The Aspidochelone or Kraken. from c. 1400: KS 1633 4º: Bestiarius Royal Library, Denmark

How to Catch a Medieval Whale?

In the Middle Ages, the main catch was the small harbour porpoises and the pilot whales. Most other whales were only subject to occasional scavenging.

Whales were a special and valuable catch in the Atlantic and Baltic Middle Ages. We know about whaling from archaeological finds from the early Middle Ages and written sources like the lawbooks from medieval Norway and Iceland. Furthermore, from the high middle ages, we know of whaling carried out by fishermen along the Western European coastline from Gibraltar to Tromsø. However, the main catch consisted of the small harbour porpoises and the pilot whales known from The Faroe Islands’ “Grinde drab”. Other whales were typically only the subject of occasional scavenging.

Types of Whales

Two types of whales: the Barleen and the Toothed. KS 1633 4º: Bestiarius Royal Library, Denmark
Two types of whales: the baleen and the toothed. The bottom is called a Sea-Pig. From a bestiary c. 1400. KS 1633 4º: Bestiarius Royal Library, Denmark.

Whales are a globally distributed group of marine mammals of all sizes and shapes. Their closest living relative on land is the hippopotamus. There are two orders – baleen whales and toothed whales, which are said to have diverged from each other 34 million years ago. Whales are fully aquatic, which means they feed, mate, give birth, and suckle their young at sea. In the Middle Ages, they were regarded as both scary and frightening animals prone to swallow up unfortunates like Jonas and other sailors. They believed that whales were the devil incarnate. However, smaller whales – porpoises and pilots ¬ were known as highly lucrative prey.

We possess several detailed inventories of whales from the Middle Ages. One of the more detailed of these catalogues stems from the so-called . According to this, the most common whale was the pilot whale, which was between 5 to 10 metres long. Not considered particularly dangerous for men, it might be driven onto shores in flocks of hundreds. Other smaller whales like porpoises and dolphins were also mentioned. Next in line was the orca, which is described as a ferocious animal which hunts in packs and may attack even large whales. In this list, we also find larger whales considered unedible, and another one – probably the fin whale, which “people are not allowed to hunt” as it packs fish into large shoals.

The Manner of Whaling

Cutting up a whale. From: Historia om de Nordiske Folke. By Olaus Magnus, Rome 1555. Book 21, chapter 15. Source: wikipedia
Occasional scavenging or the result of whaling?. From: Historia om de Nordiske Folke. By Olaus Magnus, Rome 1555. Book 21, chapter 15. Source: wikipedia

We do not have access to written explanations of how whaling was carried out in a medieval manner. However, we get a glimpse through writings from Early Modern Europe and may with care use this information about traditional whaling from cultural-historical and folkloristic sources.

According to these, the most common form of hunting for whales in the Atlantic was to drive the smaller species – dolphins, pilots, minke whales and others – into coves and inlets and onto the beaches, where they were killed by clubbing or knifing in the same manner as has been the tradition in the Faroe Islands since the 9th century. Afterwards, the flesh and bones were divided equally between the participants. Typically, this manner of whaling involved a communal effort of several settlements and served primarily to feed and nourish local people. At the sight of a group of pilot whales, the fishermen would fly a piece of clothing from the mast, while the people on land would use bonfires to signal their neighbours. Specific predetermined sites – “whale-coves”- would be used by the boats at sea, driving the whales to the shore, where people would gather for the killing spree, the division and a communal feast. In the literature, this is called drive-hunting

Another option was to harvest the larger whales whenever they sought shallow waters – either because they had been harmed or otherwise led near the coast seeking food. Such whales might belong to either type – baleen or toothed. This may be termed opportunistic scavenging and is believed to have been the most common form of harvesting whales. In the literature, this is called occasional scavenging.

Occasionally, however, hunters might also try to drive larger whales located further out into shallow water, there shooting them with poisoned arrows or bolts. Occasionally spearfishing was practised with spears or harpoons made with light wooden shafts and fitted with whale irons marked to their owners. The whalers had to wait for the whale to die of blood poisoning and trust that the carcass would be recovered in shallow waters. Tiring out to death, the whale was finally killed with lances stuck into the brain. At death, the man owning the whale iron would be entitled to a share, as would the landowner where the whale had ended up. In the literature, this is called whaling, proper.

