Medieval Whales and Whaling
Introduction Few writers have attempted to qualify the nature and extent of whale exploitation in England during the Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods. This is intriguing: while this was a country surrounded by seas presumably thronging with cetacean life, and with neighbouring maritime cultures apparently actively engaging in the practice of whaling, there is comparatively little archaeological evidence to demonstrate whale exploitation in England. The very scarcity of whale bone artefacts retrieved through excavation has meant that there is little understanding of how and why such resources were used. The study of whale exploitation in England can be seen to be, of necessity, an interdisciplinary investigation. The rarity of the surviving artefactual evidence, coupled with the insecure provenance of some of the material, means an examination of the documentary record is essential. In writing this article, this has comprised the inspection of ‘factual’ records, such as Calendar Rolls and Exchequer Accounts, to try and gauge the ‘presence’ of whales (i.e. the dates and methods of their procurement), and the examination of literary and pictorial sources, such as poems and manuscript art, to try and elucidate their cultural ‘appearance’. In addition to this not unexpected coupling of archaeology and history, this paper will also discuss environmental and geological data, with regard to the phenomenon of the Medieval Warm Period. It is suggested here that this climatic event was a key factor affecting the location and availability of cetaceans. Finally, it should also be noted that due to the drastic fall in numbers of whales over the past three centuries (because of the commercial whaling of the industrial and modern eras), evidence regarding the behaviour and activities of whales in British waters (both historically and today) is still very much in the process of compilation.
Documentary and Pictorial Evidence The first English documentary reference to the practice of whaling comes from the late 9th century tale of North Atlantic whaling recounted at the court of King Alfred by the traveller Ohthere. However, the concept of the whale as a threatening and malicious aquatic creature is demonstrated from an earlier date in literary sources, such as Adomnan’s Life of St Columba and the 9th century Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. In these sources, the whale is portrayed as a terrifying sea monster, and in the latter tale it also has the rather alarming habit of disguising itself as an island. This identification of the monstrous whale can be seen as deriving from Judeo-Christian tradition; the well-known story of Jonah and the Whale, the Leviathan of the Book of Job, and the description of the whale within the Physiologus texts, which date to the 2nd-4th centuries AD. The whale is used as a literary device representing the temptation of man, as is clearly embodied in the late Anglo-Saxon poem, The Whale
St Brendan and the Whale Image from Wikimedia Commons Echoes of this deeply rooted primal fear of the aquatic environment and the creatures within it are also to be found in the Beowulf saga; the hero overcomes the raging seas, and victoriously battles Grendel’s mother, who lurks in an underwater lair described by Seamus Heaney as one of three ‘archetypal sites of fear’. However, it seems likely that physical descriptions of whales must have been based at least in part on direct observation, both from on board ship and from the coast. Again with reference to Beowulf, the sea is identified as hronráde (the whale-road), and after his death Beowulf’s burial mound is raised on hrones næsse, the whale’s headland. Finally, Ælfric’s Colloquy, dating to c. 987-1002, also indicates interaction with whales: Master: Would you like to catch a whale? ‘Fisherman’: Not me! Master: Why? ‘Fisherman’: Because it is a risky business catching a whale. It’s safer for me to go on the river with my boat, than to go hunting whales with many boats. Master: Why so? ‘Fisherman’: Because I prefer to catch a fish that I can kill, rather than a fish that can sink or kill not only me but also my companions with a single blow. Master: Nevertheless many catch whales and escape danger, and make great profit by it. ‘Fisherman’: You are right, but I dare not because of my timid spirit! The documentary evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period would seem to suggest that while large cetaceans had been observed and were a part of the symbolic consciousness of the populace, they were not actually hunted due to the inherent dangers associated with such an enterprise. This is in direct contrast to the contemporary situation within the Scandinavian world, including those islands settled by the Norse (the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland) and parts of northern Britain, where both documentary and archaeological evidence indicates considerable activity. Similarly, Flemish and Norman documentary evidence indicates that whaling was taking place in the North Sea and the English Channel from the 9th century onwards, while in the Bay of Biscay, Basque whalers were operating from as early as the 11th century. In the light of the conquest of AD 1066, Norman activity is particularly significant with regard to Anglo-Saxon attitudes to whaling; evidence for both the organisation of labour and the interest of the ruler is in direct contrast to England, where there are no references to whaling in early medieval legislature. Thus, it seems possible that English requirements for whale products were supplied via continental sources and from stranded creatures washed up in coastal and estuarine areas.
A preliminary study of a number of primary and secondary documentary sources has provided an insight into the phenomenon of stranding during the 11th – 15th centuries. These records provide an indication of the frequency of the occurrence of strandings; they demonstrate the assertion of rights and legal ownership of this valuable resource, and they are notable (especially during the mid 14th century) for the large numbers of individuals involved in the act of removing (and presumably profiting by) the whale carcass. 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. An example of the financial worth of a stranded cetacean is provided here, to demonstrate their value in later medieval England. In September 1334, a claimant for recompense in the matter of the loss of twelve horses and four oxen valued all of those animals at a total of £30; the financial windfall afforded by the discovery of the single stranded whale at Fryskeneye the same year was £100.
Archaeological Evidence Surviving artefacts of whalebone in England are comparatively rare and evidence for possible butchery and bone working sites are even more exceptional. The artefactual evidence can be classified according to ‘product’ type: the first group comprises a small number of finely worked pieces (mostly dating to the mid Anglo-Saxon period); the second consists of fragmentary remains, representing waste products and possible domestic items. Of the first assemblage, the best known is probably the Franks Casket, which is dated to c AD 700.
