EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historic Research

June 1996, No. 21

King Clupea

Baltic economic decline. Medieval power shifts. Neo-Viking raiders. The financial elevation of the Low Countries. And in the middle of it all - Clupea harengus.

Quite a role for someone measuring not much longer than a foot when fully grown.

Clupea harengus, more commonly known as the herring, is one of the most abundant fish in the world's seas. Along with its cousins the brisling, menhaden, pilchard, shad, sprat and sardine, it provides food and livelihood for much of the world's population, especially in Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox countries. Most of Europe considered the cod to be an inferior fish and therefore suitable only for consumption by the poor. North Americans would be less picky.

Not that there weren't problems with herring in northern Europe. There were no facilities for preserving fish for shipment overland. The Danes came up with a salting process that worked relatively well, but the taste transformed the herring into a rather unpalatable dish.

The northern European Clupea populations were once believed to live in Arctic Circle waters and migrate toward Europe and North America twice yearly, but were later discovered to spend most of the year in the lower depths and then migrate vertically nearer the surface during the spawning season.

Herring, once abundant in Baltic waters, migrated westward toward the Low Countries sometime around the 1420s. They took prosperity with them and the economy of the Netherlands began flourishing. The German imperial city of Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse, while on the Baltic, was only about 60 land miles away (much further by sea) from the North Sea and therefore well situated to trade with either area. Nearby Hamburg, accessible to the North Sea via the Elbe River, also profited from the herring trade, although it would not become an imperial city until 1510, nearly three centuries after Lübeck did. (Ship passage between the two areas would not become conveniently close until the construction of the Kiel Canal in the 1890s.) The herring had to migrate the long way, around the Jutland Peninsula, moving north through the Oresund or through the Great Belt into the Kattegatt, then west through the Skagerrak. It was about the time of this migration that the trade networks of the Hanseatic League began unraveling.

The history of the League was long (13th to 15th centuries) and convoluted. Not to mention diffuse. Growing out of the commercial transhipment center of Visby, on the Swedish island of Gotland, the League took the Baltic Sea as its primary area of operations. Membership varied during different periods, but the core Hanse Towns are considered to be Lübeck, Hamburg, Lüneburg, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund. Other towns and cities such as Novgorod, Reval, Riga, Danzig, Magdeburg, Cologne, Bruges, Bergen, and London hosted kontore, or permanent commercial enclaves. Founded in part to protect cargoes of herring shipped along northern European coasts, the Hansa grew to wield immense political power throughout the area.

A strange combination of consortium, protection racket, trade association and commodities broker, its activities were many and varied. Among the commodities were copper and iron ore, flax, furs, grain, honey, and naval stores (timber and tar). It shipped herring as far away as the Alps. It built lighthouses, trained pilots and attempted to stamp out piracy within its domain.

One of the attempts to do the latter backfired rather seriously. At a time when Margaret I of Denmark and Albert of Sweden were battling for Scandinavian supremacy, and Margaret's forces had besieged Stockholm, a group of privateers ran naval gauntlets to keep the city supplied with food. The League had no desire to see Denmark victorious (it's location was strategic for the defense of the seaways) and encouraged the loose confederation of freebooters. One faction of the seamen, known as the Vitalian Brotherhood or the Victual Brothers, set up their headquarters at Visby and, as privateers are apt to do, turned to open piracy. In the meantime Margaret gained the upper hand politically and united Denmark, Sweden, and Norway into the Union of Kalmar, in 1395. While this was a blow to the League that foreshadowed its eventual decline, the Brotherhood went on, impartially raiding everyone. The Baltic herring industry suffered from their depredations. Margaret I even turned to England's Richard II, seeking to charter three ships to combat the pirates. She had other allies. After the Vitalians sacked Bergen in 1392, the Teutonic Knights, League allies, began assembling an invasion force, driving the Brotherhood out of Jutland in 1398. The Hansa tried repeatedly to end the menace for good, but with little luck. The Brotherhood expanded their theater of operations, raiding as far south as Spain.

It was a Hamburg resident, Simon of Utrecht, who finally succeeded where various other European forces had failed. Setting off in his ship the Brindled Cow leading a small fleet, he caught up with the pirates at Heligoland. After a three-day, often hand-to-hand combat, Vitalian leader Klas Stortebecker was overpowered and brought back to Hamburg. Bribes failed and Klas soon danced on air beneath a German gibbet. There were other ringleaders at large, but Simon and the Brindled Cow were untiring and soon the other chiefs danced silently to Stortebecker's tune.

