Hans Christian Küchelmann, 31 July 2023
Within this years Low German Language Festival “Platt Land Fluss” (Flat Land River) the Institut für Niederdeutsche Sprache (INS, Institute for Low German Language) organises a Low German Science Slam entitled “Höör to – fraag na – weet Bescheed!” (Listen – ask – know) on the 16th of September in Bremen.
Two lectures will present outputs of our research into Hanseatic North Atlantic trade respectively the projects “Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea” and “Looking in from the Edge” (LIFTE):
Was macht die Kuh auf dem Schiff!? Wie uns eine Auseinandersetzung mit Todesfolge vor 466 Jahren Details über die Konstruktion alter Bremer Handelsschiffe verrät
[What does the Cow on the Ship!? How a Quarrel with fatal Consequences 466 Years ago reveals Details about the Construction of ancient Bremen Merchant Ships]
Hans Christian Küchelmann
Der geheimnisvolle isländische Hase, der sich in einen Socken verwandelte
[The enigmatic Icelandic Hare, which turned into a Sock]
Posted in: Announcements
Bart Holterman, 23 May 2023
(for English see below)
Hier beantworten wir die Fragen, die Besuchenden der Ausstellung „Immer Weiter – Die Hanse im Nordatlantik“ gestellt haben. In diesem zweiten Teil geht es um die Fahrt zwischen Norddeutschland und den Inseln und das Leben an Bord.
Wie lange war man damals von Bremen nach Shetland unterwegs?
Die Dauer der Fahrt zwischen Norddeutschland und Shetland war stark vom Wetter abhängig, vor allem von der Windrichtung und -stärke. Einige Tage bis einer Woche war man jedoch sicher unterwegs. Der Bremer Schiffer Brüning Rulves beschreibt zum Beispiel in seiner Memoiren eine Reise von Bremen nach Shetland im Jahr 1551, die vier Tage im Anspruch nahm.
Wie sicher waren die Schiffe im Vergleich zu heutigen Schiffen? Gab es ein Rettungskonzept?
Obwohl die meisten seefahrenden Schiffe sehr stabil gebaut waren, war die Seefahrt sehr viel gefährlicher als heutzutage. Dabei war es nicht sosehr der Bau des Schiffes, sondern die Elemente, die die größte Gefahr darstellten. Das Risiko in einem Sturm zu geraten und Schiffbruch zu erleiden war reell. In so einem Fall gab es kein Rettungskonzept, und konnte man nur hoffen, es zu überleben.
Haben sich die Leute an Bord mal geprügelt?
Das Zusammenleben vieler Leute auf engstem Raum während eines langen Zeitraums führte selbstverständlich zu Spannungen und nicht selten auch zu Prügeleien. Unter anderem aus diesem Grund herrschte an Bord eine strikte Hierarchie, wobei der Kapitän die oberste Befehlsgewalt hatte. Laut dem hansischen Seerecht war es ihm erlaubt, seine Besatzungsmitglieder (einmal) zu schlagen. Trotzdem liefen solche Situationen manchmal aus dem Ruder, wie zum Beispiel bei dem Tod des Bremer Schiffers Cordt Hemeling in Shetland im August 1557.
Was hat man damals an Bord von Schiffen gegessen und getrunken?
Auf längeren Reisen konnten natürlich keine leicht verderbliche Nahrungsmittel mitgenommen werden. Deswegen hat man vor allem getrocknete oder gesalzene Lebensmittel gegessen, wie Schiffszwieback und gesalzenes Fleisch. Auch Stockfisch und getrocknete Erbsen und Bohnen werden regelmäßig in Proviantlisten erwähnt. Getrunken hat man dabei hauptsächlich Bier. In Rechnungen für Seereisen wird regelmäßig einen Unterschied zwischen Schiffsbier gemacht: Bier das man an Bord getrunken hat bzw. das als Handelsware dienende Bier.
Here we answer the questions which were asked by visitors of our exhibition „Immer Weiter – Looking In From The Edge“. This second part bundles the questions about the journey between Northern Germany and the islands and life on board.
