Dried Cod from Iceland. Source: Wikipedia

Medieval Cod Wars 1415 – 2017

In the 15th-century long-distance fishing appeared as one of the first global industries. Then – as now – huge political and economic interests were at stake; often leading to war

Medieval Fishing Weir from Ireland. Source: Google Map
Medieval Fishing Weir from Ireland. Source: Google Map

Medieval fishing in the North Sea has for a long time been an important topic for a group of historians, archaeologists and scientists led by J. H. Barrett, Reader in Medieval Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. Being an archaeologist, this has resulted in significant accumulation of valuable knowledge as to how and when the fishing trade in Northern Europe exploded; and how it successively played out.

To sum it up, the main conclusions show that a revolution in fishing set in at the turn of the first and second millennium, when a demand-driven intensification of local fishing took place. It has been argued that this demand was fuelled by the Benedictine renovation of religious communities, which – among other things – was accompanied by stricter rules concerning fasting. Nevertheless, to what extent the diffusion of the “new” Christian dietary practises to the laity contributed to these changes has been debated. Another factor seems to have been the significant rise in population density, which Europe enjoyed from c. 800 – 1200.

Until then, fish had provided a relatively secure source of highly valuable protein available for anyone with the skill to build a simple fish trap or bait a hook on a line. Although the right to own fishing rights and build proper fishing-weirs is documented by Anglo-Saxon charters, fish were never that complicated to come by for resourceful and hungry boys herding cattle or sheep in an inundated countryside through which streams were seeping. A lucky catch might even be marketed in the nearby wick. Later, of course, Doomsday offered various descriptions of “fishing rights”, demonstrating that at this point freshwater fish was rapidly becoming a coveted article for luxury consumption. It is during the same period that the construction of fishing ponds becomes widely documented.

Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia
Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia

Whether or not cultural diets or demographic pressures fuelled these changes, the control and limitation of fresh-water fishing were soon accompanied by a more systematic exploitation of saltwater fish as documented by studies of the remains of cod. If the head is present in an excavated mitten, the fish was sourced locally. If the head is missing, it would have been fished offshore, cleansed and perhaps even dried before it was marketed. Through excavations in London and elsewhere, the development of off-shore fishing has been precisely documented. By studying the profiles of the isotopes Barrett and his team have been able to determinate the exact source of the bones found in the mittens. It has thus been estimated that while all bones from the 9th and 10th centuries in London were sourced locally, more than 10% derived from Arctic Norway or the North-East Atlantic in the 11th to 12th century. Further, in the 13th to 14th centuries, nearly half derived from Iceland, Norway or the Northern Islands. Finally, in the 15th and 16th century, no more than 10% derived from local waters. At that point, nearly 90% of the fish traded in London came from overseas – from the Eastern Baltic to Newfoundland and all the way up to Iceland and Arctic Norway.

Indicated is that at first, local English fishermen caught saltwater fish by lines and hooks off the coast of the southern North Sea. Soon, however – in the 13th century – the demand grew to the extent that “marine” fisheries began to globalise. At first, local fishermen from Arctic Norway, Iceland, and the Northern Isles off Scotland caught and dried the fish, which was then picked up by Hanseatic merchants, who shipped out the dried cod from centres like Bergen. Together with the other proto-industrial good, woollen cloth, they transported the merchandise to the large cities in Germany, England, Flandern, France and further south. Later, however, the fishermen began to sail on long distance voyages to source the coveted merchandise themselves and cut out the middlemen. We know that English fishermen fished off Iceland from at least the beginning of the fifteenth century. Soon after 1500, the distant waters off Newfoundland became one of the most important fishing grounds for European fishermen.

Medieval Regulations

Iceland. From the Carta Marina 1539
Iceland. From the Carta Marina 1539

No wonder, medieval powers began to carry out international negotiations to regulate this international and highly valuable commercial trade. Also, the right to fish in specific waters came high on the agenda.

After Denmark had gained the political upper hand in Scandinavia at the end of the 14th century, the Danish crown engaged in fencing in the North Atlantic as a Mare Clausum. Thus, in 1432, Denmark and England signed a treatise regulating fishing and trading off Iceland and the Nordic isles. According to this treatise, the English agreed to forbid its subjects to seek fish in any Danish territory save at the Bergen staple. The treatise was the culmination of the first Cod War, which took place between 1415–1425, and which exploded when the English arrested the official Danish representative on Iceland. At this time, the English were according to one report “building houses, putting up tents, digging ditches, working away and making use of everything as if it was their own”.