Thus, historians usually distinguish between drive-hunting, occasional scavenging, and proper whaling. However, in a premodern context, the difference seems to be somewhat academic. Whether a whale sought shallow waters because it was dying from sickness, parasites or old age or was driven onto the shore in the conscious effort through either driving or some sort of harpooning, the end result was the same. Likely, the different methods were used as applicable. Anyway, the most common form of whaling was whale-driving the smaller and less conspicuous sorts.

In the end, all methods involved the use of beaches or forelands to process the dead or dying animals, as may be seen from a description of a whaling expedition in the North Sea on the Frisian Coast in the 13th century.

As explained by the Dominican Friars Vincent de Beauvais (1184-1264) and Bishop Albertus Magnus (1200-1280)- the latter visited Frisia and the Wadden Sea in his lifetime – whaling was organised as a distinct team effort. Both left us descriptions of the practice of proper whaling. According to Vincent de Beauvais, boats were gathered, and the air was filled with sounds from kettle drums and other instruments. At the proper point, the harpoon was launched. With a long rope attached, the stricken animal gave itself over to terrible and frightening movements, trying to dive and then resurfacing again until it was tired out to death. At this point, the lesser brave approached, killing it off with lances. Bound with ropes, the whale was rowed to land “to the sound of acclamations”. To this description, we may add that Albertus Magnus writes that each boat held three men, one standing and holding the harpoon with a sharp triangular head. He also describes how the animal seeks shallow water when dying. 

As may be seen from later descriptions of the traditional way of hunting for harbour porpoises in the Baltic and the inner Belts and Fjords of Denmark, this manner of whaling was carried out in the exact same manner up until the 19th century.

Whalers from Middelfat 1870. Source: Middelfart Museum
Whalers from Middelfart 1870. Source: Middelfart Museum

In Denmark, the harbour porpoises used to be the most common whale in the brackish waters of the Baltic, and even today, flocks of porpoises are a common sight in the sea surrounding the Danish archipelago. The size of a full-grown person, they live off cod and other fish. They can dive up to 200 m and stay down for up to 6-8 min. Especially prevalent in the Belts – Storebælt and Lillebælt – they number between 250-300.000 individuals. Moreover, since the Middle Ages, they have been known to be valuable prey.

Best known is the history of Porpoise-hunting in Lillebælt near Middelfart, where they are easily spotted near the coast during summer and autumn. The earliest witness to the organised hunting is dated to 1357 when the lord enfeoffed with the castle at Hindsgavl was obliged to pay one porpoise to the crown for every thirty he caught. This fraction – one out of thirty – was the established rule until the 19th century and reflected the number of fishermen allowed into the guild known from the 15th and 16th centuries and in business until 1899. Notice the number of three men per boat, which is mentioned as the custom in Flanders in the 13th century (see below).

Hunting for Harbour Porpoises in Lillebælt between Jutland and the island of Funen. © Ove Julle Nielsen
Hunting for Harbour Porpoises in Lillebælt between Jutland and the island of Funen. After: Sælhunde og marsvin. Jagten på havpattedyr i Danmark.
Af George Nellemann, København 2007 © Ove Juul Nielsen

Thus, thirty men manned ten boats with two rowers and one “shooter” operating either a crossbow, a lance or later a harpoon. From the descriptions of hunting expeditions, the boats were divided into three groups, stationed in the narrow stretch of the Belt to the East of Stenderups, at the southern tip of the Island of Fænø and the third closing of the opposing Fænøsund, literally driving the porpoises into the shallow firth of Gamborg and onto the beach there. The manner of driving them was through loud clamouring, clattering and clanging with special oars called “smække” in the water. Nearby “Svineøen” – named after the Danish word for porpoise – mar-svin meaning pig – another group would set up a fishing net, thus finally guiding them up on the beach. A good haul would be twenty animals, but occasionally forty to sixty animals might be caught. Afterwards, the catch was distributed to the men and driven to Middelfart. While the work was uncommonly harsh – the season went from November to February – the membership of the guild was prestigious. While every 30th animal was delivered to the crown, another 30th animal was delivered to the church, where the members of the guild had their own stalls. The main product was the blubber and oil. However, porpoises did occasionally end up a staple in the royal households. In 1696, a saying was recorded that “porpoises have no use but for oil, even though people might eat the meat from the tale when hungry”. 


