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...

Immer Weiter – Fragen und Antworten, Teil 4: Handel und Handelswaren

Bart Holterman, 12 October 2023

(for English, see below)

In diesem vierten Teil der Reihe, in der wir Fragen von Besuchenden der Ausstellung „Immer Weiter – die Hanse im Nordatlantik“ beantworten, haben wir Fragen gebündelt, die über Handelswaren gehen.

Wird heute noch immer Stockfisch gegessen?

Ja, Stockfisch wird immer noch vor allem in Norwegen hergestellt und von dort auch exportiert. In einzelnen europäischen Regionen gibt es bestimmte Zubereitungsarten, die durch lokale Gruppen als kulinarisches Erbe gepflegt werden. Ein Beispiel ist die „Stockfischbrüderschaft“ (Confraternita del Bacalà alla Vicentina) in der italienischen Region Venetien. Überraschenderweise ist vor allem Nigeria heutzutage ein wichtiger Absatzmarkt für Stockfisch. In Portugal und Spanien ist zudem der gesalzene und getrocknete Dorsch, ähnlich wie der Fisch der in der Frühen Neuzeit in Shetland hergestellt wurde, unter dem Namen Bacalhau/Bacalao ein wichtiger Bestandteil der nationalen Küche.

Kommt Butter heute noch immer aus Schottland?

Butter wird heute noch immer in Schottland produziert, aber die Qualität hat sich seit der Frühen Neuzeit deutlich verbessert. In Gegensatz zu irischer Butter wird sie allerdings nur wenig ins Ausland exportiert.

Wie viele Knochen gibt es in der Ausstellung?

Genau haben wir das nicht gezählt, aber es gibt viele Knochen, vor allem von Fischen, an unterschiedlichen Stellen in der Ausstellung. Knochen sind sehr wichtig als archäologisches Fundmaterial, weil sie uns über die Ernährungsgewohnheiten der Menschen in der Vergangenheit erzählen.

Werden auch Knochenreste bei den Wracks gefunden?

Ja, zum Beispiel sind im Wrack der Darßer Kogge Fischknochen und ein Rentiergeweih gefunden worden, diese gehörten zur Ladung des Schiffes. Ob die Fische für den Verzehr an Bord oder als Handelsware mitgenommen wurden, lässt sich jedoch nicht mehr eindeutig feststellen.

Wie viele Fässer waren auf der Bremer Kogge?

Nur ein kleines, das mit Teer gefüllt war. Die Kogge ist noch im Bau gesunken und war deswegen nie als Frachtschiff im Einsatz. An Bord von anderen Schiffswracks werden jedoch manchmal hunderte Fässer gefunden. Wie viele Fässer an Bord der Bremer Kogge gepasst haben, ist schwierig zu sagen, da es Fässer in den unterschiedlichsten Größen gab.

Wofür wurde das minderwertige Salz benutzt?

Salz war im Mittelalter nicht immer leicht zugänglich und musste aus unterirdischen Speichern (wie z.B. in Lüneburg) abgebaut, durch Verdünstung von Meereswasser (wie z.B. das spanische und französische Baiensalz) oder durch die Verbrennung von salzhaltigem Torf hergestellt werden. In manchen Fällen waren viele Reststoffe im Salz enthalten, was bei der Konservierung von Lebensmitteln mit Salz auf Dauer zum Verderben führen könnte. Deswegen wurde bei der Trockenfischherstellung nur möglichst reines Salz verwendet. Das übrige Salz konnte jedoch noch als günstiges Kochsalz, in chemischen Prozessen oder in der Medizin verwendet werden.

Mit welcher Währung wurde gehandelt zwischen den Ländern?

Shetland und Orkney hatten keine eigene Münze, und deswegen bezahlten die ausländischen Kaufleute dort mit ihrer eigenen Währung. Eine Auswahl an schottischen, niederländischen und deutschen Münzen, die in Shetland gefunden wurden, ist in der Ausstellung zu sehen. In Schriftquellen wird oft mit rix dollar (Reichstaler) gerechnet, aber es ist nicht genau zu sagen, ob hiermit auch bezahlt wurde; möglicherweise diente sie nur als Rechenwährung.

English version

In this fourth part of the series, in which we answer questions of visitors of the exhibition „Immer Weiter“, we have collected questions about trade and commodities.

Is stockfish still being eaten today?

Yes, stockfish is still being produced, mainly in Norway, and exported from there. In some European regions certain traditional recipes for cooking stockfish exist, which local groups cherish as a culinary heritage. An example is the „stockfish confraternity“ in the region Veneto in Italy, the Confraternita del Bacalà alla Vicentina. Surprisingly, today one of the most important export markets for stockfish is Nigeria. And in Portugal and Spain the salted dried cod known as bacalhau/bacalao is an important element of the national cuisine. The salt fish produced in Shetland in the early modern period must have been very similar.

Is butter still being exported from Scotland?

Butter is still produced in Scotland these days, but the quality has improved much since the early modern period. In contrast with Irish butter, however, Scottish butter is not exported in large quantities.

How many bones are on display in the exhibition?

We haven’t counted them exactly, but many (fish) bones are exhibited in various displays. The reason is that animal bones are important archaeological evidence for the consumption habits of people in the past.

Are bones also found near shipwrecks?

Yes. For example in the wreck of the Darßer Kogge, fish bones and a reindeer antler have been found, which can be seen in the exhibition. These were part of the cargo of the ship. However, it is difficult to say whether the fish were intended for consumption on board or if they were a trading commodity.

How many barrels were there on the Bremen Cog?

Only a small barrel was found, which was filled with tar. The ship sank while it was still being constructed, and therefore it was never used as a cargo ship. But on board of other shipwrecks, hundreds of barrels are found sometimes. It is difficult to say how many barrels would fit into the cargo hull of the Bremen Cog, as barrels came in all kinds of sizes.

What was the low-quality salt used for?

Salt was a commodity that was not readily available in the Middle Ages, as it had to be mined from deposits in the ground (for example in Lüneburg), or it had to be destilled by evaporating sea water (the so-called Bay salt from Spain and France) or by burning peat with a high salinity. In some cases, many impurities remained in the final product, which could lead to the spoilage of commodities that were preserved with salt. For this reason, fish was only cured with very pure salt. The lower-quality salt could, however, still be used for various purposes: for cooking, in chemical processes or in medicine.

Which currency was used in the trade between the countries?

Shetland and Orkney did not have their own currency or mint, and therefore the foreign merchants paid there with their own currency. A selection of Scottish, Dutch and German coins that were found in Shetland is displayed in the exhibition. Written accounts often count in rix dollar (Reichstaler), but it is unclear whether this was only a currency used for calculation, or if these coins were actually used in the trade.

Posted in: Exhibition, General

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