One of the reasons that the English agreed to the treaty between Denmark and England was probably that Denmark at this point had full control of access into the Baltic through Øresund. If English merchants wished to participate in the highly lucrative herring fisheries in the autumn, there was no way out but to accommodate the Danish king. Later, when Denmark suffered from a civil war with the Hanseatic league and Lübeck supporting one side, England was able to negotiate a more favourable agreement. Once more, Iceland was opened up for English fishers and merchants. The value of this concession is demonstrated by the fact that English navy vessels occasionally sailed along, protecting the English fishing and merchant fleet when sailing for Iceland.

The Later Cod Wars

For Cod's sake. A photo from the near collision of a british and Icelandic vessel during the 70s.
For Cod’s sake. A photo from the near collision of a British and Icelandic vessel during the 70s.

And so it went for centuries with more than ten officially registered “cod wars”. According to the received history, the last two of these began immediately after WW2, when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark. In 1949, Iceland took the initiative to start negotiations with the UK to extend their fishing waters. From 1952 – 56 this led to a dispute, as Iceland unilaterally extended its fishing waters from 6 to 7 km according to a decision arrived at the International Court of Justice in Hague in a dispute between UK and Norway. The response was a landing ban imposed on Icelandic fish in the UK. However, in 1958, Iceland once more extended its fishing waters from 7.4 – 22.2 km. This led to the first “modern” cod war as the British declared their trawlers would fish under the protection of warships. Unfortunately for British interests, Iceland announced that if they did not achieve a satisfactory solution, they would withdraw Iceland from NATO. As this took place during the Cold War, UK backed down, and Iceland had its extension.

Again, in 1972, Iceland extended its fishing limits to 93 km (50 nmi). This time, however, the British contested the new rules and numerous British and German trawlers continued to ply the waters off Iceland, while Icelandic gunboats cut their trawls with net cutters. This escalated when British warships entered the contested zone and had jets overflow and patrol. At this point, a regular war was about to erupt with several casualties counted on both sides. While mediation and negotiations were taking place at the third United Nations Conference on the Law on the Sea in 1975, Iceland nevertheless again extended their protected zone to cover 200 nmi or 370 km from the coast. Now followed an even more serious conflict, which was not resolved until Iceland threatened to close off NATO’s Keflavik Base and end diplomatic relations with the UK. Finally, in June 1976, an agreement was negotiated and finalised. Iceland kept its extended fishing zone, while the UK was allowed to catch 30.000 tonnes of fish.

It has been argued, that while the Icelandic desire to extend the fishery limits had to do with finding a viable economic way of asserting nationhood and independence, the British involvement was caused by lack of cooperation between governmental departments. Also, it was in all likelihood fuelled by the British Navy bent on securing visibility and funding in a political climate trying to cut it down to size.

Cod Wars Post Brexit

Sailing towards Brexit. The flottilla organised by Bob Gelsdorf. Source: Twitter
Sailing towards Brexit. The flottilla organised by Bob Gelsdorf, which went up the River Thames. Source: Twitter

There is no doubt that the economies of the large northern fishing ports at Grimsby, Hull, and Fleetwood suffered immensely; both during the cod wars and afterwards, when the fishing waters off Iceland became de fact closed. As late as 2012, the British government had to offer a multi-million compensation and apology to the fishermen, who lost their livelihood in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, this part of the history was soon forgotten. Inflamed by the rhetoric of Nigel Farage and other like-minded populists, the story has for a long time been that the decline and fall of the British fishing fleet were caused by the EU and the regulations of the size of catches as enshrined in the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

Recently, the Institute of Economic Affairs   published a review of the future British Fishing Policy, which post-brexit is predicted to bring prosperity and fish back into the British ports and habours. In this report it says that: The European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been particularly prone to political influence, with disastrous results. The British fishing industry, for example, has been in almost continuous decline in recent decades as stocks have fallen. Landings into UK ports of the more valuable demersal fish such as cod have plummeted by around 80 per cent since 1970″. This is of course – one must expect – wilfully wrong. The downturn was caused by the loss of access to the Icelandic fishing waters.

This is not to say that the EU Common Fisheries Policy on all counts has delivered the best solutions. in the long run, however, it is predicted to secured a sustainable yield of all stocks by 2020; at the same time EU has suceeded in phasing out the discard of unwanted fish. As of now, stocks have been busy recuperating.

Rather, the downturn in the old fishing communities has another explanation. The culprit is without a doubt the different national fishing politics, which administers and distribute the quotas, and which have led to the consolidation of the colossal players in the industry, the so-called “Kings of Quotas”.