How long did it take to travel from Bremen to Shetland in those days?
The duration of a ship’s journey depended for a large degree on the weather conditions, especially the wind direction and speed. A couple of days until a week was a likely duration for the journey from Northern Germany to Shetland. For example, the skipper Brüning Rulves from Bremen mentions in his memoirs a journey from Bremen to Shetland in 1551 which lasted four days.
How secure were historical ships in comparison to modern ships? Was there a rescue plan?
Although most seagoing ships had quite sturdy constructions, seafaring in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period was much more dangerous than nowadays. It was not so much the construction of the ship, but the elements which were dangerous. There was a high risk of getting caught up in a storm and to suffer shipwreck. In those cases there were no rescue concepts; one could only hope to survive it.
Did the people on board fight now and then?
The cohabitation of many people in a cramped space during a large period of time of course led to tensions, and not rarely to violence. Among others for this reason, a tight hierarchy prevailed on board, with the highest authority in the hands of the captain. According to Hanseatic maritime law, he was allowed to hit the others on board (once) as a disciplinary measure. However, this didn’t prevent the violence getting out of hand sometimes, such as in the case about the death of Bremen skipper Cordt Hemeling in Shetland in August 1557.
What did they eat and drink on the ships back in the day?
Perishable foodstuffs of course could not be taken on long journeys. For this reason the people on board mostly lived on dried and salted food, such as ship biscuits and salted meat. Dried peas and beans and stockfish are other examples of food which are regularly listed as provision on ship journeys. It was mainly washed down with beer. Accounts for fitting out merchant ships regularly make the distinction between ship beer and merchant beer, of which the former was drunk on board, whereas the latter served as merchandise.
Bart Holterman, 19 April 2023
(for English see below)
Am 23. März wurde im Deutschen Schifffahrtsmuseum die Ausstellung “Immer Weiter – Die Hanse im Nordatlantik” eröffnet. Am Ende dieser Ausstellung können Besuchenden Fragen über die Themen der Ausstellung hinterlassen. Nach fast einem Monat sind wir sehr erfreut über die große Zahl der Fragen, die dort gestellt wurden! Nun ist es Zeit, auf einige davon zu antworten. In dieser Post haben wir Fragen gebündelt, die mit Kommunikation und Alltag auf den Inseln zu tun haben.
Welche Sprache haben die Händler benutzt?
Im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert sprach man in Norddeutschland noch meistens Niederdeutsch, eine Sprache die noch heute als Plattdeutsch bekannt ist. Seit der Hansezeit war diese Sprache in großen Teilen Nordeuropas die internationale Handelssprache, vergleichbar mit Englisch heutzutage. Vor allem im Dänischen und Norwegischen sind noch viele niederdeutsche Leihwörter anzutreffen. Es ist daher anzunehmen, dass die deutschen Kaufleute in Shetland auch Niederdeutsch gesprochen haben, und dass dies von ihren Handelspartnern auch durchweg verstanden wurde. So gibt es Dokumente, die belegen, dass Shetländer gefragt wurden, deutschsprachige Dokumente für die schottische Verwaltung ins Englische zu übersetzen.
Andererseits hatten die deutschen Kaufleute wahrscheinlich durch ihre jahrzehntelange Anwesenheit auf den Inseln auch einige Kenntnisse der Sprache der Inselbewohner. Diese sprachen noch bis ins 18. Jahrhundert eine skandinavische Sprache, Norn genannt. Die Obrigkeit benutzte jedoch zunehmend die schottische Version des Englischen. Aus Briefen Bremer Kaufleute des späten 17. Jahrhunderts wissen wir, dass die deutschen Kaufleute auch Schreibfähigkeiten in dieser Sprache besaßen.
Im Handelsalltag wurden all diese Sprachen wahrscheinlich neben- oder durcheinander benutzt, je nachdem, mit wem man handelte.
Wurde Wissen über Sprache und Gepflogenheiten nur innerhalb der Handelsfamilie weitergegeben, oder gab es auch Schule?
