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.
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
Till death do us part: Graves of sixteenth-century German merchants in the North Atlantic
Bart Holterman, 11 October 2018
When one has the chance to visit the northernmost island of Shetland, Unst, it is worth visiting the ruined church at Lunda Wick, in a bay to the Southwest of the isle. To get there, one has to take a small gravel road across a barren moory landscape where nothing seems to live but sheep and the occasional marsh bird. At the end of the path, one reaches a secluded bay where the grey waves and the rain torture the sands of the beach, and out of the fog a ruined medieval chapel appears with a graveyard around it. Inside the roofless chapel are a number of old tomb stones, the text made almost illegible by the lichen that overgrows them and centuries of rain and salty sea wind. In a corner lies a grave slab, on which it is possible to discern a text written in Low German, with great difficulty: “Here lies the honourable Segebad Detken, citizen and merchant from Bremen, who has traded in this country for 52 years, and died [in the year 1573], the 20th of August. God have mercy on his soul” (see below for the Low German text).
Segebad Detken is known from written sources about the Bremen trade with Shetland. He can be tracked from 1557 onwards as a skipper in the northern harbours Burravoe in Yell, and Baltasound and Uyeasound in Unst. In 1566, he was robbed by Scottish pirates in the harbour of Uyeasound. As his tomb slab mentions that he had been trading for 52 years in Shetland, he must have died in the late 16th century (see below). After his death, his relatives took over the business: among others his son Herman and grandson Magnus are recorded as merchants in northern Shetland in the early 17th century.
Given the long careers of German traders in the North Atlantic, and the fact that Bremen and Hamburg merchants dominated this trade for over 100 years (for Shetland even longer), it is not surprising that some of these merchants were buried on the islands when they died there. We can find another example just a bit outside the same church. There is another grave of a contemporary of Segebad Detken, that of his fellow citizen Hinrick Segelken. The Low German text on his slab translates as: “In the year 1585, the 25th of July, on St James’ day, the honourable and noble Hinrick Segelcken the Elder from Germany and citizen of the city of Bremen, died here in God our Lord, who has mercy on him.”
The tombstones were most probably imported by the German merchants, as the sandstone from which they were made is not available on the islands. By erecting a distinct grave marker for their deceased colleagues, they did not only honour their remembrance, but it also served to strengthen their ties with the local communities. The material and textual aspects of the monuments reminded the observer of the importance of the German merchants for the local economy, even across the boundaries of life and death.
A similar situation we find on Iceland, where we can also find tombstones of German merchants. The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, for example, houses the tomb slab of Bremen merchant Claus Lude (follow link for an image), who was originally buried in the monastery Helgafell on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The stone shows his house mark, a seal with two crossed stockfishes, and a text which mentions that he died on 3 June 1585. Lude is known to have been active in harbours in Snæfellsnes in the 1550s, and held a license for the harbour Grindavík in 1571.
In southern Iceland, at the graveyard of the former monastery Þykkvabær, one can still find the tombstone of Hans Berman the Younger from Hamburg, who died in 1583. The monastery records reveal that he was administrator of the monastic property (klausturhaldari) and was killed by the parish priest of Mýrar. His name also appears in the register of the Confraternity of St Anne of the Iceland merchants in Hamburg, where another Hans Berman (probably his father) was elderman around the same time.
In Hafnarfjörður near Reykjavík, the Hamburg merchants had their headquarters and also erected their own church. It is likely that they also had a graveyard where they buried their dead. During construction of the modern harbour of Hafnarfjörður in the 1940s, human bones were found which many believed to be from the old German graveyard in the town. It might even be possible that these bones once belonged to Hamburg merchant Hans Hambrock, the only death of a Hamburg merchant in Hafnarfjörður known from the written record. Hambrock had died from the injuries inflicted upon him by his colleague Hinrick Ratken, who drew his knife against him after Hambrock had hit Ratken on the head during a conflict about the unloading of a ship in 1599. Regrettably, the remains of the German church in Hafnarfjörður are now buried below the modern town.
