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 Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain

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PostSubject: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Fri 27 Jan 2017, 17:12

Whales, porpoises and dolphins frequently appear on the royal dinner table throughout the Middle Ages until well into the 17th century, not only for special banquets but also for ordinary fish days. Furthermore while frequently referred to as ‘royal fish’ the taking and eating of whales does not seem to have been exclusive to the monarchy. Porpoise (literally pork-fish) in particular appears quite often on the menus of lesser nobility and of religious houses. For example it occurs in two separate dishes on the banquet menu for the enthronement of Richard Clifford as Bishop of London in 1407, and twelve whole roast porpoises were prepared for the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1466. Meanwhile Battle Abbey, who owned a coastal manor adjoining Pevensey Bay in Sussex, claimed as their exclusive right the four porpoises that were stranded on their land in the years between 1482 and 1535.  

So where did these consumed cetaceans - these wales, grampoys, porpus, dolfins and graspeys - where did they all come from? Were they all the result of accidental strandings or were they sometimes taken by fishermen, whether targeted deliberately at sea, herded into bays, or in the case of the smaller whales simply as a by-catch of regular net fishing? Was there ever a culture of whaling around the British Isles?

The bigger whales (eg baleen whales and sperm whales) I feel fairly sure must usually have come only from occasional strandings, as to hunt, kill and bring to shore such massive beasts was a formidable undertaking. Whaling (mostly of northern right whales and bowhead whales) was a key activity of the Basques who, from the 11th century onwards, operated along the Spanish and French coasts, up around the British Isles to as far as Iceland. They were universally recognised as the experts in the business but were they the only coastal people capable of open sea whaling?

However assuming the only large whales available for use in Britain came from occasional strandings, I still wonder how the logistics worked. The legal right to take possession of a stranded whale seems to have often been lodged in ancient right, or given by the King to those owning bits of coastal land, so originally not all whales automatically belonged to the Crown (I wonder when the law changed as now all stranded whales are the exclusive right and responsibility of the Queen via the Receiver of Wrecks). A stranded whale carcass represented a lot of meat, blubber (for oil), and baleen (with a multitude of uses in items ranging from crossbows to corsets). These products were all very valuable but were also quite perishable.

This is Jan Wierix's depiction of the three sperm whales that stranded on the Flemish coast in 1577. Such an occurrence represented a sudden massive windfall for someone ... but only if they were organised enough to be able to deal with it quickly.



Olaus Magnus writing in the 16th century described the handling of a single large beached whale, thus:

"When sea-monsters or whales have been hauled out of the sea … the people of the neighbourhood divide the booty … in such a way that with the meat, blubber, and bones of a single whale or monster they can fill between 250 and 300 carts. After they have put the meat and fat into vast numbers of large barrels, they preserve it in salt, as they do other huge sea-fish". That’s a lot of horses, carts, empty barrels, salt, firewood (to render the blubber into oil) and manpower to have to suddenly get together in the few days before it all went off. However did they manage?

The British whaling industry seems to have essentially started in 1610 when the English Muscovy Company, using Basque specialists and with James VI's encouragement, sent a whaling expedition (the first of several) into Arctic waters specifically to hunt whales. But thoughts anyone, on any aspect of whales and whaling before the 17th century?
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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Sat 28 Jan 2017, 19:40

It depends which country Olaus Magnus was writing about Meles. If he was Norwegian or an Icelander (as his name might suggest) then surely people in those countries have been whaling for over a thousand years so would be well prepared in that respect.

As for the development of whaling further south, then (a guess) would suggest as a contributing factor, the advent of the 'Little Ice Age', which by all accounts had taken a firm grip of western Europe by the beginning of the 17th century. If this had any impact on the migratory patterns of whales and/or the willingness or need of western Europeans to seek alternative sources of animal protein and fat then this would again be mere conjecture.

It's interesting what you say about the Basques. I was aware that they had played a central role in the initial exploitation of cod in the north-west Atlantic but didn't know that they spearheaded whaling too. It stands to reason, though, that there would have been an obvious overlap between the 2 sets of enterprises and also the skills and resources required.
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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Sun 29 Jan 2017, 10:52

Forgive me if this is not relevant, MM, but here's a lovely Anglo-Saxon poem about the whale, compares the great mammal to the devil! It's from The Exeter Book (now in Exeter Cathedral library):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspidochelone#In_The_Whale

Now I wish to wordfully reveal a song
about a certain kind of fish,
yet with the craft of verse,
through the heart’s thoughts
and concerning the great whale.
He is often encountered against his will,
perilous and fatally grim, by sailors,
every one human—to him a name
is conceived, that floater
in the ancient ocean: Fastitocalon...


