Sild: Herring fisheries in the medieval Baltic

Let all the fish that swim in the sea,
Salmon and turbot and cod and ling,
Bow down the head and bend the knee,
To herring their king – to herring their king.

Perceval Graves, Bishop of Limerick, 1846

Herring Fishing at Scania, c.1550

In 1202 the Danes captured all the most important citizens of Lübeck and the cities fleet at Scania, while they attended the autumn trading at the Baltic herring fishery in the Sound. That the Danes were able to exploit the annual trade fairs to sieze the entire merchant elite and the merchant fleet of Lübeck attests to the importance of the herring trade in the Baltic and Europe in the medieval period.

Saltwater fish had long been part of the diet of the people living around the Baltic Sea as demonstrated by archaeological finds, and by the eighth and ninth centuries a large scale trade in herring had developed in the region. From the ninth century the steady advance of Christianity in Europe produced a new and increasing market as eating habits changed in accordance with the regulations for fasting that required the laity to abstain from meat for as many as 182 days in the year. Herring proved an ideal substitute. Gutting, removing the head, and preserving in salt could extend its shelf life for up to two years. It could be transported for long distances. And above all, it was cheap. The religious requirement for abstinence created a demand for fish that could not be met all year round by freshwater resources in inland Europe and ocean fish, and in particular herring, fulfilled this need in abundance.

Central to the trade in herring were the fisheries of the Baltic, centred on the island of Rügen and the Sound. Saxon merchants were active at Rügen in the early twelfth century and paid tribute for the right to trade to the high priests of the temple of the Wendish god Svantovit at Arkona. The close ties of the cities of Lübeck and Bardowick with Lüneberg gave them ready access to the key ingredient of salt, while their trading connections with the Rhineland and Westphalia offered a ready market for their goods. After the Danish conquest of Rügen in 1169 and the destruction of Bardowick in 1189 Lübeck was able to develop a leading position in the herring trade. In 1224 the princes of Rügen granted Lübeck the privilege of conducting trade and the processing of herring outside the normal trade centres. Slavic fishermen brought their catch to the Vitten where the fish was gutted, packed in barrels provided by the merchants, and salted with Lüneberg salt. The merchants then exported the herring in an area that stretched from Silesia to central and southern Germany.

To the north-west of Rügen the herring fisheries of the Sound provided a rival centre of trade that surpassed Rügen by the beginning of the fourteenth century. Unlike Rügen, where control of the fisheries was in the hands of the local prince, the seas around the Danish isles were no longer in the control of the Danish king from the early eleventh century. This allowed for the development of unregulated seasonal fishing of herring stocks as farmers and the rural underclass took advantage of an opportunity to supplement food stocks and incomes. Danish kings retained control of the beaches which provided them with an opportunity to raise revenue by levying a number of taxes, including a hut tax, the bodepennig, on the temporary huts erected on the shore during the fishing season. Landing and processing of the catch was additionally restricted to certain locations which created the conditions for a thriving free auction market as merchants competed to buy the freshly landed herring at the Scania fairs.

Once purchased the herring was brought to the Vitte where the gællekonerne cleaned and gutted the herring and the læggekonerne packed the fish into barrels in layers before covering them in a brine of Lüneberg salt. The Wracker, a controller under oath, inspected the filled barrel and if it met the desired standard of quality branded the barrel with the Zirkel, a quality control sign. Together with the merchants brand, and the brands added at each intermediate trading station, this provided the means by which a chain of trade could be traced back from the consumer to the initial producer.

The trade was immensely valuable, attracting merchants from all over the Baltic and North Sea. In his extension to the Chronica Slavorum Arnold of Lübeck described the trade in the late twelfth century:

While the fishing is taking place, merchants come there from all the surrounding nations with gold, silver and other treasures to buy herring from the Danes, herring that they catch at no cost by the abundant grace of God, while the merchants, in order to make a good bargain, offer the best they have, even their lives in shipwreck.

Some hundred years later in Le Songe du Vieil Pelerin, Philippe de Mézières described the annual herring fishing in the Sound:

By long custom, every year ships from the whole of Germany and Prussia gather in great companies to catch these herrings. In each ship there are at least six people, and in many eight, nine or ten. Besides these forty thousand vessels there are five hundred big and medium-sized ships, whose sole task is to collect, salt, and pack into casks the fish taken by the other ships … So you see a great army of men are busy capturing this small fish. For if you reckon up you will find that there are more than three hundred thousand men doing nothing but fish for herrings.

The figures are no doubt an exaggeration but estimates based on the series records suggest somewhere in the region of 10,000 ships annually were fishing for herring in the Sound during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The import tolls paid by Lübeck merchants suggest the scale of the trade. Between 1398 and 1400 Lübeck alone imported 222,378 Rostock barrels of herring, or somewhere in the region of 58,779,420 individual fish. Lübeck’s poundage records for 1368-69 reveal that one third of their total export of Lüneberg salt, some 20,000 to 24,000 barrels, was exported to the Scania fairs.

Development into an international trade brought further trading opportunities which merchants were happy to exploit. Cloth, wine, and luxury goods were brought by the English, Flemish, Dutch, Rhenish and Westphalian merchants. The Scandinavians and eastern Baltic traders brought furs, timber, and agricultural products. The unregulated fisheries also brought competition in the form of fishermen from the North Sea. After the successful war of the Hanseatic League against the Danes was concluded in 1370 by the Treaty of Stralsund the Baltic cities acted to restrict their North Sea competitors from trading at the Scania fairs. In 1384 the Wendish cities banned North Sea merchants from renting fishing boats and buying fishing equipment in the Baltic ports. Such actions led to the English, Flemings and Dutch developing the North Sea fisheries and their direct trade with Prussian cities more strenuously which, exacerbated by a fluctuation in herring stocks in the Sound,  marked the beginning of a long period of decline for the Baltic fisheries as a trans-regional trade centre with the last Scania fairs being held in 1658.


4 comments on “Sild: Herring fisheries in the medieval Baltic

  1. Pingback: Climate Change, Baltic Herring And The Reformation? | Watts Up With That?

  2. Pingback: The Cosmopolitan Herring (The Barrel Always Smells of Herring II) | Flavors of Diaspora

  3. Pingback: How Kim Jong-un, China & the autumn gales set a death trap for North Korea’s fishermen | North Korea Information Database

  4. Pingback: How Kim Jong-un, China & the autumn gales set a death trap for North Korea’s fishermen

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