We know from the Faroe Isles that everything on these whales was used. Thus, blubber was cooked and turned into oil and kept in the rinsed-out stomach to be used in traditional oil lamps. Alternatively, the stomach and food pipe or gullet might be made into shoes using the dried tendons for sewing. The skin was used for making ropes, while the bones were utilised for crafting minor utensils and toys. The skulls might be used to reinforce fences and walls surrounding the farms. Larger vertebras have been known to be used for stools. Finally, whalebone was a prized fuel source in otherwise barren settlements such as Gröf in Iceland.

Earlier archaeological finds from Norway, Iceland, and Greenland primarily consist of such artefacts as whalebone plaques, shackles, sword grips, knife handles, game pieces, pegs, weaving tablets, mattocks, cups, vessels and combs. A recent study of gaming pieces made of whalebone and found in graves in Early Medieval Sweden reveals they became popular rather sudden around ca. AD 550 to dominate AD ca. 750-1050. After this, fashion changed, and walrus ivory soon replaced the whalebone as the raw material par excellence. The authors of this study have pointed out that the shift in raw material in the sixth century indicates a rapid and systematic response to an opening market in Sweden. Also, they argue that the gaming pieces were made in workshops in Western Norway and marketed as finished pieces. 

The extensive use of whalebone is documented not only in the wide assemblies of grave goods deriving from the furnished graves from AD ca. 550 – 1000 but also in trading posts and towns – such as in Hamvic, Flixborough, Birka, Ribe, Kaupang and Haithabu.

From the Sagas, we know that whale bones (plaques) were carved with runes casting spells.

Whale Bone Plaque. © Walter's Museum. Open domain.
Whale Bone Plaque. © Walter’s Museum. Open domain. Similar plaques of whale bone carved with confronted monster heads are found frequently in the graves of wealthy Viking women in Norway. The monster heads, similar to the figureheads attached to Viking ship prows, are typical of Viking decoration. The function of these plaques is not clear; it has been suggested that they were used as ironing-boards or for pleating linen (by folding and winding it around the board while wet and then leaving it to dry), or as trenchers for serving food.

While they sat at the meal, Egil saw that a woman lay sick on the daïs at the ends of the hall. He asked who that woman was, who was in such a sad case. Thorfinn said she was named Helga and was his daughter; she had long been ill; her complaint was a pining sickness; she got no sleep at night and was as one possessed.

‘Has anything,’ asked Egil, ‘been tried for her ailment?’

‘Runes have been graven,’ said Thorfinn; ‘a landowner’s son close by did this, and she is since much worse than before. But can you, Egil, do anything for such ailments?’

Egil said: ‘Maybe no harm will be done by my taking it in hand.’

And when Egil had finished his meal, he went where the woman lay and spoke with her. Then he bade them lift her from her place and lay clean clothes under her, and they did so. Next, he searched the bed in which she had lain, and there he found a piece of whalebone whereon were runes. Egil read them, then cut the runes and scraped them off into the fire. He burned the whole piece of whalebone and had the bedclothes that she had used hung out to air. Then Egil sang:

Runes none should carve ever
Who knows not to read them;
Of dark spell full many

The meaning may miss.
Ten spell-words writ wrongly
On whalebone were carved:
Whence to leek-tending maiden,
Long sorrow and pain.

Egil then carved the runes and laid them under the bolster of the bed where the woman lay. She seemed as if she had woken from sleep and said she now felt well, but she was weak. But her father and mother were overjoyed. And Thorfinn offered to Egil all the furtherance that he might think needful.

From: Egil’s Saga from the 1893 translation into English by W. C. Green from the original Icelandic ‘Egils saga Skallagrímssonar’, chapt. 29

Were the Vikings Whalers?

Location for a Norwegian naust from the 5th to 6th century. © Schousboe
Location for a Norwegian naust from the 5th to 6th century. In the background a modern naust. Vaula at Mosterøy © Schousboe

Although some of this raw material used for the Swedish gaming pieces may have derived from stranded whales in the Baltic Sea, it is more likely, that the material stemmed from the North Atlantic sphere. 

A continuing debate has focused on whether these whales were stranded animals or were actively hunted. However, we know from the writings of Bede (AD 672-735) that “… seals, as well as dolphins and even whales”, were frequently captured. 