Translation of whole poem here:

https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-whale/

One of the famous kennings from Beowulf is the compound "whale-road", simply meaning "the sea" (hranrād).


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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Sun 29 Jan 2017, 18:27

Viz ... Olaus Magnus was a Swedish catholic cleric and diplomat who, following the success of the Protestant Reformation in Sweden, had to go into exile and so lived the last two decades of his life mostly in Rome (he died there in 1557). It was in Rome that he wrote his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) detailing the geography, history, customs and folklore of the Scandinavian countries, and produced his huge map of the northern seas (the Carta marina). His writings are largely reliable - although he'd likely only visited southern Norway a few times and had certainly never sailed up the west coast nor to Iceland and Greenland - but clearly he'd spoken to mariners and travellers who had. Given the limitations of cartography at the time his map is also remarkably accurate, although he, or maybe it was his publisher, still couldn't resist populating the northern wastes with ficticious beings, such as fabulous sea serpents in the oceans, and in Greenland, dwarves mounted on goats battling armies of cranes.

But regarding the hunting of whales he states that most whaling in Scandinavia (conducted principally in what is now Norway) was only for the smaller whales, usually only close inshore, and often by herding them into shallow water in the confines of fjords. He says that larger whales, but probably still only up to the size of minke whales, were sometimes taken but in the absence of larger vessels the usual method was to injure the beast at sea and then hope it washed up somewhere close by where those who'd actually killed it could get there quick enough to claim their rightful share. Such relatively simple methods seem to have been in use since the 9th century but any larger-scale, open-sea whaling really only started in the mid 17th century, and was not conducted by the Norwegians or Icelanders themselves, but by the English, French and Dutch,

But returning to medival England, I am unaware of any regular culture of catching small whales by driving them into the shallows or into confined bays. A common porpoise or habour dolphin is not much bigger than a tuna so they could certainly be caught from a small boat with a harpoon, but again I'm still unaware of this in England, other than a few vague references (like the 14th century fishermen of Kent whose catches "of porpus ... rarely exceed two a year".

Temp ... I like you boating bishop and monks run aground on the back of a whale - they all look a bit lost as to what they should do.

This is Olaus Magnus's depiction of a baleen whale (balena), possibly a bowhead whale on account of the two clearly defined jets, together with a killer whale (orcha), and a companion ... just south of the Shetlands (from his Carta marina - 1539).

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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Mon 30 Jan 2017, 13:04

These two extract from the Westminster Rolls of 1334, show that while the value of 12 horses and 4 oxen was £30, the value of a beached whale was £100.



Sept. 21. The like to John de Shardelowe, John de Whelnetharn and Ealph de



Westminster. Bokkyngh, on complaint by William Grerrnyn and Elena his wife that



Aline late the wife of Ealph de Hemenhale, Robert her son, GKiy de



Sancto Claro and others at Meldyug, co. Suffolk, broke her close and



doors arid windows of her houses, took away 12 horses and 4 oxen of



hers, worth 30l., carried away her goods and assaulted her servants.



Sept. 20, The like to Richard de Wylughby, John de Wylughby and Thomas de



Westminster. Sibthorpe, on complaint by Ebulo Lestraunge that where he and other



lords ot the manor of Fryskencye, co. Lincoln, time out of mind have used



to have wreck of sea within the manor. Roger Petwardyn, William



son of Walter dc Fryskeney, John de Stikeneye of Boston, William



Whistelpays, Hugh son of John Taillour of Friskeneye, William Flayn of



Friskeneye, Robert son of Sibyl de Friskenoye, Richard his Brother, Hugh



son of Alan son of Andrew de Friskeueye, Ranulph son of Uanulph do



Wrangol, Hugh Flegard of Waynflcte, Richard Pynder, John son of



Richard, Helewysiu de Wrangcl, Hugh Buttersnekc, and others carried away



a whale worth 100l., which had been cast ashore by the sea within the



manor. B Iv
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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Mon 30 Jan 2017, 13:38

Some more about Medieval Whaling:

Medieval Whaling
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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Mon 30 Jan 2017, 13:44

Sturgeon are also classed as Royal Fish:

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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Tue 31 Jan 2017, 10:49

The modern inclusion/recognition of sturgeon as a Royal Fish is interesting ... and perhaps revealing. As your Medieval Whaling link (a very informative site by the way Trike, thanks), says:

Medieval Whales and Whaling ... wrote:

 Presently, The Receiver of Wreck administers the Royal Prerogative on Fishes Royal (including whales, dolphins, porpoises and sturgeon). However, this role was only established in 1854, and it is not clear whether the Receiver’s involvement with whales (as opposed to ship-wrecked property) dates to this period. It seems likely that royal attempts to claim wreck, including stranded whales, was asserted from as early as the late 11th century, and could be assigned to local ecclesiastical and secular landowners. The enforcement of ownership rights must have been very difficult to uphold, however the enormous monetary value of the whale meant that when an incidence of stranding and illegal retrieval was revealed, attempts were made to recoup the value.