Inscriptions on the discussed tombstones
Lunda Wick, Shetland
Segebad Detken: “HIR LIGHT DER EHRSAME / SEGEBAD DETKEN BVRGER / VND KAUFFHANDELER ZU / BREMEN [HE] HETT IN DISEN / LANDE SINE HANDELING / GEBRUCKET 52 IAHR / IST [ANNO 1573] DEN / 20 AUGUSTI SELIGHT / IN UNSEN HERN ENT / SCHLAPEN DER SEELE GODT GNEDIGH IST.”
Hinrick Segelcken: “ANNO 1585 DEN 25 IULII / UP S. JACOBI IS DE EHRBARE / UND VORNEHME HINRICK / SEGELCKEN DE OLDER UTH / DUDESCHLANT UND BORGER / DER STADT BREMEN ALHIR / IN GODT DEM HERN ENTSCHL / APN DEM GODT GNEDICH IS.”
Clawes Lude: “Anno 1585 de.3. Junius starff clawes lüde van Bremen der olde. Dem godt gnedich seij.”
Hans Berman: “HIR LICHT BEGRAVEN SALICH HANS BIRMA[N] D:I:V:H [i.e. “De Junger van Hamborg”] ANNO 1583.”
Hofmeister, Adolf E. Sorgen eines Bremer Shetlandfahrers: Das Testament des Cordt Folkers von 1543. Bremisches Jahrbuch 94 (2015): 46–57.
Holterman, Bart. The Fish Lands. German Trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroes in the Late 15th and 16th Century. PhD thesis, Universität Hamburg, 2018.
Koch, Friederike Christiane. Das Grab des Hamburger Hansekaufmanns Hans Berman/Birman in Þykkvibær/Südisland. Island. Zeitschrift der Deutsch-Isländischen Gesellschaft e.V. Köln und der Gesellschaft der Freunde Islands e.V. Hamburg 5.2 (1999): 45.
MacDonald, George. More Shetland Tombstones. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 69 (1934): 27–48.
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.
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.
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)
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.
Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, Fornleifaskráning á Miðnesheiði. Archaeological Survey of Miðnesheiði. Rannsóknaskýrslur 2000, The National Museum of Iceland.
Keeping the Faroese bishop warm – how a tiled stove tells the story of the Reformation in the Faroes
Natascha Mehler, 16 August 2017
with Torbjörn Brorsson, Martina Wegner and Símun V. Arge
In 1557 the Reformation in the Faroes came to an end when the Faroese bishopric at Kirkjubøur was abolished and its properties confiscated by Christian III of Denmark. This was the result of a process which started in 1539 when Amund Olafson, the last Catholic bishop, was replaced by Jens Gregersen Riber, the first Lutheran bishop of the Faroes. Jens Riber stayed at Kirkjubøur until 1557 when he left to take on a new position in Stavanger. We know very little about the lives of these two bishops. However, during archaeological excavations conducted in 1955 at the site of the former episcopal residence, the remains of a tiled stove dating to the early and mid-16th century came to light which add knowledge about the daily life at Kirkjubøur.
The tile fragments were now, more than 60 years after their discovery, analyzed as part of this research project. Tiled stoves were a luxurious rarity in the North Atlantic islands. In Iceland, for example, 16th-century tiled stoves are only known from the two bishoprics at Skálholt and Hólar, the Danish residence at Bessastaðir and from the monastery at Viðey. The Kirkjubøur fragments are the only remains of a tiled stove in the Faroes. In Denmark or Northern Germany, however, tiled stoves were rather common in burgher households and those of the nobility.
19 stove tile fragments were found at Kirkjubøur, all made from red clays, moulded with relief decoration and applied with a white slip and green lead glaze. Varying fabric and decoration indicates that the tiles are the products from at least two different workshops. This means that either the tiles of the former stove were exchanged during its lifetime, or the stove was made from tiles from different workshops. The latter interpretation would be rather unusual in a continental context but all known early modern tiled stoves from Iceland were made of tiles from different workshops because access, import and maintenance were very difficult.
The images on the Kirkjubøur tiles mirror the struggles of the introduction of the Reformation in the Faroes. All tiles show Christian or biblical motifs and themes, but while one of the identified motifs displays catholic imagery, others are clearly reformist in meaning. In many Northern European households such stove tiles decorated with Lutheran imagery were indeed used as a medium to express the Lutheran confession.
