As outlined in the informative English-language booklet published by the Norwegian Maritime Museum, Coastal and Maritime Norway, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream continue right up the coast of Norway, allowing for ice-free harbors and sailing channels along the whole of the country's western and northern seaboard.

Europe's longest coastline

These warmer, salty Atlantic waters mix with the mineral-rich ones from the Arctic Ocean, allowing Norwegians easier access to Arctic marine resources. 

In addition, Norway's many deep fjords penetrate deep into the country's landmass, providing closer connection with the sea and giving Norwegians the opportunity to perfect their fishing tools and skills using smaller boats thanks to this indented, sheltered coastline.

Generation after generation of Norwegians has fished since the dawn of time. Smaller boats meant that almost anyone could fish.

As specialist historian Per Norseng, who worked on the booklet, tells The Viking Herald, "Compared to the Dutch and the English, the big difference was that Norwegians didn't have to fish out in the open sea. They benefited from the huge reserves closer to the coast".

This meant more than easy pickings for Norwegian communities: "This, in turn, had implications for the organization of how people fished – here it was decentralized to a much greater extent."

As the booklet, available from the Norwegian Maritime Museum, points out, the fact that the main spawning seasons for cod and herring were winter and early spring meant that those in coastal communities could plan their year around working in agriculture in summer and early autumn, and take to the nearby waters the rest of the year. 

"The types of fish were more or less the same as now, cod in the north, mackerel in the south, while herring was plentiful in the Middle Ages. Salmon and trout were valuable fish, and there was eel, too."

Fishing rights and basic nets

Freehold farmers, whose rights to the land were passed down within the family from the times of Viking clans to Norway's struggle for independence in the 1800s, kept local economies relatively stable thanks to this structure of inheritance. It was they who could permit a fisherman to take his boat from that point along the coast and fish in those waters. 

This followed legislation in the 1200s that meant that the owner of the adjacent land also held the fishing rights. This has also proved to be a boon for modern-day historians such as Per Norseng.

"Relatively little tangible evidence has been found of fishing activities from the Viking era, only a number of hooks, floats, and weights. We know a lot of detail from written sources, from charters and legislation granting people fishing rights." 

Where fishermen chose to do this was by no means random but linked to the concept of fiskeméd. This was outlined by professor Per Hovda in his 1961 book, Norske Fiskeméd, an overview of Norway's fishing waters, using the same kind of painstaking detail this ex-army major had used when presenting his country's titular maritime heritage at The Hague during a dispute with the UK in 1949. 

Fiskeméd was local knowledge of the way to good fishing spots. People looked for landmarks on land to know where the fishing grounds were. These areas were given names, and this knowledge was passed on from father to son.

"The special thing about the Norwegian coast is that the fishing resources are so rich close to land. The fishermen knew a lot about the seabed in their areas. When they used the line, the fishermen knew how many fathoms it was deep and whether there was sand or rock on the bottom. It was the bottom and the depth that determined what kind of fish were there." 

"The fishing gear used was basic nets, and different methods for using them. People either threw nets from the land, mainly for mackerel and herring, or they would take out small boats, with one end of the net fixed to the land. During the late Middle Ages, they would fix their nets to poles, which themselves were fixed to the bottom in shallow waters."

Racks filled with codfish left to dry, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo: saltat007 / Shutterstock

Drying, salting, and trading

North of the Arctic Circle, the sheltered bays of the Lofoten archipelago, with its large underwater valley, were particularly good spawning grounds for Norwegian Arctic cod: 

"It also happened to offer the best possible climatic conditions for drying cod without adding any salt. The air was dry in the winter months, and the temperatures were ideal, below zero, but not so low that it would damage the texture of the fish".

Although we do not know if women took part in the actual fishing, we might suppose that the whole process might have involved the whole family:

"Based on the division of labor in more recent decades, I suppose that the women mostly contributed by supplying cloth and provisions for their husbands. Some seasonal fishing settlements were probably all male. 

"But in places where the fish was being caught and landed alongside all-year settlements, women and children may have been involved in the preservation of the catch, like cutting and hanging the fish to dry in Lofoten and elsewhere in Northern Norway, or salting herring, mackerel, etc. Outside the great seasonal export fisheries, at the household level, this is even more likely to have been the case".

Fish was also a vital trading item: "From the late 11th and early 12th centuries, dried cod was exported to England and Germany. It was vital for monasteries and on religious holidays when certain types of meat were prohibited. Towns were growing in size, which became more of a burden on local agriculture, with fewer available resources".

"The German market, in particular, was of paramount importance. Many places would not have existed without fish. Customs records in England, particularly along the East coast, from around 1300 onwards, detail the import of cod and fish oil."

"The concentration of little stone fishing huts along the western coast, seasonal dwellings for fishermen, shows that they would have been very active during the Viking period. There was significant potential for making a good income – at least until the arrival of the Black Death in the mid-1300s."

A gentleman from Venice

After Norway recovered, a clear picture of a thriving fishing community around Lofoten is provided by Pietro Querini, a Venetian merchant whose ship ran aground during a violent storm around the island of Røst. 

After surviving as best they could, the crew was taken in by a local fisherman, and would spend three months in the bosom of the community. 

Querini noted down his observations of this pious, harmonious way of life, based around cod and the revenue from its export via the main market in Bergen. 

After a grateful Querini left for Italy, he took with him dried Norwegian cod that became popularized throughout Southern Europe, particularly for religious holidays. It still is today. 

There was a further consequence of this serendipitous calamity: in 2012, the Querini Opera was performed on the tiny island of Røst, acting out the dramatic events of 1432. A literary park later took his name in 2018.

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