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Why did Bruges get a porpoise each year?

For about three centuries, the coastal town of Blankenberge would send to the nearby city of Bruges a porpoise. A new study examines this tradition and why it happened.

In an article published in the journal Urban History, Kristiaan Dillen looks into Bruges’ records that reveal the annual event, where a porpoise, known as meerzwijn in the sources, was transported each spring from Blankenberge to Bruges, a distance of about 15 kilometres. Here, the animal would be given to a local fishmonger and cut up into pieces, and then delivered to the alderman and officials of Bruges for a feast.

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While the sources from Bruges date only to 1400, it seems this event took place for generations before, with the records explaining it “has been the custom for a long time.” Dillen, a PhD student at Ghent University, believes it may have started as early as 1270. The practice would continue on until 1564.

Porpoises would be a somewhat unusual creature in medieval Flanders – they would be caught in fishermen’s nets as byproducts of their regular catches, but little evidence exists to show they were intentionally hunted.

While previous historians have seen this annual handover as a kind of punishment or tribute levied by Bruges to their smaller neighbor, Dillen sees this as a gift, based on a longstanding relationship. He writes:

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In coastal Flanders, the presentation of the porpoise demonstrates how communities not only maintained ties of solidarity with each other but also relied on relations with the larger inland cities. Similarly to the outports in the Zwin estuary, the newcomer Blankenberge was integrated into Bruges’ sphere of influence. While the outports became part of a port and staple network, Blankenberge entered a system that had to provide Bruges with food, nautical expertise and protection against the risks associated with the maritime landscape. This system was essentially based on trust. Both cities partially depended on the support of the other to maintain and improve their respective places in the landscape.

The article, “Porpoise, punishment and partnership: the meaning of presenting and consuming a marine mammal in late medieval coastal Flanders,” by Kristiaan Dillen, appears in Urban History. Click here to read it.

Kristiaan Dillen started his PhD program in 2017, and is working on a thesis entitled, Seaports, port cities and their hinterland: the maritime network in the county of Flanders in the late Middle Ages. Click here to visit his university profile.

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Top Image: Porcus marinus, in ‘Liber de natura rerum’ of Thomas van Cantimpré, Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16, fol. 119r 

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