One stove tile fragment shows a female figure with a cross in her left hand. A letter “S” is preserved, suggesting that this is a female saint such as Helena. If this interpretation holds true it would be a tile with purely Catholic imagery. The best preserved stove tile shows a bearded man in profile and the words [S]ANT PAVLO APOSTOLVS. Although this is a depiction of yet another saint – and thus rather Catholic in meaning – the letters of Paul the Apostle were often invoked by reformist theologians of Wittenberg. All other identified motifs were popular amongst supporters of Lutheranism. One fragment shows the lower body part of a female figure with a man’s head next to it. This is clearly a depiction of Judith with the head of Holofernes in her hand, a widespread stove tile motif in Lutheran contexts. And two identical tiles show the ascension of Jesus and parts of the creed of the Lutheran catechism. The surviving text reads 6 ER IST AVGEFARE[N] GEN HIMEL SITZET ZVR RECHTEN GOTES DES ALMECHTIGEN VATERS (transl. “he has ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father”). The letter 6 indicates that this is the sixth stove tile in a series.
Eight fragments of these stove tiles were selected for analysis by Inductively Coupled Plasma Atomic Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MA/ES), a standard method in ceramic analysis, carried out by Torbjörn Brorsson (Kontoret för Keramiska Studier). The main goal of the analysis was to determine the chemical composition of the various fabrics, with the aim to identify the workshops which produced these tiles. The results show that the tile with Paul the Apostle was made in Lübeck, and the tile with Judith and Holofernes, as well as the tile with the creed of the Lutheran catechism, in the surroundings of Lübeck. The tile with the female saint was made in the area between Lübeck and Bremen, which also includes Hamburg. This is no surprise; Northern German potters were the leading craftsmen to supply the Northern European market with stove tiles at that time.
The stove tiles were imported to the Faroes during the period when the Faroes were licensed to Hamburg citizen Thomas Koppen, between 1529 and 1553. Thomas Koppen was Oberalter of the churches in Hamburg and therefore an important figure in the process of the Reformation there. Maybe Koppen’s merchants (very likely he never visited the Faroe Islands himself) had brought the tiles from Lübeck via Hamburg to the Faroes. It is also very likely that Norwegian merchants from Bergen brought the tiles to the Faroes. The islands were closely connected to Bergen, with many ships travelling between the harbours of Tórshavn and Bergen. Lübeck merchants held a very important position in Bergen at that time and the tiles could have been brought from Lübeck first to Bergen and then went further to the Faroes.
The story that the tile finds suggest is such: a tiled stove was first erected at Kirkjubøur during the office of the Catholic bishop Amund Olafson, and fitted with tiles such as the one with the female saint. When Jens Riber took over as first Lutheran bishop in 1539 he bought new tiles from a different workshop and exchanged the purely Catholic images on his stove with motifs of the new faith. Only then could he enjoy the comforting warmth effusing from his stove without being agonized by the troubling sight of Catholic images.
Julia Hallenkamp-Lumpe, Das Bekenntnis am Kachelofen? Überlegungen zu den sogenannten “Reformationskacheln”. In: C. Jäggi and J. Staecker (eds.), Archäologie der Reformation. Studien zu den Auswirkungen des Konfessionswechsels in der materiellen Kultur (Berlin 2007) 239–258.
Louis Zachariasen, Føroyar sum rættarsamfelag 1535–1655 (Tórshavn 1961), see pages 161–184.
El Gran Grífon – The story of a Hanseatic ship in the Spanish Armada, wrecked in Shetland
Philipp Grassel, 29 June 2017
In the 15th to 17th centuries, the North Atlantic Islands of Shetland, Faroe and Iceland were frequently visited by Hanseatic merchants, who usually made one voyage each year. The trading season started roughly in April and finished in August/September and because of its regular character, we have much information about the number of Hanseatic ships sailing North each year.
