by Marguerite Ragnow (1997)Called the Beef of the Sea, cod was an important commodity in the late medieval and early modern periods, linking at varying times Iceland, Norway/Denmark, the German cities of the Hanseatic League, England, Scotland, Flanders, France, Portugal, the Atlantic coastal territories of North America (from Greenland to the Caribbean), Italy, and the Levant. The long and continuous exploitation of cod was due in part to the wide range of its habitat, and in part because the fish is rich without being fatty, with a significant amount of protein per ounce, and it could be easily and simply cured, either by salting or air drying.1
Cods development as an international commodity effectively began in the thirteenth century with the regulation of Icelandic and Greenlandish trade by the Norwegian kings. Initially this regulation limited access to the cod fisheries to dependents of the Norwegian crown, but by the end of the fourteenth century, when the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were united, trading licenses were granted to the Hanseatic cities of Germany (mainly Hamburg) that had established themselves at the Norwegian trading center of Bergen, giving them a stranglehold on the industry.2 The advent of the Black Death, first in Europe in the 1350s and then in Iceland by 1402-04, loosened control of the north Atlantic territories by the Dano-Norwegians and the Hanse, and English merchants and fisherman began sailing to Iceland in great numbers to catch or buy cod.3 A report from the English parliament, dated 1415, states that English vessels had by that time been sailing to the Icelandic fishing grounds for six or seven years and on that basis, English fishermen could therefore claim a traditional title to them.4 This was especially true with respect to Greenland, where the English were able, through the neglect of the Norwegian authorities, to establish direct trade relations in the early fifteenth century. This was particularly attractive to the Greenlanders, who were able to sell dried cod, commonly called stockfish, at twice the price to the English as to the Norwegians or their representatives.5
By the 1470s, Dano-Norwegian control of its Atlantic territories was renewed, primarily with the help of the Hanseatic merchants, who wished to eliminate their English competitors. This effort was only marginally successful, and Hanseatic ships began to sail directly to Iceland from their hometowns instead of via their bases in Bergen. Competition for the Icelandic cod fisheries became fierce. Several wars were fought between English and Hanseatic fishermen over Icelandic fishing rights. English ships were seized with increasing frequency by the Danish authorities, who, by the sixteenth century, established an effective monopoly that lasted until 1787, with the Hanseatic League reaping most of the benefit.6 Ultimately, the English were forced to seek fisheries further afield, leading to the development of fishing off the North American coast.
Cabots 1497 voyage to the North American coast led to the establishment of cod fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland and the Newfoundland Banks, as well as along the New England coast, the Maritimes, the Gulf and River of St. Lawrence, and Labrador. In a letter dated August 3, 1527, written from St. Johns Harbour, Newfoundland, eleven ships from Normandy, two from Portugal and one from Brittany were reported engaged in cod fishing at the same time.7 The English cod trade centered in Bristol; the French in La Rochelle and several Breton ports, and the Portuguese in Lisbon.8 In the early fifteenth century, Bristol ships had an established trade route that sent them to Portugal in the spring for salt, then to Iceland for cod, back to Portugal where the fish were sold and where cargoes of oil, wine, and salt were purchased for sale in England. With the establishment of the North American fisheries, which were more extensive than those in Iceland and Greenland, the English were able to develop a broader export market, bringing cod and herring to Italy in exchange for alum for the papal states and other goods from the Levant.9
The French dominated North American cod fishing between 1497 and 1550, in part because they could supply their own salt for curing their own catches, as well as the salt needed by their competitors. The Portuguese, sailing from a relatively small number of ports, concentrated their efforts on the Avalon Peninsula, driving the French and Bretons to more distant parts of the coastline farther north and to the south and west. Breton ports and others relied on Rouen and La Rochelle for both financial support and markets. By the end of the sixteenth century, the English trade had grown to the extent that it rivaled and eventually surpassed the French, and as population pressure in southern Europe increased the demand for fish, competition in the cod trade escalated, especially between the English and the Basques, who were also expanding their activities in the region. Piracy increased significantly during this period. For example, an English document of 1523 tells of one instance in which a French vessel loaded with 9,000 cod was captured by an English privateer.10
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the cod trade in North America was closely tied to the salt trade in those European nations with cheap supplies of salt, like Portugal and France, as well as to an expanding trade in salt from the newly developing Caribbean islands. Thus cod became part of the market pattern that has been more popularly known for molasses, rum, and slaves. It was also integral to merchant activity in general, because it was an easily stored source of protein for both navies and merchant marine crews. The development of the cod trade also spurred the establishment of port settlements in North America and elaborate diplomatic and trade treaties between those countries involved in the exploitation of the cod fisheries and other products that could be sold on the continent. It contributed to the development of money markets as fishing expeditions required more and more financing, and as cod came to be purchased with cash rather than trade goods. By the seventeenth century, the techniques of the industry had been mastered, the resources of the North American coastal regions had been explored and partially developed, and settlements had been established that would lead to ever increasing trading opportunities for goods from the European continent, the Middle East, and even Asia.
1. Harold A. Innis, The Cod Fisheries. The History of an International Economy (Toronto, 1940; rev. 1954, rpt. 1978), 6.
2. Gisli Gunnarsson, Monopoly Trade and Economic Stagnation. Studies in the Foreign Trade of Iceland 1602-1787 (Lund, 1983), 52.
3. Kirsten A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo. Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500 (Stanford, 1996), 159-160.
4. Esbjörn Rosenblad and Rakel Sigurdardóttir-Rosenblad, Iceland from Past to Present, trans. Alan Crozier (Reykjavik, 1993), 34-35. Cf. E. M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers (London, 1954), ch. 11.
5. Seaver, The Frozen Echo, 169-170.
6. Gunnarsson, Monopoly Trade, 52-53; Rosenblad, Iceland from Past to Present, 34-35.
7. Innis, The Cod Fisheries, 12.
8. Kenneth R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630 (London, 1984), 44-47; 306.
9. Innis, The Cod Fisheries, 26; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 88.
10. Innis, The Cod Fisheries, 16.
Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630. London: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Gunnarsson, Gisli. Monopoly Trade and Economic Stagnation. Studies in the Foreign Trade of Iceland 1602-1787. Lund: Ekonomisk-historisk föreningen, 1983.
Hastrup, Kirsten. Nature and Policy in Iceland 1400-1800. An Anthropological Analysis of History and Mentality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
Innis, Harold A. The Cod Fisheries. The History of an International Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1940; Toronto, Buffalo and London, rev. 1954; rpt. 1978.
Israel, Jonathan I. Dutch Primacy in World Trade 1585-1740. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989; rpt. 1990.
Morren, Paul. Burges, fair city of Flanders; A Medieval Center of Commerce. UNESCO Courier (June 1984): 16-20.
Rosenblad, Esbjörn and Rakel Sigurdardóttir-Rosenblad. Iceland from Past to Present, trans. Alan Crozier. Reykjavík, 1993.
Seaver, Kirsten A. The Frozen Echo. Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at email@example.com.