Researching maritime trade in the 15th to 17th centuries

Maritime trade between Northern Germany and the North Atlantic islands in the 15th to 17th centuries

Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum – German Maritime Museum

The international research project Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse investigates 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.

During the course of the 15th century merchants from northern Germany began to expand their trading links with the North Atlantic islands of Shetland, the Faroes and Iceland. In the following two hundred years they became the most important trading partners for the islanders. Regular ship traffic developed between the Northern German cities and the islands.

The main interest of German merchants was to meet the great demand for stockfish, a well preservable source of protein, which had become popular in the urban centres of Europe in the late Middle Ages. Other north Atlantic goods of interest for mainland Europeans were sulphur (used among others for the production of gun powder), fish oil, wadmal (a coarse woolen fabric), and falcons (used by the nobility for hunting). At the same time, the inhabitants of the North Atlantic islands were dependent on foreign merchants for many commodities such as timber, metal products, cereals, beer, fine fabrics, and clothing.

Iceland as depicted on the Carta Marina by Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus (1539); note the Bremen and Hamburg ships off the south coast

Trade with regions north of Bergen in Norway, including the North Atlantic islands, was officially prohibited by the Norwegian king and the council of the Hanseatic League. This had to do with the position of Bergen as a transit point for trade with northern Europe, which was dominated predominantly by merchants from Lübeck. In spite of this, hanseatic merchants from Hamburg and Bremen, began to trade directly with the islands from the early 15th century onwards. Through these commercial links and the extensive exchange of goods and thoughts merchants influenced the economy and culture of these islands. However, these economic and cultural connections have never received much scholarly attention.

In this research project, an interdisciplinary research team drawn from the disciplines of archaeology, history and archaeozoology investigates the many facets of this trade. The four members of the team each have their own subproject, which taken together will cover the various aspects of the maritime connections of German merchants with the North Atlantic. The main objectives include: how did maritime trade on the North Atlantic islands operate, and how was it regulated? How were the merchants and sailors linked together? Which ship types were in operation and how did these develop? What effect did the long and close trade relations have on both parties?

Of central importance to the project and future research is a database that contains the transcriptions of all relevant written sources that are preserved in the archives of Bremen and Hamburg. After completion the database will be put online and made available open-access. 

The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven which is also the Leibniz-Institute for German Maritime History. The project is funded by the Leibniz Association (Leibniz Gemeinschaft). Cooperations exist with the National Archives of Iceland (Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands), Shetland Museum and Archives, and Faroese National Heritage (Søvn Landsins).

Natascha Mehler, Bart Holterman, Hans Christian Küchelmann and Mike Belasus

Follow our project through our weblog: