. The hasen again are listed as pairs, adding weight to the argument of a sound shift:

folio 24r (1571): „Item den man dar ick den ossen van krech XV grote vor I par hasen.
folio 30r (1575): „Item Devert Jebelman I par hasen XX grote.
(Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Bremen 7,2051 (formerly Ss.2.a.2.f.3.a.), HansDoc ID 15570000BRE00).

To conclude, the former interpretation of the term hasen as the zoological species Lepus can be refuted, but the entries then become an interesting evidence for Icelandic textile production and trade. According to Michèle Hayeur Smith, researcher on historic textiles at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, Bristol, Rhode Island, USA, the trousers bought by the Hanseatic merchats in Iceland most probably were knitted stockings:

In the 16th century they were in the habit (in Europe) of wearing long knitted stockings, in fact it was all the rage. Knitting was introduced into Iceland in 1500 and I know that the Icelanders and Faroese were busy knitting for these foreign markets and one of the main things they were knitting were stockings. I think that we are probably not talking about hosen as trousers, but rather as stockings and sold in pairs would make a lot of sense.“ (Hayeur Smith, personal comm. 17. 11. 2020).

Icelandic knitted stockings found in Copenhagen in the exhibition of the Nationalmuseet København, most probably 17th -18th century (photos: Michele Hayeur Smith).

For further research on Icelandic knitted stockings see e. g. Thirsk (2003), Róbertsdóttir (2008) or Hayeur Smith et al. (2018, 5).

References:
• Benecke, Norbert (1994): Der Mensch und seine Haustiere, Stuttgart
• Ehrenberg, Richard (1899): Aus der Hamburgischen Handelsgeschichte, Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte 10, 1–40
• Grimmberger, Eckhard / Rudloff, Klaus / Kern, Christian (2009): Atlas der Säugetiere Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens, Münster
Hakluyt, Richard (1598): The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, v. 1, Northern Europe
Holterman, Bart (2020): The Fish Lands. German trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroe Islands in the late 15th and 16th century, Berlin
Hayeur Smith, Michèle / Lucas, Gavin / Mould, Quita (2018): Men in Black: Performing masculinity in 17th- and 18th-century Iceland. – Journal of Social Archaeology 0(0), 1-26
Holterman, Bart & Nicholls, John H. (2018): HANSdoc Database, Bremerhaven
Jónsson, Arngrímur (1593): Brevis commentarius de Islandia
Köbler, Gerhard (2014): Mittelniederdeutsches Wörterbuch, 3. Ausgabe, Erlangen
Küchelmann, Hans Christian (2010): Vornehme Mahlzeiten: Tierknochen aus dem Dominikanerkloster Norden. – Nachrichten aus Niedersachsens Urgeschichte 79, 155-200
• Róbertsdóttir, Hrefna (2008): Wool and society, Reykjavík
• Schiller, Karl & Lübben, August (1876/1995): Mittelniederdeutsches Wörterbuch, Zweiter Band: G–L, Vaduz
• Thirsk, Joan (2003): Knitting and Knitwear, c 1500-1780. in: Jenkins, David (ed.): The Cambridge History of Western Textiles I, 562-584, Cambridge

Posted in: General, Sources, Stories

Fish and Ships continues: new project about the international trade of Orkney and Shetland in the early modern period

Natascha Mehler, 27 March 2020

Over the past years, our research on the German trade with the North Atlantic islands has mainly focused on the exchange with Iceland. In the case of Shetland, however, much written and archaeological material exists which is of great potential to help uns understand the operation of international trade on the North Atlantic island. We therefore, we applied for a new grant in order to continue our work with Shetland. The project also addresses the question whether Orkney, which shares many characteristics with the other islands but hardly ever appears in the written sources, was also visited by German merchants in search of dried fish and if they did, to what extent and how this trade was organised. Finally, we will broaden our view to include other international (English, Dutch, Norwegian) traders in the area.

We are happy to announce that our team, together with other archaeologists and historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Lincoln have been awarded a grant of c. 900.000 Euros from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) to do this. Over the next three years, the members of the project “Looking in from the edge (LIFTE)” will look at a number of early modern documents, objects from archaeological excavations and also conduct fieldwork in Orkney and Shetland. This also means that we will continue blogging on Fish and Ships for more stories and short research reports about pre-modern trade in the North Atlantic. Stay tuned!

Here are the links to our announcements in English and in German, with further information.

https://www.dsm.museum/pressebereich/der-lange-arm-der-hanse/

Natascha Mehler surveying the trade booth at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland. Photograph: Mark Gardiner.

Posted in: Announcements, General

Razorbill in Bremen

Hans Christian Küchelmann, 20 March 2019

During excavations in 2011 in the former defense ditch of the city of Bremen huge amounts of animal bones have been found. The material has been analysed in the course of the Hanse Project since it contained a large amount of cod (Gadus morhua) bones. But there were also other interesting finds pointing to a trade connection with the North Atlantic. Of particular interest is a bone of a razor bill or lesser auk (Alca torda) with cut marks. This bird does not live on the North Sea coast and must have been brought to Bremen from North Atlantic regions e.g. from Shetland, Iceland, the Faroes or Northern Norway, probably as a by-product of the Bremen North Atlantic trade for stockfish.

Julia Schmidt, public relations officer of the Landesarchäologie Bremen, has written a blog about this find (in German) that can be accessed on the Facebook page of the Landesarchäologie.

Posted in: Announcements, General, Press, Stories

German merchants at the trading station of Básendar, Iceland

Bart Holterman, 9 March 2018

The German merchants who sailed to Iceland in the 15th and 16th century used more than twenty different harbours. In this post we will focus on one of them: Básendar. The site is located on the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula and was used as a trading destination first by English ships, then German merchants from Hamburg and later by merchants of the Danish trade monopoly. Básendar is mentioned in German written sources with different spellings as Botsand, Betsand, Bådsand, Bussand, or Boesand.

Aerial image of Básendar (marked with the red star), located on the Western end of Reykjanes peninsula, and Keflavík airport on the right (image Google Earth).

Básendar was one of the most important harbours for the winter fishing around Reykjanes. In the list of ten harbours offered to Hamburg in 1565, it is the second largest harbour, which annually required 30 last flour, half the amount of Hafnarfjörður (the centre of German trade in Iceland). German merchants must have realised it´s potential at a very early stage, and it is therefore the first harbour which we know to have been used by the Germans, namely by merchants from Hamburg, in 1423.

The trading station was located on a cliff just south of Stafnes, surrounded by  sand. Básendar was always a difficult harbour, exposed to strong winds and with skerries at its entrance. Ships had to be moored to the rocks with iron rings. The topography of the site also made the buildings vulnerable to spring floods, and during a storm in 1799 all buildings were destroyed by waves, leading to the abandonment of the place. Today, the ruins of many buildings can still be seen, as well as one of the mooring rings, reminding the visitor of the site’s former importance.

Básendar also became a place for clashes between English and German traders. Already the first mention of Germans in the harbour came from a complaint by English merchants that they had been hindered in their business there. In 1477 merchants from Hull complained as well about hindrance by the Germans and in 1491 the English complained that two ships from Hull had been attacked by 220 men from two Hamburg ships anchoring in Básendar and Hafnarfjörður.

Remains of an iron mooring ring at the harbour of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The famous violent events of 1532 between Germans and English started in Básendar as well, when Hamburg skipper Lutke Schmidt denied the English ship Anna of Harwich access to the harbour. Another arrival of an English ship a few days later made tensions erupt, resulting in a battle in which two Englishmen were killed. The events in 1532 marked the end of the English presence in Básendar, and we hear little about the harbour in the years afterwards. The trading place seems to have been steadily frequented by Hamburg ships, sometimes even two per year. In 1548, during the time when Iceland was leased to Copenhagen, Hamburg merchants refused to allow a Danish ship to enter the harbour, claiming that they had an ancient right to use it for themselves.

Hamburg merchants were continuously active in Básendar until the introduction of the Danish trade monopoly, except for the period 1565-1583, when the harbour was licensed to merchants from Copenhagen. From 1586 onwards, the licenses were given to Hamburg merchants again. These are the merchants who held licences for Básendar:

1565: Anders Godske, Knud Pedersen (Copenhagen)
1566: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1569: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1584: Peter Hutt, Claus Rademan, Heinrich Tomsen (Wilster)
1586: Georg Grove (Hamburg)
1590: Georg Schinckel (Hamburg)
1593: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)
1595: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)

Ruins of the trading site of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The last evidence we have for German presence in Básendar provides interesting details about how trade in Iceland operated. In 1602 Danish merchants from Copenhagen concentrated their activity on Keflavík and Grindavík. A ship from Helsingør, led by Hamburg merchant Johan Holtgreve, with a crew largely consisting of Dutchmen, and helmsman Marten Horneman from Hamburg, tried to reach Skagaströnd (Spakonefeldtshovede) in Northern Iceland, but was unable to get there because of the great amount of sea ice due to the cold winter. Instead, they went to Básendar which was not in use at the time. However, the Copenhagen merchants protested. King Christian IV ordered Hamburg to confiscate the goods from the returned ship. In a surviving document the involved merchants and crew members told their side of the story. They stated that they had been welcomed by the inhabitants of the district of Básendar, who had troubles selling their fish because the catch had been bad last year and the fish were so small that the Danish merchants did not want to buy them. Furthermore, most of their horses had died during the winter so they could not transport the fish to Keflavík or Grindavík and the Danes did not come to them. The Danish merchants were indeed at first not eager to trade in Básendar, and did not sail there until they moved their business from Grindavík in 1640.

Further reading

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, Fornleifaskráning á Miðnesheiði. Archaeological Survey of Miðnesheiði. Rannsóknaskýrslur 2000, The National Museum of Iceland.

Posted in: General, Stories