The Squirrel Fur Trade in 14th Century Novgorod
by Marie Schiller
In the early part of the 14th century, high-quality, brilliantly-colored woolen fabrics became available in Western Europe. It was discovered that lush, gray-white, northern squirrel fur was an ideal complement to this type of cloth. Squirrel fur was relatively inexpensive compared to sable, marten, etc. and therefore was available to a more economically and socially diverse population. As a result, these squirrel pelts, which came only from Scandinavia and Northern Russia, were in demand. In 14th century London, the highest prices paid for fur were for winter squirrel pelts imported from Novgorod.1 Through the Hansa, merchants from Novgorod were the principal suppliers of squirrel fur to Western Europe in the 14th century, and indeed devoted most of their efforts to the procurement and sale of this single product. In this paper, I will address the involvement of Novgorod in this market and the implications of squirrel fur export for the town itself.
Bulgar-on-the Volga was the first documented trade center which channeled fur from Northern Europe to the rest of the world.2 In the tenth century, the Bulgars acquired fur through tribute or trade from their northern neighbors and sold it to Muslim merchants who redistributed it to the rest of the Muslim world. In the eleventh century, Novgorod entered this existing fur trade through gradual acquisition of the northern supply network. The Novgorodians established suzerainty over various indigenous tribes and demanded the tribute, payable in fur, which was previously relinquished to the Bulgars. The Novgorodians continued to trade this fur, as well as other products including honey and wax, to the Bulgars, the Muslim world, and Europe until the 13th century. However, by the early 14th century, Novgorod abandoned its trading partners to the south and east and concentrated primarily on trade with Western Europe through the Baltic.
Several factors contributed to this modification. The Mongols invaded Russia in 1238 in search of tribute, grazing land for their herds, and direct access to western trade routes. Although the city and its northern territories were spared, the Mongol invasion severed Novgorods link to the Bulgars. The Mongols were not very interested in Novgorods fur, but rather taxed them in silver.3 In order to obtain this silver, Novgorod concentrated on its trading partners to the west.
Novgorods Baltic trade had fluctuated continuously in the preceding years. However, an understanding with the newly-formed Hanseatic League (culminating in the Treaty of 1270) created an opportunity for Novgorod to more fully exploit essential Western markets. The most desired commodity which Novgorod could provide was high-quality squirrel fur. Through Novgorod, the Hansa was the chief supplier of squirrel fur to Western Europe. Hanseatic merchants sent the fur back to Livonia where it was reshipped to Lübeck, Danzig or Bruges and finally to Flanders, England or Hamburg.
By the fourteenth century, Novgorod no longer relied solely on tribute to fulfill the demands of the squirrel fur market, but developed a highly organized system of fur acquisition. The collection of pelts proceeded from three sectors of society: government, boyars (nobles), and peasants. The Novgorodian government collected taxes in squirrel skins from land-owning peasants in the territories belonging to the city. Many boyars also gathered squirrel pelt rents from their tenants. Merchants purchased the pelt supplies from the government, boyars, and peasants, and offered them for sale to foreign merchants.4
Novgorodian merchants traded with the Hanseatic League as delineated in the Treaty of 1270. Twice each year, in the summer and winter, merchants came to Novgorod by both land and sea. If merchants arrived by sea, Novgorodian guides were sent to meet them and direct them through riverways to the city. Safety was guaranteed to Hansa merchants once they reached Novgorods territories.5 All foreign trade within Novgorod took place in Peterhof (established in the late 12th century) which was located on the merchant side of the Volkhov River. As many as 200 foreign merchants resided in this district each season.6 While residing in Peterhof, merchants were subject to their own rules and regulations and appointed their own officials. In exchange for squirrel pelts, Hansa merchants traded Flemish cloth, salt, wine, beer, herring, metal products, fruit, and most significantly, silver.7
In the last quarter of the 14th century, Novgorods Western fur trade began to deteriorate. The demand for silver was one of the factors leading to the decline of trade relations between Novgorod and the Hansa. The Hansa frequently attempted to place an embargo on silver export to Novgorod which resulted in political problems and the closing of Peterhof for several years at the end of the 14th century.8 At the same time, because of its availability and popularity among the lower classes, squirrel fur began to go out of fashion among the nobles in Western Europe. Prices dropped and demand disappeared.
Harassed by Muscovite incursions on its fur-bearing territories, Novgorod was not in a position to adapt to the simultaneous loss of its exclusive trading partner and diminishing trade of its primary export. The fur trade moved out of Novgorod and into the Livonian towns along the Baltic. Although Novgorod had been a very diverse commercial center for six centuries, the city lost it importance as a fur trading nucleus by relying on the export of a single product.
1. Elspeth M. Veale,The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).
2. For further information on the Bulgar fur trade, see Janet Martin, Treasure of the Land of Darkness: The fur trade and its significance for medieval Russia (London: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
3. Novgorod paid the Mongols 2,000 in silver. Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes, trans. The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, Camden Third Series, vol. 25 (London: Offices of the Society, 1914), entry for 1327.
4. For a more complete description of Novgorodian fur supply network, see Martin, 68-81.
5. Treaty Between Novgorod and the Hanseatic League, 1270. in Basil Dmytryshyn, ed. Medieval Russia, A Source Book: 850-1700, 3d Ed. (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1991), 114-119.
6. Martin, 63.
7. Martin, 67.
8. Michell and Forbes, entry for 1391, pp. 164-65.
Dmytryshyn, Basil, ed. Medieval Russia, A Source Book: 850-1700. 3d Ed. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1991.
Martin, Janet. Treasure of the Land of Darkness: The fur trade and its significance for medieval Russia. London: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Michell, Robert and Nevill Forbes, trans. The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471. Camden Third Series, vol. 25. London: Offices of the Society, 1914.
Veale, Elspeth M. The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
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.