While the diminishing quotas dictated by environmental considerations has produced a downward spiral, which has caught the many small and medium-sized fishers, the super-sized trawlers have been able to suck up quotas and create viable, yet industrialised fishing empires. This shift has been taking place all over Europe from Spain in the south to England, Scotland and Denmark in the North. On the one hand, the large “Barons” have had an interest in squeezing quotas out of the minor players by operating centralised landing facilities; on the other hand, the politicians have had a vested interest in developing this big industrialised fishing industry geared towards optimisation of resources and facilities.

A trawler fishing in the North Sea. Source: Jom/Wikimedia
A trawler fishing in the North Sea. Source: Jom/Wikimedia

Nevertheless, we are probably leading towards yet another cod-war; this time, hopefully, only played out by European governments at the negotiation table. However, one challenge here is that the UK exports 80% of the fish caught by English Fishermen and that 20% is landed in foreign ports. Further, even though UK only “owns” 13% of the EU Sea it has been allocated 30% of the total quotas allowing for its fishers to ply the Irish, German, French and Dutch waters.

One question is, what will happen to this export? Will EU close off its landing ports for British vessels? And vice-versa? Will Britain upend the system of quotas to secure its economy? Will this ultimately lead to bilateral negotiations with China, which is sucking up fish all around the globe? We all know illegal Chinese fishing threatens world seas and there is a distinct likelihood that a Chinese fishing fleet will soon operate out of Hull, vacuuming the North Sea for this valuable commodity. Already, China operates the third largest fishing fleet in the world and takes nearly 205 of the toal global catch.

Given a hard Brexit, such a future scenario – or a variation thereof – is not unlikely. Neither is it unlikely that this might end up as a WW3 Cod War, this time waged between the EU and UK with China on the sidelines.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is sure: the local fishermen who thought to vote bravely for Brexit will pay the largest price. In the long run, a renewed depletion of stocks will only lead to more misery in Grimsby and Hull.


Interpreting the expansion of sea fishing in medieval Europe using stable isotope analysis of archaeological cod bones
By James H. Barrett, David Orton, Cluny Johnstone, Jennifer Harland, Wim Van Neer, Anton Ervynck, Callum Roberts, Alison Locker, Colin Amundsen, Inge Bødker Enghoff, Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, Dirk Heinrich, Anne Karin Hufthamm, A.K.G. Jones, Leif Jonsson, Daniel Makowiecki, Peter Pope, Tamsin, C. O.Connell, Tessa de Roo and Michael Richard
In: Journal of Archaeoogical Science (2011) Vol 30, pp. 1-9

English and Hanseatic Trading and Fishing Sites in Medieval Iceland: Report on Initial Fieldwork
By Mark Gardiner and Natascha Mehler
In: GERMANIA (2007) Vol 85, pp. 385 – 427

Iceland’s External Affairs from 1400 to the Reformation: Anglo-German Economic and Societal Shelter in a Danish Political Vacuum
By Baldur Þórhallsson, Þorsteinn Kristinsson, Stjórnmál og Stjórnsýsla
In: Reykjavik 9.1 (Spring 2013): 113-137.

After the trawl: Memory and afterlife in the wake of Hull’s distant-water fishing industry
By Jo Byrne
In: International Journal of Maritime History (2015) Vol 27, No. 4

The Lost Dimension: Food Security and the South China Sea Disputes.
By James Kraska
Harvard 2015

Fishing in Medieval England
By James A. Galloway
In: Michel Balard (ed.): The Sea in History: the Medieval World / La Mer dans L’Histoire: le Moyen Age, Océanides Association Boydell Press, 2017


Þorskastríðin, For Cod’s sake!

Poster for exhibition in Reykjavik 2016 - 17ÞORSKASTRÍÐIN, FOR COD’S SAKE is an exhibition about the Cod Wars, which were Iceland’s Fishing Disputes with the United Kingdom and other nations over the period from 1958 to 1976. The history of the Cod Wars is extensive and manifold. Arctic fishing was vitally important for cities like Hull and the British fishing communities had their own unique culture centered on the Arctic Cod that perhaps was not so different from the one in Iceland. The exhibition is a project of Graduate students of Applied Studies in Culture and Communication at the University of Iceland in collaboration with Reykjavík City Museum.


Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse

The aim of the project is to investigate the economic and cultural connections of merchants from Northern German cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland and Faroe during the 15th to 17th centuries. The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven and funded by the Leibniz Association (2015-2018).The research is carried out by four team members, each with their individual research objectives and disciplinary background. With this blog we want to provide information about the current state of our research, and create a platform to make available results and new knowledge












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