Later, we are told of how Óttarr or Ohthere, a ninth-century northern merchant, visited the court of King Alfred, where he bragged of having caught more than sixty whales in two days. Likely, these whales had been caught while being trapped in shallow waters in a small inlet in the manner of modern-day Faroe Isles. The lengths of the said whales – 20-30 metres – indicate that either Óttarr bragged or the scribe miswrote. This is not to say that larger whales were not hunted from smaller boats and open waters. As we know from a later period, this was done as a matter of routine. However, the sixty whales probably refer to a group of minor whales lured into a cove. 

From this period, however, archaeology has also documented the existence of boathouses (nausts) as well as slab-lined pits used for processing the blubber on the West Coast of Norway. Radiocarbon dating has placed these finds around AD 600-900. Some of the bones found near the pits have been identified as belonging to the Right Whale (The Eubalaena glacialis), measuring between 15-20 metres in length. Known to be a slow swimmer and keeping close to land, this whale also contains a high proportion of blubber, letting it float after being killed. Such whales were obviously hunted at sea with poisoned bolts or harpoons, after which they drifted ashore.

We don’t know to what extent the meat and the blubber were consumed locally, but there is no reason to believe these delicacies were not on the menu in coastal settlements in the first millennium. However, sources from AD 1000 to 1500 indicate whale meat later became a delicacy consumed at courts and in elite households, whether secular or clerical. 

The Regulation of Whaling in Norway and Iceland

Whale splashing its tale in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Source: domain
Whale splashing its tale in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Source: domain

Any whale – whether caught at open sea or driven onto a beach in a cove or inlet – ultimately ended up on land, which somebody owned. This fact is reflected in the medieval laws of Norway and Iceland, which holds rather complicated rules as to how large a part the different people had a right to – the owner of the boat and the gear, the huntsman wielding the harpoon, the crew and the owner of the land (the beach). 

According to Gulatingslova (the Gulaþing law), any Norwegian had the right to hunt for whale. However, only freeholders – men with odal- or family-land – had the right to hunt for whales longer than 18 ells (8-10 metres). Other men (householders, tenants or freedmen) were only allowed to hunt for whales half that size. Any man, who found a beached whale, was obliged to either cut it up in front of witnesses or leave the head, backbone and tail behind, thus documenting the size of the animal. 

If the animal died at sea, the carcass belonged to the hunter, albeit only if he carved it up at sea (presumably on a rock or skerry). If he carried it up “on the green sod” to cut it up, the landowner had the right to half the catch. Another option for the hunter is to pay “compensation for trespassing”. 

Any whale, which was beached on a man’s land within the fence, was owned by the landowner. If, however, it ended up outside the fence and was larger than the hunter was allowed to keep, half belonged to the king. If the whale drifted onto the commons, the king owned it all. If people decided, nonetheless, to cut it up, they were liable to fines – the helmsman of the ship 40 marks and the oarsmen three marks each. 

If the animal drifts into a fjord and the distance between the shores can be measured by a shot of an arrow on both sides of the whale.

Finally, the law stipulated that if a man kills a whale, which is swimming in a shoal of fish (“hval i åte”), “and thus drives God’s gift away”, then that man is liable to pay a hefty fine of forty marks, the equivalent of £26 s13. Forty marks were the fine imposed for vandalism.  

Special rules regulated the finder’s blubber, which was the part any finder of a whale was entitled to even though he was not allowed to lay his hands on a large animal. In case the finder was not a freeholder, he should cut a mark in the whale and then go to the king’s representative and tell him. The finder’s blubber consisted of cuts measured out, by the way, the length of arrows and the mid-ship oars and cut down to the bone (the measurements are somewhat difficult to make sense of).

The exact date of these rules is difficult to determine. However, some of the paragraphs in the Gulaþing law are believed to have been recorded from oral rules and regulations from the 10th century and written down in the reign of King Olav the Quiet (AD 1066-93). Others date to a later period. As to the rules and regulations of whaling, the stipulations of 40 marks for vandalism are generally believed to be dated to the high Middle Ages (and Germany). Also, the date of the rule concerning the prohibition of hunting whales inside shoals of fish points to the importance of fishing for taxation purposes. In the later Norwegian laws, the shoal of fish is even identified as a shoal of herring, signalling the importance of this fish in the Hanseatic business enterprise.  