Es gab sicher auch Schulen im Spätmittelalter und in der Frühen Neuzeit. Allerdings waren diese meistens darauf gerichtet, die lateinische Sprache zu lehren und für ein wissenschaftliches Studium oder Verwaltungsfunktionen vorzubereiten. Praktisches Wissen über den Handel wurde erworben, indem man in der Lehre bei einem Kaufmann ging. Dies musste aber nicht zwingend ein Mitglied der eigenen Familie sein. Aus Island wissen wir, dass angehende Kaufleute zudem einen Winter lang bei einer isländischen Familie verblieben, um so die Sprache und Sitten der zukünftigen Handelspartner kennenzulernen und zudem erste Handelskontakte zu knüpfen. Ob dies in Shetland auch der Fall war ist nicht bekannt, aber es wäre anzunehmen.
Wie haben die Bremer damals auf Shetland gelebt?
Die deutschen Kaufleute in Shetland hatten keine festen Häuser, wo sie gewohnt haben. Die einzigen Gebäuden, die sie benutzten, waren kleine Buden, die als Lager- und Verkaufsräume dienten. Vielleicht haben die Schiffer und Kaufleute auch in diesen Buden übernachtet, aber die restlichen Besatzungsmitglieder und Gehilfen schliefen an Bord der Schiffe, die in den Buchten vor Anker lagen. Hier lebten sie dicht aufeinander ohne viel Privatsphäre und durften nur von Bord, wenn der Schiffer es erlaubte. Dies wissen wir aus Streitfällen, wie z. B. dem über den Tod des Bremer Schiffers Cordt Hemeling, der im Sommer 1557 nach einer Prügelei an Bord starb.
Die vielen weiteren Fragen sind nächstes Mal daran!
The exhibition “Immer Weiter – Looking in from the Edge” was opened in the German Maritime Museum on 23 March. At the end of the exhibition, visitors have the possibility to ask questions about the topics of the exhibition. After almost a month we can say that we are positively surprised by the large number of questions asked! Now it is time, to start answering some of them. In this post we have bundled those questions, that have to do with communication and life on the islands.
Which language did the merchants use?
In the 16th and 17th century people in Northern Germany largely spoke Low German, a language that is still known as “Plattdeutsch” today. Since the Hanseatic period, this language was the universal language of trade for a large part of northern Europe, comparably to English today. Especially in Danish and Norwegian we can still find many Low German loanwords. We can thus assume that the German merchants in Shetland also spoke Low German, and that this was understood by their trading partners. For example, there are documents that attest that Shetlanders were asked to translate German letters into English for the Scottish authorities.
On the other hand, German merchants probably acquired some knowledge of the language of the islanders due to their decades-long contacts. They spoke a kind of Scandinavian language known as Norn until the 18th century. However, the authorities and the landowners used Scots, a variety of English, more and more. We known from late 17th-century letters of merchants from Bremen, that they possessed writing proficiency in Scots as well.
In the trading practice, all languages were probably used next to each other, depending on who the trading partners were.
Was knowledge about the language and customs only passed on within a merchant family, or was there also a school?
There certainly existed schools in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, but these were mostly focused on teaching the Latin language and to prepare for scholarly studies or administrative roles. Practical knowledge about trading practices were transferred by entering into an apprenticeship with a senior merchant. This did not necessarily have to be a member of the own family, however. From Iceland we also know that there existed the practice that aspiring merchants would stay one winter with an Icelandic family to learn the language and customs of their future trading partners, and to establish a first trading network. Whether this was also the case in Shetland is not known, but it is very well possible.
How did the merchants from Bremen live in Shetland in those times?
The German merchants in Shetland did not possess houses in which they lived. The only buildings used by them were small booths, which served as storage facilities and shops. It is possible that the skippers and merchants also spent the night in those booths, but all the other crew members and servants slept on board the ships, which were at anchor in the bays of the islands. Here they lived closely together without much personal space or comfort. Moreover, they were only allowed to leave the ship with explicit permission of the skipper. We know this from cases in which this led to problems, for example the case about the death of skipper Cordt Hemeling from Bremen, who died in Summer 1557 after a violent confrontation with his crew members on board.