The Hansa were no strangers to bribery; it was among their own strategies, along with gifts, loans to foreign political powers, and the manipulation of one monarch against another. If necessary, they would even resort to embargoes, blockades and invasions. Their grip on the herring trade tightened and soon the Scandinavian fleets were being prevented from fishing the Baltic.

League members didn't realize it, but their commercial confederation had peaked. It wasn't just the herring migrations and ensuing competition for the dwindling Baltic supplies. There were many reasons. An uprising against the Teutonic Knights resulted in the loss of West Prussia and Latvia to Poland. Toward the end of the sixteenth century Russia's Ivan III, sick of the League's high-handed tactics, closed the Novgorod kantor. Britain and the Netherlands were just beginning to stretch their trading muscles. The Dutch would become the next great commercial power, followed by the English. It would take several centuries, but the progression was inevitable. And the newly accessible markets of the northern Mediterranean, opened by the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, which unlocked the Straits of Gibraltar to northern European vessels, provided strong rivals such as Spain and Venice to the German cities of the League.

Like a beleaguered and dying beast, the Hansa didn't know when the end was near. Bluster, not backed by real power, only served to annoy former allies. English trade guilds, tired of the arrogance and insularity of the London kantor (known as the Steelyard, because of the steel scales used for commodity measurement within the walls), complained to the crown. And so, on July 25th, 1598, a messenger from Elizabeth I brought a document to the German compound. It was a royal warrant, giving the merchants two weeks to vacate London. Elizabeth's warrant ended a German monopoly of English trade that had existed since the 10th century. The pupil had supplanted the tutor.

The Hanseatic League never officially disbanded; it just faded into relative economic insignificance. And what of our friend Clupea harengus? Well, that depends on whose viewpoint prevails, ours or its. Today an estimated 4.5 million metric tons of herring are caught annually.


This month we'll take a look at other trade and business-related occurrences during the early 16th Century:

French, English, Portuguese and Spanish fishing fleets begin making yearly
fishing trips to Newfoundland for cod. ** Portugal establishes regular
trade with India.

Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first Duke of Norfolk, becomes England's Lord Treasurer.

In the next four years 80 Portuguese ships sail to India and nearby regions, exploring and

The country's oldest stock exchange is formed in Lyons.

Trinity House, a guild of mariners, is incorporated to regulate pilots in British waters.

Apr 30
An anti-foreigner mob attacks the homes of Venetian, Flemish and German merchants in London.

The approximate date Portuguese traders arrive.

Spanish sea captain Gregorio de Villalobos brings a small herd of cattle from Santo Domingo to Vera Cruz, starting the country's cattle industry.

The Society of Merchant Venturers is formed, in Bristol.

Jun 7
Henry VIII begins suppressing some abbeys to raise funds for Oxford and Ipswich colleges.

Jan 26
Thomas More arrests three German merchants on charges of heresy.

Feb 8
The German heretics are examined.

Feb 16
The heretics recant.

Charles V sells his interest in the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) to Portugal.

The Venetian fleet stops picking up English cargoes.

Mar 18
Jacques Cartier is granted funds for his first voyage to the New World, by Francis I.

Jul 15
Cartier first encounters Micmac Indians in Chaleur Bay, trades beads and knives for fur.

Henry VIII breaks with the Catholic Church. His actions are publicly criticized in the market at Fakenham.

Hernán Cortés builds a palace and a sugar refinery at Cuernavaca.

Spain establishes a mint in Mexico City.

A trade outpost and Jesuit mission is established and named Asunción.

The former Roman trading port is occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

The Berkshire market town of Abidonia begins a commercial decline.

Francis I orders plates from an Antwerp goldsmith, the first flat plates.

Netherlands - The protestant Garbrand Hawkes flees persecution and goes to Oxford, England, where he prospers as a stationer and bookseller.

Henry VIII completes the dissolution of the monasteries. William Brabazon, his under-treasurer, receives Dublin's Abbey of St. Thomas.


Pearl of an URL

Go jump in the Baltic. Web-wise, that is. A trip to Gotland, Pearl of the Baltic will plunge you into the middle of this historically important sea. You'll find many files on the region, its history, the Hanseatic League, and a Gotland timeline. Something you don't see every day !!

As always, I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.

Feel free to contact me online, or at
88 South Main Street, Pittsford, NY, 14534-2130
716 264-0423
with any comments or questions.

David Minor

© 1997 David Minor/Eagles Byte