From Grettir’s saga and the story of the Battle at Rifsker, we get a sense of how violent disputes about whales might turn out:

Grettir fitted out for a fight in a 17th century manuscript. Source: Wikipedia/AM 426
Grettir fitted out for a fight in a 17th century manuscript. Source: Wikipedia/AM 426

At that time, there came over Iceland a famine the like of which had never been seen before. Nearly all the fisheries failed, and also the driftwood. So it continued for many years.

One autumn, some traders in a sea-going ship, who had been driven out of their course, were wrecked at Vik. Flosi took in four or five of them with their captain, named Steinn. They all found shelter in the neighbourhood of Vik and tried to rig up a ship out of the wreckage but were not very successful. The ship was too narrow in the bow and stern and too broad amidships. In the spring, a northerly gale set in, which lasted nearly a week, after which men began to look for drift.

There was a man living in Reykjanes named Thorsteinn. He found a whale stranded on the south side of the promontory at the place now called Rifsker. It was a large rorqual, and he at once sent word by messenger to Flosi in Vik and to the nearest farms.

At Gjogr lived a man named Einar, a tenant of the Kaldbak men whom they employed to look after the drift on that side of the fjord. He got to know of the whale having been stranded and at once rowed across the fjord in his boat to Byrgisvik, whence he sent a messenger to Kaldbak. When Thorgrim and his brother heard the news, they got ready to go with all speed to the spot. There were twelve of them in a ten-oared boat and six others, with Ivar and Leif, sons of Kolbeinn. All the farmers who could get away went to the whale.

In the meantime, Flosi had sent word to his kinsmen in the North at Ingolfsfjord and Ofeigsfjord and to Olaf, the son of Eyvind, who lived at Drangar. The first to arrive were Flosi and the men of Vik, who at once began to cut up the whale, carrying on shore the flesh as it was cut. At first, there were about twenty men, but more came thronging in. Then there came the men of Kaldbak with four ships. Thorgrim laid claim to the whale and forbade the men of Vik to cut, distribute, or carry away any portion of it. Flosi called upon him to show proof that Eirik had in express words given over the drift to Onund; if not, he said he would prevent them by force. Thorgrim saw that he was outnumbered and would not venture on fighting. Then there came a ship across the fjords, the men rowing with all their might. They came up; it was Svan of Hol from Bjarnarfjord with his men, and he at once told Thorgrim not to let himself be robbed. The two men had been great friends, and Svan offered Thorgrim his aid, which the brothers accepted, and they attacked valiantly. Thorgeir Bottleback was the first to get on to the whale where Flosi’s men were. Thorfinn, who was spoken of before, was cutting it up, standing near the head on the place where he had been carving. “Here I bring you your axe,” said Thorgeir. Then he struck at Thorfinn’s neck and cut off his head. Flosi was up on the beach and saw it. He urged on his men to give it back. They fought for a long time, and the Kaldbak people were getting the best of it. Most of them had no weapons but the axes with which they were cutting up the whale and short knives. The men of Vik were driven from the whale onto the sandbanks. The men from the East, however, were armed and able to would. Their captain Steinn cut off the leg of Kolbeinn’s son Ivar, and Ivar’s brother Leif beat one of Steinn’s men to death with a rib of the whale. Then they fought with anything they could get, and men were slain on both sides. At last, Olaf came up with a number of ships from Drangar and joined Flosi; the men of Kaldbak were then overpowered by numbers. They had already loaded their ships, and Svan told them to get on board. They, therefore, retired towards the ships, the men of Vik after them. On reaching the sea, Sven struck at Steinn, their captain, wounding him badly, and then sprang into his own ship. Thorgrim gave Flosi a severe wound and escaped. Olaf wounded Ofeig Grettir fatally, but Thorgeir carried him off and sprang onto his ship with him. The Kaldbak men rowed into the fjord, and the two parties separated. The following verse was composed on these doings:

“Hard were the blows which were dealt at Rifsker;
no weapons they had but steaks of the whale.
They belaboured each other with rotten blubber.
Unseemly methinks is such warfare for men.”