The many other questions will be answered next time!
Hans Christian Küchelmann, 6 March 2023
& Hannah Meine
Back in 2016, we wrote on this blog about the peculiar death of Bremen skipper Cordt Hemeling in Shetland in August 1557. Hemeling was lying with his ship in Qualsunt (Whalsay) and was found dead in his bed one morning, ten to twelve days after a fight with two of his crew members. The ship’s carpenter Gerdt Breker, who had injured Hemeling’s hand on that occasion, was subsequently accused of manslaughter, forced to sign a confession of guilt and to pay a compensation to Hemeling’s family. Back in Bremen he raised a court case against this accusation, pleading to be not guilty of Hemeling’s death.
On a summer evening in 2021, I met with a friend of mine, the physician Hannah Meine, and we came to talk about the case. I wanted to know, if the evidence given in the related 16th century documents would allow inferences about the reason for Cordt Hemeling’s sudden and unexpected death, viewed with today’s medical knowledge. Is it possible to die from a hand injury? And as a consequence: was Breker falsely convicted of manslaughter?
For a reliable medical assessment, it is important to know as precisely as possible what happened to the deceased before his death. Luckily, the medical information contained in the documents about the case indeed allows us to narrow down the possible causes of death and to exclude others.
The court case lasted until 1560 and produced extensive records with testimonies about what happened in the summer of 1557 from the defendant, the accusants and of the foud (governor) of Shetland, Olave Sinclair. The original documents are stored at the Staatsarchiv Bremen and an English summary has been published by Ballantyne & Smith (1999, 73-74, 78, no. 110, 118). See also Holterman (2020, 150, 216-218, 224, 357). Transcripts and facsimiles of the documents are available in HANSdoc (Holterman & Nicholls 2018). We will concentrate here only on wordings in the documents shedding light on the constitution of Cordt Hemeling.
According to the witness account of Gerdt Breker, given in the letter of his lawyer Dirick von Minden of 7th of February 1558, there had been increasing tensions between the skipper Cordt Hemeling and his crew for a while:
„Sette und ßegge anfencklick wahr, ock allenn den bewust, de am leschen mit dem schipper Coerde Hemelinck, dem godt gnade, geßegelt hebben, dat he in der tidt, veil unwillenn, mith dem gemenen schepes geßellen, offte deneren gehatt, de mit honischen und troetzegen worden uthgehalet, derhalven ße unvormitlick vororsaket, tho veil malen umme gedachtes schipperen willen, dat schip tho rumende, und sinen moetwillen (umme ein grotter quaet tho vormidende) stede gegeven hebben, is doch zelige Cordt Hemelinck, de schipper, doch vorgedachte gedult der gemenen schepes dener, in ßynem avermode, nicht gestillet, den dagelickes de overhant meir genamen.“
One day, three crew members, the helmsman Evert Barnewolt, the carpenter Gerdt Breker and Alert Wilckens, were sent with a boat (schuete) to Laeß foerde (Laxfirth) to deliver some goods. According to Breker, the unloading took longer than expected for necessary reasons (uth noetwendigen orsaecken) and the crew returned to the ship late in the evening. They were welcomed by the skipper with curses and scolding. When Evert Barnewolt and Gert Breker came aboard, they were both hit by the skipper with a handtspike, a wooden rod used to turn the capstan. Gerdt Breker received a heavy blow in his neck and another one on his back and fell on the ship. He then took a piece of firewood lying around and hit the skipper, injuring two of his fingers. When Alert Wilckens, the third crew member, came aboard, he hit the skipper with a handtspike on the left ear, causing him to fall on the upper deck (averlop):
„[…] de de schipper mith floekende und schelden entfangen, is de stuerman Evert Barnewolt am ersten avergestegen, dar nha de schipper Cordt Hemelingk, mit ener handtspiken geslagen, is em doch under dem slage entfallen. Darnha is averstegen de nhu beklagde Gerdt Brecker, den de schipper mit ener hantspiken hefftich in den nacken geslagen, dat he gestortet is, den anderen slach up den rugge, ock unstummich gedrapen, hefft beklagder do ungever ein barne holt, vor der hant gefunden, dat mede dem schipperen II vinger in der handt, entweg geslagen. Dar nha is ock de derde, Alert Wilckens genompt avergestegen, de den schipperen mit ener hanthspiken ahn dat luchter oer geslagen hefft, alßo dat he dar van de koebruggen is weddergestortet, wert up den averlop.“
(letter of Dirick von Minden 7. 2. 1558).