In the middle of the 16th century, on average 5 ships per year from Bremen and 1 or 2 ships from Hamburg travelled to Shetland. Contemporary sources from 1560 speak of a minimum of 7 ships from Bremen and Hamburg in Shetland harbours. In Iceland, the numbers were even higher. For example in 1585, 14 ships from Hamburg alone and 8 ships from Bremen, Lübeck and Danzig reached Icelandic harbours, and in 1591 as many as 21 ships from Hamburg arrived in Iceland. In spite of these high numbers of voyages and some documented losses of Hanseatic ships – there are at least 10 known losses around Shetland and 3 losses around Iceland – no wrecks or remains of Hanseatic trading ships in the North Atlantic were found yet.
However, this does not mean that there are no Hanseatic trading vessels to be found in the North Atlantic at all. The only wreck which could be considered as Hanseatic are the remains of the El Gran Grífon (The great Griffin). This ship, which is the oldest known wreck both in Shetland and of all the North Atlantic islands, has a quite unusual history.
As the name already suggests, the Gran Grífon did not end up in Shetland by merchants from Bremen or Hamburg. Instead it was part of the famous Spanish Armada. This was a Spanish fleet which was sent in 1588 by the Spanish King Philipp II to invade England. The operation was a complete failure; the bulk of the fleet was lost after attacks by the English Navy and subsequent bad weather conditions on the North Sea.
The Gran Grífon itself was a former Hanseatic merchant vessel from Rostock, a Hansa Town in the Baltic Sea, and was bought by the Spanish Navy for the Armada. This was not unusual; merchant ships were in this time often converted for military use in times of war. After the ship had been roughly modified, it was used as the flagship for a squadron of 23 supply and troop ships. These poorly armed squadrons, called urca squadrons, consisted of acquired merchant vessels and were commanded by Juan Gomez de Medina. The ship had a tonnage of 650 tons, a length of around 30 m and an armament of 38 unspecified cannons. The original crew of 43 men were supplemented with around 200 soldiers. So all in all carried the ship over 243 men.
After some battles with the English Navy, which took the lives of over 40 soldiers and seamen, the ship was driven to the North of the British Isles. It was accompanied by other Armada vessels like the Barca de Amburgo (probably another converted Hanseatic ship from Hamburg), Castillo Negro and La Trinidad Valencera. After the Barca de Amburgo sank, the Gran Grífon and the Trinidad Valencera took over the surviving men.
Shortly afterwards the contact between the ships was lost and the Gran Grífon sailed in a South-West direction, trying to get back to Spain through the Atlantic. However, after the ship reached the latitude of the Galway Bay in Western Ireland, a strong gale from the South-West got up and flouted the Ship back North. Since the ship was heavily damaged, Juan Gomez de Medina decided to search for the nearest possible land. This turned out to be Fair Isle, the most southern and remote island of the Shetland archipelago. The ship tried to anchor in vain before it was driven ashore and ended up on a cliff at Stroms Hellier at the Southeastern end of the island in September 1588. Most of the remaining crew members and soldiers, including Gomez de Medina, managed to escape from the ship before it disappeared in the waves.
For a long time, the wreck remained untouched in the 9-18m deep water. In 1728, W. Irvine salvaged three cannons from the wreck. An archaeological excavation was carried out between 1970 and 1977 by the Institute of Maritime Archaeology of St Andrews University, led by C. Martin. Unfortunately the wreck was barely preserved. Parts of the stern, a rudder pintle, cannons of different sizes, coins, cannon balls, musket bullets and lead ingots were found, recorded and removed. Other, smaller finds like the handle of a pewter or “Hanseatic” flagon, as well as a curved iron blade, were also recovered. The wooden part of the stern was preserved under a boulder, which had tumbled down from the nearby cliff. Most of the finds were brought to Lerwick, where they can be partly seen at the Shetland Museum.
K. Friedland, Der hansische Shetlandhandel, in: K. Friedland, Stadt und Land in der Geschichte des Ostseeraums (Lübeck 1973) 66-79.
C. Martin, Cave of the Tide Race – El Gran Grifon, 1588, in: C. Martin, Scotland’s Historic Shipwrecks (London 1998) 28-45.
P. Grassel, Late Hanseatic seafaring from Hamburg and Bremen to the North Atlantic Islands. With a marine archaeological excursus in the Shetland Islands, Skyllis. Zeitschrift für marine und limnische Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte, 15.2, 2015, 172-182.