From Grettir’s Saga. A 1914 translation into English by G. H. Hight from the original Icelandic ‘Grettis saga’, chapt. 12

From Scotland to Portugal

Zooarchaeological and biomolecular studies of a large number of remains from whales in mainland Scotland as well as the Orkney and Shetland Islands document how a wide variety of species of whales were exploited – fin whales, sperm whales, humpbacks, and even a grey whale has been identified in the material. As opposed to this, the smaller mink whale appeared only once in the material. The wide variety of animals indicates that opportunistic scavenging was the main method. However, finds at Jarlshof in the Shetlands suggest that the method of driving whales was used there already during the first millennium (Pictish and Norse periods). Also, the Norse settlers in the Orkneys brought the Gulaþing with them, perhaps indicating that both opportunistic scavenging and proper whaling took place in the Scottish waters. 

Further south, we know from some European sources that the Norse settlers in Normandy were known for their whaling. Thus, a special group of people were identified in Normandy called the Walmanni, who were known for their whaling expeditions. These walmanni were organised in guilds – societate walmannorum – and appointed by the abbot of St. Stephen in Caen in 1098 to hunt for the “fat fish”, called a “Crassus piscis”. 

However, this concession falls in line with the high medieval laws whereby kings claimed the rights to all stranded whales – such laws were known from Denmark, Frisia, Netherlands, Flanders and France as well as England – effectively reserving the utilisation of the prized whales for their tables and households in the 12th and 13th centuries. From England, we know that the rights to a stranded whale were often farmed out to royal representatives; often, however, the royal household reserved the tail and the head. Especially tongues were regarded as delicacies. Sources also report that the baleens might have been used for helmets and armour in the royal households. 

Nonetheless, new and detailed studies of the archaeological remains of whalebones in the Netherlands and Belgium have shown that most remains between AD 400 – 1200 derived from terps (warfts) in the Wadden Sea, with elite consumption taking over after AD 1200. Also, these studies indicate a doubling up of sites after mid 11th century, demonstrating the growing demand for whale delicacies in the high middle ages. 

Another hotspot was found in the Bay of Biscay and further south on the Galician and Portuguese coastline. No later than the 12th century, traces are found in the written sources from the 11th of a similar practice as that which is well-known from the North Atlantic. Apparently, they spotted the whales from watch towers – attalayas – and used bonfires to call local people to take part in the chasing and killing. Using their small fishing boats, people would drive the whale inland while harpooning it and killing it off with lances. Often, they would go for the calves, thus catching the mother who was trying to protect its young. The meat was then salted, and the blubber melted on the beaches. 

The Later Middle Ages

After the Black Death, followed a lack of skilled shipmen and sailors. Some of those who survived were employed in the Hundred Years War, while others took advantage of the intensified interest in exploring the southern hemisphere along the African Coastline. New possibilities for gaining lucrative employment in the new economic system shifted turned fishing and sailing into full-time and skilled employment. 

Whaling continued, but more as part of professional and focused enterprises such as the Basque whaling stations established in Newfoundland from ca. 1540. Although traditional whale driving continued in the North Atlantic Sea up til our time, it became less prominent. Furthermore, whale meat disappeared from the exclusive dinner tables at court and the market stalls o in the larger premodern cities. Occasionally, though, large whales did drift onto the shores and gave rise to scavenging bonanzas on the beaches. Nevertheless, the more systematic whaling out on the open sea was still to come. 

How to cook a Medieval Whale?

Tvøst - dried whale served at the Faroe Islands. Source: Wikipedia/Erik Christensen/ccbysa
Tvøst – dried whale served at the Faroe Islands. Source: Wikipedia/Erik Christensen/ccbysa

Whales – whether large or small – were prized food reserved for royal or ecclesiastical tables. Thus porpoise was served at the coronation dinner for Henry VII in August 1485, and Queen Elisabeth apparently enjoyed porpoise meat. However, later traditions indicate that after the reformation – when fasting was abolished – the meat from porpoises ended up as fishermen’s bait or feed for the pigs and chicken.  

How to cook a whale?

Likely, the most common way of serving salted whale meat was to substitute it for bacon on “fish days”. This is the main use that the “Good Wife’s Guide” suggests when explaining how to cook chickpeas or green peas and serve them with flesh. Elsewhere in the manual, we learn that whale meat might be included in the first course of a fish dinner together with pea coulis, vegetable broth, oyster stew, white sauce of pike and perch, a cress porée, herrings, salted whale meat, salted eels and poached loach. Another variant lists cooked apples, plump figs, red wine (Grenache wine), cress and chicken, pea coulis, shad, salted eels, herrings, salted whale meat, white broth over perches, and cuttlefish in a grave over fritters. (From: The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book, by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose. Cornell University Press 2009, Pp: 262, 265 and 276)

However, a couple of more elaborate recipes have been preserved,  and although the global ban on whaling makes it impossible for all other than the Faroese and Japanese (who disregard the ban) to cook this ancient delicacy, a few are provided here:

Pudding of Porpoise

One of the oldest known English cooking books is the “Forme of Cury”. It was written at the court of King Richard II around 1399 and delivered a number of exotic recipes, one of which is for a fomented (salted) piece of a whale to be served with a special soup or porridge cooked on crushed wheat in almond milk. The recipe reminds us of a kind of salted rice pudding but is actually more of a courtly variant of an ordinary dish served in more humble households. (The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled by Samuel Pegge. London 1780) 

Sausage of Porpoise

Another way of cooking a freshly caught porpoise is to collect the blood and some fat and mix it with oatmeal, salt, pepper and ginger. Then fill the stomach of the animal, boil it slowly for some time but take care it does not turn hard. Afterwards, the sausage should be cut into slices and roasted in fat or blubber. Perhaps, the cook used the intestine rather than the stomach proper. Basically, a blood sausage, this manner of preparation would be well-known for the handling of newly butchered swine. However, the whale sausage would be ideal for lent as they were categorised as fishes, albeit fat and delicious. (From: Two fifteenth-century cookery-books. Harleian ms. 279 (ab. 1430), & Harl. ms. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole ms. 1429, Laud ms. 553, & Douce ms. 55. Ed. by Austin, Thomas, ed; British Library.)


Today, any kind of whaling is globally restricted and severely frowned upon. Although a few rogue states continue to hunt whales, Iceland decided in spring 2022 to invoke a total ban from 2023, and the Faroe Islands are currently considering to follow. Soon, only Japan will be continue their practice of catching and eating the endangered animals.


The Aspidochelone or Kraken. from c. 1400: KS 1633 4º: Bestiarius Royal Library, Denmark


Whalebone Gaming Pieces: Aspects of Marine Mammal Exploitation in Vendel
and Viking Age Scandinavia
By Andreas Hennius, Rudolf Gustavsson, John Ljungkvist and Luke Spindler.
In: European Journal of Archaeology (2018) Vol 21, pp 612-631.

Cetacean Exploitation in Medieval Northern and Western Europe: Zooarchaeological, Historical,
and Social Approaches
Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Ph.D in Archaeology by Youri van den Hurk
2020 UCL (University College London).
Published by British Archaeological Society in 2020. Read a review here

Whales, dolphins and porpoises in the economy and culture of peasant fishermen in Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Faeroe Islands and Iceland, ca 900 -1900 AD, and Norse Greenland, ca 1000-1500 AD
By Ole Lindquist I-2
Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Faculty of Arts, University of St Andrews, Scotland. November 1994.

Medieval Whalers in the Netherlands and Flanders: Zooarchaeological Analysis of Medieval Cetacean Remains
By Youri van den Hurk, Luke Spindler, Krista McGrath & Camilla Speller
In. Environmental Archaeology (2022), 27:3, 243-257

Whaling in Iron Age to post-medieval Scotland: a zooarchaeological and biomolecular study of cetacean remains from selected sites in Caithness, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands
By Youri van den Hurk and Krista McGrath
In: Proc Soc Antiq Scot (2021) vol 150, pp 451–474

Evidence of Whaling in the Norths Sea and English Channel in the Middle Ages
By W. M. A Desmet
In: Advisory Committee on Marine Resources Research Working Party on Marine Mammals, General Papers on Large Cetaceans, Mammals of the Seas, 3. United
Nations Food Agricultural Organization (1981) Rome, pp. 301–309.

Cetacean exploitation in Roman and medieval London: Reconstructing whaling activities by applying zooarchaeological, historical, and biomolecular analysis
By Yourivan den Hurk, KevinRielly and MikeBuckley
In: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Volume 36, April 2021, 102795

Sælhunde og marsvin. Jagten på havpattedyr i Danmark.
Af George Nellemann
København 2007

Hvalfangst. Artikel i: Kulturhistorisk leksiokon for nordisk middelalder. 1956-78





Get our Medieval News with links to our premium content

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.