After this incident, the dispute was settled and Cordt Hemeling lived and worked with his crew normally for ten to twelve days, even with the guys he had that quarrel with the other day. He ate with the other merchants, went on the island to buy sheep and constructed a hut and a bed on the island together with his carpenter. He even took part in the work itself, e. g. by nailing. He did not accuse Gerdt Breker of anything, except for the pain of his fingers:
„Nha voerloep des nu vorgedachten unwillen is nicht tho weniger de schipper darnha dagelickes by de 10 offte 12 dagelanck, mit ßinem volcke, ock mith den hantdadigen tho lande gefaren, darmede sampt anderen koepluden gegeten und gedrunckenn, ane jenigen ovell moet, ock tho twen malen sulvest up den eylanden mede geweßen, und schape gehalet, middeler wyle Gerdt Breker nergens mede beklaget, den allene van wegen siner finger ith.“
(Letter of Dirick von Minden 7. 2. 1558).
„Item dat de schypper Cordt Hemelinck selyger darna myth dem folke gegeten unde gedrunken, tho lande unde up de ohe gefaren, dar bygestan, do myn principal de boden up dat landt tymmerde, des gelyken de koien yn der boden, vor den schypper, dar he em ock sulvest thogelanget, wes Gerth tho donde hadde, van nagelen unde anderen.“
(letter of Dirick von Minden 1. 2. 1559).
After ten to twelve days Cordt Hemeling felt weak, reported a headache to the cook and went to bed. The following morning, he was found dead in his bead:
„Do doch midler wille, de schipper up einen avent swack gewordenn, und jegens dem koke aver kranckheit sines hovedes geklaget, und sick dar aver tho bedde gelecht, des anderen morgens is de schipper, dem godt gnade, unvorsendes in ßiner koien doth gefunden.“
(letter of Dirick von Minden 7. 2. 1558).
Gerdt Breker claims in his defence that it cannot be proven that the injury he admits to have inflicted upon Hemeling is related to his death:
„Dewile den gebedenden heren, nemandes de dar levet mit warheit kan gudt don, dat de schipper Cordt Hemelinck van dem slage, den em boklagder Gerdt Breker geslagen, gestorven ßy, den hefft dar nha 10 offte 12 dagelanck alle sinen vorigen handell noch gefoert, mith dem nu beklagden, sampt anderen sunder jenigen ovelmoet, gegeten und gedruncken.“
(letter of Dirick von Minden 7. 2. 1558).
His accusers, among them Cordt Hemeling’s brother Gerdt Hemeling, claim that there is no alternative explanation for the cause of death of Hemeling other than that he died from the blow dealt to him by Breker (letter of Gerdt Hemeling 12. 12. 1559). The arguments are repeated several times in the different documents with no further relevant details given, except for two witness accounts describing different kinds of pain. Hermen Schroder reports that Cordt Hemeling complained about pain of the heart, while Diderich Snelle reports of pain of the (left) side of the body:
“dann idt secht Hermen Schroder mynn zelige broder hebbe umme wedaghe des hertenn, unnd Diderich Snelle secht he umme wedage der syden geclaget hebbe.”
(Letter of Gerdt Hemeling 12. 12. 1559).