... and I read that as a history of the monarchy continually trying to wrest control of these valuable commodities away from any local authority, and thereafter jealously guarding any rights won. But especially concerning sturgeon ... which one should note rarely if ever get stranded or "wrecked" on the seashore ... the Royal Prerogative now seems to have been extended to include all sturgeon within British territorial waters including all rivers and lakes, to the complete exclusion of anyone else. But I'm really not sure that was ever originally, legally, the case.

Two fairly recent incidents come to mind that show that the Royal Prerogative is still rather jealously guarded ... although admittedly not necessarily by the royal family themselves: what does Brenda want with a smelly dead fish?

In 2003 a Devon fisherman caught a live sturgeon while fishing off the Welsh coast. While still at sea he contacted the Receiver of Wreck via the coastguard and directly got a fax back from Buckingham Palace saying he was "was free to dispose of it as he wished". He sold it a day or so later, now dead but still fresh, at auction in Plymouth for £650 to a specialist fishmonger. But he was then apprehended by the police, who had been tipped off by either HM Revenue and Customs or by a wildlife group. It seems that if he had given it away for free or eaten it himself no offence would have been committed. However selling, or even just offering it for sale, was a punishable offence, although at the time no-one was quite sure exactly which laws were being breached. Certainly sturgeon are a protected species and under wildlife legislation anyone found guilty of selling one fish could face up to six months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. I'm not sure exactly what happened in the end and I rather think it just fizzled out with nobody quite sure what the exact legal issues were.

The second case concerns the Exmoor Caviar Company which was set up in 2013 to farm sturgeon (raised from imported stock) for the production of caviar. Having secured funding and potential customers they were sudddenly and unexpectedly stopped short when they were told that they had to seek Royal permission to just hold the live sturgeons in tanks. They were about to go bankrupt even before they'd started business. But once they'd sought, and almost inevitably been granted, permission from the Queen, they were free to continue. Having duly tipped their hat and knuckled under, they are, as far as I am aware, still in business.

But until sturgeon had effectively become exinct in British rivers (late 19th century, perhaps later, and they do still occasionally appear) they were quite a popular and widely available food fish, as well as being a desirable goal for sporting river fishermen. Like whale and porpoise they occur regularly on medieval menus and not just those of the king. Under Charles II sturgeon became a very fashionable dish for those that could afford it (Robert May's cookbook of 1660 lists 32 recipes for sturgeon), and Samuel Pepys diary records that he quite often ate sturgeon, either at his own house or at dinner with others:

April 26th 1662 - "At Southampton we went to the Mayor's and there dined, and had sturgeon of their own catching the last week, which do not happen in twenty years, and it was well ordered. They brought us also some caveare, which I attempted to order, but all to no purpose, for they had neither given it salt enough, nor are the seedes of the roe broke, but are all in berryes." *

As he says locally caught fresh sturgeon, at least in the south of England, was by the 1660s becoming a bit of a rarity, and so Sam Pepys' sturgeon more often came salted from a barrel having been caught elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless in the 17th century they were not unknown in the Thames: as Sam himself notes, all those caught above London Bridge were still, by ancient right, the property of the Lord Mayor (note, they were not legally the King's). By the mid 19th century (so about the time that the office of Receiver of Wreck was first created) sturgeon were still to be found in the non-polluted rivers of North Wales, Cumbria and the Scottish Highlands. They were certainly common enough in London's Billingsgate market for Mrs Beeton (1861) to give several recipes, as well as advice on the best cuts to buy and how much one could expect to pay (she reckoned sturgeon should cost no more, per pound, than twice the price of fresh salmon)**.

So when did the Crown assert sole rights over all British sturgeon? Is it, I wonder, a bit like the case with swans ? Everyone knows that swans "belong to the Queen" ... but actually she only owns those on open waterways. If you have swans on your own pond or lake, whether you encourage them to stay there and you manage them as a swannery, or they just come and go naturally as wild birds do, ... then you "own" them in exacly the same way as you own any mallards or other waterfowl that are on your own pond. However while you can shoot and eat the ducks you cannot shoot and eat the swans. That not because they belong to the Queen, but rather because, like herons, bitterns, egrets etc, or again like sturgeon, they are now a protected species under European and UK wildlife legislation.

