A link with the external world: The stockfish trade in 14th-15th century Iceland

Medieval fishermen
Medieval fishermen
Medieval fishermen

Sayaka Matsumoto

Paper given at the First Finnish-Japanese workshop for doctoral students of history and economics (2010)


Iceland was settled mainly by Norwegian Vikings in the period c.870-c.930. Towards the end of this period, settlers established the law and the assembly system all over the island.

Stockfish (especially dried cod) has been main preserved food in Iceland for centuries from the very beginning of its history. In the 14th century stockfish became the main export commodity from Iceland, replacing vaðmál (woollen homespun). At first the stockfish trade was carried exclusively by Norwegian merchants from Bergen, where became a sort of ‘staple’ for the North Atlantic communities under the supervision of the Norwegian monarchy. The situation was, however, forced to change in the 15th century when English men intervened in sailing to Iceland. English sailors competed with Norwegian, later German (mostly Hanseatic) counterparts over Icelandic stockfish, involving their monarchies. This situation has coloured the 14th-15th centuries in Icelandic history with a sort of ‘international’ air.

‘Internationality’ of Iceland itself is polemic in its history and strongly connected with the discussion on foreign trade. The historiography of the Icelandic foreign trade has tended to focus on its economic dependence on Norwegian kingship. From the 19th century most Icelandic scholars maintained that the 11th-12th century was the golden age in their history, when many Icelanders sailed abroad by their own ocean-going ships and widely communicated with foreigners just as their ancestors of great Vikings. But from the late 12th century, they maintained, sailing and trade by Icelanders gradually declined, and Norwegian merchants took the place of them. Being a protector of merchants, the monarch in Norway strengthened his influence on Icelandic trade and finally made Icelanders swear an oath of allegiance and tribute to himself in the years 1262-64. In that view – it has actually been long standing general view for the submission – the royal trade monopoly was considered as the main cause of Iceland’s decline as a ‘nation’.

Around 1990 criticism against this long-held historical view began to appear. The former discussion had thought Icelandic fur-coats (vararfeldir) as main exports and the fall of its price in foreign market around 1200 as the cause of the decline of Icelandic economy in the 13th century. But the evidences of the popularity of Icelandic fur-coats are quite obscure in historical sources. In fact,main exports from Iceland before c.1300 were not fur-coats, but vaðmál, woollen homespun, if we examine sources carefully. Cheaper and warmer Icelandic vaðmál were popular at least until c.1340, mainly in Norway as cloths against cold for fishermen or poor people in town, as well as for monks. Thus the fall in the price of fur-coats did not really concern with the decline in Icelandic economy. After all, the assumption of royal monopoly in the 13th century was a mere reflection of Danish royal policy in the 19th century, which was applied by contemporary Icelandic nationalists. Difficulty to reach a conclusion about issues before 1200 is a tendency in Icelandic history overall because of the lack of contemporary sources, but still we can estimate from later sources that quite many Norwegian ships had visited Iceland and offered an active communication throughout the period 1100-1400.

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