„[…] dan obwol Hermen Schroder gezeuget, Cordt Hemeling saliger habe den abent vorseinen lesten abscheide umb wehetage deß hertzenn geclaget, unnd Diderich Schnelle saget van wehetage der linckeren seiten, so konen oder mugen dennoch die publicierte attestationes darauß alße streitich keines weges erachtet, noch viel weiniger als undichtich rejiciert und vorworffenn werden, dweile beide wehetage in una eademque parte corporis, und alßo ann einem orde deß leibes befunden, unnd wol geschehen kan, daß ein mensch zugeleich in der seitenn und umbs hertze wehetage habe, unnd dennoich itzt uber die seitenn, dan ubers hertze clage, zu deme da todtlige kranckheit vorhanden, gibt die vernufft und erfarenheit genoichsam, daß als dan daß hertze, welchs gemeinlich in der linckern seiten, und nicht in der rechtern seiten zu sitzen pflecht, am meisten periclitiert, beengestiget und gekrencket wirt. Derhalbenn, wer sagt, daß ehr schmertze umbs hertze habe, der gibt auch zuvormarchenn, daß im die linckern seitenn mit wehetagenn behafftet.“
(Letter of Dirick von Minden 15. 1. 1560).
Do these documents allow conclusions about the cause of Cordt Hemeling’s death from a modern medical perspective? Cordt Hemeling was reported to have been injured on his hand. Since he was apparently able to take part in construction work in the days following the quarrel, including himself nailing, the injury cannot have been more than a spraining or a fracture of a few hand bones. Otherwise he would have been severely impaired in his action. An injury of the hand cannot cause death itself, except in case of a blood poisoning, which could be caused by a wound getting infected with germs. This, however, would have affected Hemeling’s ability to use his hand and his condition would have worsened gradually, including a state of fever. The witness accounts instead report that he was well and acted normally during the days between the quarrel and his death.
Considering the reported chest pain, an illness unrelated to the preceding quarrel could have been responsible for his unexpected exitus. A cardiac infarction or less likely a pulmonary embolism can show symptoms of chest pain. The likelihood of cardiac infarctions raises with age. Unfortunately, we do not know Cordt Hemelings age, but given the fact that he was in command of a ship as a skipper and is included in the book of citizens of Bremen, it is unlikely that he was younger than 30 and might well have been older (see also the blog post about the career of Brüning Rulves).
A rib fracture could also cause chest pain, but is not likely here because it would have resulted in intense pain immediately after the downfall, not with a delay of 10-12 days.
The report of a headache preceding his death could be a hint towards a head injury following the blow with the handtspiken on his left ear or the subsequent downfall on the upper deck. When some venous vessels are ruptured by a heavy concussion, a slow bleeding is possible, which gradually claims space between the brain and the skull bone. Once the brain is crimped too much, the patient becomes drowsy and loses consciousness until death, which might occur even days after the blow to the head was inflicted. The reported 10-12 days between injury and death are a possible timespan for this kind of correlation.
Summarizing the historic evidence, we may look at the case from a juristic perspective. We have to suppose that all witnesses made their testimonies in all conscience. At least neither the other crew members nor the prosecutors contradicted the presentation of the events given by the accused Gerdt Breker. The only discrepancy disputed in the documents is about the kind of pain reported by Cordt Hemeling the night before his death. This discrepancy cannot be solved anymore, but assuming the reported pain was related to his sudden death, both observations medically lead to possible or likely causes of death, which are certainly not related to the hand injury caused and admitted by Gerdt Breker. The argument that there is no possible alternative explanation for Cordt Hemeling’s death, brought forward by the prosecutors (e. g. letter of Gerdt Hemeling 12. 12. 1559) is rather weak, at least in a jurisdiction in which the principle in dubio pro reo should be applied. From the medical perspective, other explanations for this sudden death are definitely possible and likely. Furthermore, a causal relation to the hand injury can be excluded. A cardiac infarction would have been completely independent from the events 10-12 days before the death. A brain bleeding, following a concussion, could have been related to a possible head injury caused by the blow with the handtspiken on Hemeling’s ear or the subsequent downfall on the averlop. This blow was, however, inflicted to Hemeling by Alert Wilckens. It remains rather peculiar why none of the involved parties demanded a closer investigation of the role of Alert Wilckens in Hemeling’s death. While both crew members feared penalty in Shetland initially (see e. g. letter of Dirick van Minden 7. 2. 1558), later accusations concentrated solely on the carpenter, whereas Alert Wilckens was not mentioned anymore in the documents.
