The character of commercial fishing in Icelandic waters in the fifteenth century

The character of commercial fishing in Icelandic waters in the fifteenth century

By Mark Gardiner

Cod and Herring: The Archaeology and History of Medieval Sea Fishing, eds. J. Barrett and D. Orton (Oxbow Books, 2016)

Medieval fishermen pulling in their catch

Medieval fishermen pulling in their catch

Abstract: From the early fifteenth century English vessels began fishing in Icelandic waters. They adopted a mixed approach of fishing and trading to spread the risk of the enterprise. These long-distance expeditions are identified as an example of second-stage commercialization of fishing which was marked by the greater investment of capital, use of larger vessels and the adoption of different methods of processing and preserving fish. The strategies of the English merchants, Icelandic fishermen and Hanse traders are all considered. The different behaviour of these groups are interpreted in terms of the concept of situated reason. Economic decisions were made according to the perspectives and value-systems of each group. The development of the Icelandic fisheries was also affected by the diplomatic aims of the Danish crown, which was struggling to reassert control within a distant territory.

Introduction: Commercial fishing by its very nature was intimately connected with trade. Yet the subjects of fishing and trade in the Middle Ages have generally been studied separately. Without the ability to distribute and sell fresh fish very rapidly or to preserve fish for later sale and consumption, large-scale fishing was impossible.

Some work on the connections between trade and fishing has been undertaken and the broad outlines of their relationship are beginning to emerge. Barrett et al. have argued that the advent of fishing on a substantial scale and the development of the fish trade around the end of the first millennium coincided with an increase in commerce in western Europe more generally. Kowaleski has identified a second stage in the commercialization of fishing which took place at the end of the fourteenth and during the course of the fifteenth century during which the scale of production was substantially increased.

The present paper examines further the concept of second-stage commercialization by looking at fishing in Icelandic waters. It begins with a review of commerce between Scandinavia and northern Europe and sets the development of fishing within the context of the struggle for power between the four parties, the English fishers and traders, the Icelanders, the Danish crown, as overlords of Iceland, and later in the fifteenth century, Hanseatic merchants.

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