So when did the monarchy start taking more than their due? (When did they ever not!)


*PS : It's not relevant to the current discussion but it is interesting to note that Sam Pepys thought his caviar should have been mashed to an oily slurry, and that contrary to his expectations, the eggs were served still whole, like "berryes". But was a smooth, fishy, oily, mash, the usual Restoration way to serve fresh caviar?

**PPS : These are the prices for fresh fish that Mrs Beeton suggests one could expect to pay in London's fishmarkets in the 1860s (from her 'Book of Household Management', 1st ed. 1861). Sturgeon is not particularly expensive when compared to cod, salmon or plaice.

Sturgeon       1s 6d - 3s 6d per lb
Salmon          1s 3d - 2s 6d per lb
Cod               1s 6d - 2s 6d per lb
Eel                    8d - 1s per lb
Mackerel            6d - 9d each
Herring              1d - 2d each
Sole               1s 9d - 2s 3d each
Plaice                  1s - 1s 9d each
Lobster               2s - 3s 6d each (medium size, sufficient for 4- 5 persons)


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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Thu 02 Feb 2017, 14:32

That large mature sturgeon could still, albeit perhaps rarely, be found in British rivers until at least the mid 19th century, is also evidenced by the writings of Francis Trevelyan Buckland, the son of the Canon William Buckland, the famous geologist and palaeontologist.

Francis Buckland trained as a surgeon and after a brief spell at St Georges Hospital in London he managed (1854) to obtain that most valued of sinecures, the position of assistant surgeon in the Life Guards Household Cavalry Regiment ... which was never once deployed away from its London barracks between Waterloo (1815) and Tel el-Kebir (1882). This gave Buckland both a regular income and also ample time to pursue his interests in natural history. During this period (he held his post until 1863) he published numerous notes and articles in various  huntin', fishin' and natural history magazines and journals ... as well as giving talks and writing several books. His writing was often critcised as being scientifically slapdash, but it was always vivid and racy, and so he helped make natural history attractive to a mass readership.

This is a typical example of his popular style ... and more importantly it concerns a freshly caught sturgeon:

"On Tuesday evening, at 5pm, Messrs Grove, of Bond Street, London [Buckland lived nearby at 37 Albany Street] sent word that they had a very fine sturgeon on their slab. Of course, I went down at once to see it ... The fish measured 9 feet in length. I wanted to make a [plaster] cast of the fellow and they offered me the fish for the night: but he must be back in the shop the next morning by 10 am ... [there follow various adventures, involving a reluctant cabby and a suspicious policeman, amongst others. But eventually back home at Albany Street, he continues] ...

I was determined to get him into the kitchen somehow; so, tying a rope to his tail, I let him slide down the stone stairs by his own weight. He started all right, but 'getting way' on him, I could hold the rope no more, and away he went sliding headlong down the stairs, like an avalanche down Mont Blanc ... he smashed the door open and slid right into the kitchen ... till at last he brought himself to an anchor under the kitchen table. This sudden and unexpected appearance of the armour-clad sea monster, bursting open the door instantly created a sensation. The cook screamed, the house-maid fainted, the cat jumped on the dresser, the dog retreated behind the copper and barked, the monkeys went mad with fright, and the sedate parrot has never spoken a word since."


Buckland F.C. "How we cast the large Sturgeon", Land & Water, vol 3, 27 April 1867.

Buckland doesn't actually say where this fine beast came from - it might have been been imported from somewhere on the continent, caught perhaps in the Seine, Garonne, Loire, Rhone or Rhine - but given the rather limited possibilities for rapid, long-distance, chilled food transport at the time, I rather feel it was most probably taken from a Welsh, Cumbrian or Scottish river.


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PostSubject: Re: Royale Fysshe - Whales & whaling in Medieval Britain   Thu 02 Feb 2017, 14:53

Slightly later as well, Meles.

Sturgeon
"Lynn Hughes graphically describes two sturgeon catches in "Carmarthenshire Anthology. One, a record  for a fish caught on a rod and a line, was in the River Towy at Nantgaredig in Carmarthenshire on July 25th 1933.  It was caught by Alec Allen, and had to be transported on a horse and cart. It weighed 388lbs, was nine feet two inches long, and had a girth of 59 inches. A telegram was sent to the King. The reply indicated that the King was not in residence so the sturgeon was sold to a Swansea fishmonger for two pounds ten shillings.  In his will Allen instructed that his ashes be put in the river where he had 'pulled Leviathan'. "


Sturgeon have also been suggested as the origin of the Loch Ness Monster.
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