One more juristic aspect is relevant here: According to the then valid Hanseatic ship’s law, the skipper had the right to hit his crew members once with his hand or fist as a punishment, but he was not allowed to hit twice, in which case the crew member had the right to defend himself:
“[…] und isset dat de meester eenen slaet he is hem sculdich te verdraghen eenen slach mitter hant oft mitter vust men sloghe men eenen meer he mochte sich wol weren […]”
(Vonnesse van Damme § 20, 14th century; Jahnke & Graßmann 2003, 36;
see also Roles of Oleron of ca. 1266 § 12 and Stadtrecht Hamburg of 1497 Schiffrecht § 20).
Therefore, Breker had the law on his side when he hit Hemeling, but Alert Wilckens’ blow against Hemeling was illegal. Indeed, lawyer Dirick von Minden refers to this law without explicitly stating it, when he claims that Gerdt Breker acted in justified self-defense after being hit twice by his captain:
„[…] myn principal Gerth Breker, Cordt Hemelink seligen, andere nargen den up de hantspiken geslagen, de slach uppe de fynger unde arm gegleden, unde dat de schypper vorhen mynen principal twe slege myth der hantspiken gegeven, dat he dar van gestortet.“
(Letter of Dirick von Minden 1. 2. 1559).
„Deweile dan nhun, auß den ergangenen gezeugnisse, kuntlich und offenbar, daß saliger Corth Hemelinges, von Gerth Breker meinen principalen, nicht doitlich vorwunt gewest, sonder alleine mein principal ex necessaria sui corporis defensione, des vorstorbenen frevel mit einem hantspikenn, auff die vinger unnd arm schlagende geweret …“
(Letter of Dirick von Minden and 15. 1. 1560).
Assuming we would have been medical experts in the court case against Gerdt Breker, we would like to suggest, der hochehrbare und hochweise Rath der Stadt Bremen should follow the plea of the advocacy of not guilty and absolve Gerdt Breker of all accusations related to the death of Cordt Hemeling, reducing the accusation at least to bodily injury maximally.
The technical details given in the documents also allow for some interesting glimpses about the construction of the ship, which are of interest for research upon historical ship building. We will dive deeper into these matters in a separate blog article.
• Ballantyne, John H. & Smith, Brian (1999): Shetland Documents, volume 1, 1195 -1579, Lerwick
• Holterman (2016): Manslaughter in the north? the death of Cordt Hemeling on Shetland, 1557
• Holterman, Bart (2020): The Fish Lands. German trade with Iceland, Shetland and the Faroe Islands in the late 15th and 16th century, Berlin
• Holterman, Bart & Nicholls, John H. (2018): HANSdoc Database, Bremerhaven
HansDoc IDs 15570900SHE00, 15580207BRE00, 15580214BRE00, 15580307BRE00, 15580321BRE00, 15580502BRE00, 15590109BRE00, 15590201BRE00, 15590906BRA00, 15591212BRE00, 15600115BRE00, 15600129BRE00, 15600212BRE00
All documents Staatsarchiv Bremen, 2-r.11.kk., Akten der Hitlandfahrer
• Jahnke, Carsten & Graßmann, Antjekathrin (2003): Seerecht im Hanseraum des 15. Jahrhunderts. Edition und Kommentar zum Flandrischen Copiar Nr. 9, Veröffentlichungen zur Geschichte der Hansestadt Lübeck Reihe B 36, Lübeck
• One of the documents from the court case will be shown in the exhibition “Immer Weiter – die Hanse im Nordatlantik” in the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, from 24 March 2023.
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.