Detail of the lid of the Franks Casket Image from WikiMedia Commons
The casket was found in France, and donated to the British Museum. The front panel text provides a description of the material used in the casket’s construction ‘hronoesban’ (whalebone), and the way it was acquired: The fish beat up the sea(s) on to the mountainous cliff. The king of terror became sad when he swam on to the shingle.
Other 8th century examples of whalebone artefacts include the Gandersheim (or Brunswick) Casket and the Larling panel fragment, found in 1970 near a church dedicated to Æthelbert of East Anglia, whose coins also bear the Romulus and Remus motif shown on the panel. Other examples of worked material include a number of items found in Cambridgeshire: a fragment of a casket mount (dating to c 1000-1150) from Hinxton; an unprovenanced gaming piece; and a plaque found near Ely. Parts of a chess set (10th-12th century) carved from whale’s flipper bones were found in Witchampton, Dorset during the 1920s and from London there is a whalebone (or possibly walrus ivory) book cover of 12th or 13th century date. Discoveries of fragmentary material are relatively rare and, as with the documentary evidence, a number of interesting speculations are prompted by examination of this data. While the sample of material is very small, some hypotheses could be suggested regarding the types of sites using whale bone (high status and urban settlements), and possible centres of trade / secondary processing can be tentatively identified (Ipswich, York, Southampton and London). Only one site shows evidence for primary butchery: the remains of two stranded 10th century whales excavated at Dengemarsh in Kent.
North Atlantic Right Whale and calf Image from Wikimedia Commons
Whale 1 was identified as a North Atlantic right whale, a species widely hunted by the Basque whalers as they are slow moving, easy to approach, float when killed and yield great quantities of oil and baleen. The whale discovered at Bay Wharf, Greenwich is of the same species.
Discussion The documentary and (limited) archaeological evidence thus suggests the exploitation of whales in medieval England was an opportunistic maritime activity, with initial butchery and processing of stranded whales taking place in coastal or estuarine environments, and relatively small-scale secondary modification of materials taking place at high status mercantile and ecclesiastical centres. A further problem in understanding the exploitation process is that the probable uses of whale products are largely archaeologically invisible. Baleen (from the upper jaws) was apparently used for military equipment and fashionable clothing during the 13th and 14th centuries. Meat removed from bones could be eaten fresh or salted, and oil (rendered from blubber and bones) could be utilised in a variety of ways including lighting and soap making. Finally, there is the challenge of identifying the kinds of whales exploited as the modified nature of the carved examples, and the fragmentary nature of the remaining artefacts, makes species identification difficult.
The implications of the climatic and environmental changes affecting the North Atlantic area during the Medieval Warm Period are striking with regard to the hypotheses made above about whale activity and human industry. The Medieval Warm Period (c AD 900 – 1350) followed a phase of colder weather (dated to c AD 400 – 900): the former was characterised by low rainfall, warm summers and cold winters. Analysis of a range of data has shown that from the 10th century, tree and cultivation limits spread towards higher altitudes, (in England for example, there was tillage at greater heights in parts of Dartmoor and Northumberland, and evidence for numerous vineyards across south-eastern counties); dendrochronology suggests periods of drought and documentary records make reference to the heat. This period of warmer weather, together with the retreat of Arctic ice, encouraged the movement of populations in the North Atlantic, with Viking settlement shown to have gradually spread from a foothold in the Faroes established during the early 9th century, to Iceland in around 860 and onwards to Greenland and the north-eastern coast of America during the 10th and early 11th centuries. 8th century developments in Viking ship technology with the use of sail, as well as oars, is also important to the Norse expansion, allowing for the transhipment of more men, more cargo and the ability to traverse longer distances at greater speed. Exploration of the North Atlantic areas, and the ability to travel to areas further north that were previously inaccessible due to ice, would have also meant increasing contact with whales, both of those species already seen in the North Sea and English Channel, and of those which are restricted to higher latitudes. The establishment of settlements in places like Iceland and Greenland would also have meant that processing of whales could take place close to the areas in which they were caught, with the modified products then shipped on via established trade routes. For example, excavation at the Viking settlement at Svalbard, in NE Iceland revealed an open air whalebone work shop, dating to 1050-1150.
La Baleine, painting from around 1840 Image from Wikimedia Commons
The phenomenon of stranding along the English coastline as attested in the documentary record may also be related in part to the climatic changes of the Medieval Warm Period (and the succeeding Little Ice Age), particularly with the regard to its apparently increasing frequency during the 14th centuries. During the 13th century, ice began to increase, spreading southwards from the pole, and leading to the gradual abandonment of the Norse settlements. In Europe this change from a period of warmer to colder weather (during the 14th century) was notable for a marked increase in ‘extreme’ weather: including violent storms and flood events, increased rainfall throughout the year and severe winter conditions, which affected crops leading to famine and disease. Changes in soil conditions also led to the subsidence and collapse of numerous buildings. Together with the horrors of the Black Death during the middle of the century, the 14th century was a time of turmoil. It seems likely that whale and other marine populations were likewise affected by these changes; the increase in ice and the effects of more severe weather could have impacted on whales in a
number of ways. Changes to the direction of sea currents bearing krill could have meant that whales were following new and unfamiliar routes, similarly alterations in the warmth and / or depth of the seas, and particularly of coastal waters, may have affected whales’ ability to navigate successfully and led to increasing numbers of stranding events. It is interesting to note that there appear to be significantly fewer strandings during the 15th century, (representing a successful ‘re-mapping’ of whale migration routes?) and that the only recorded instances of narwhal strandings (17th and 19th centuries) coincide with height of Little Ice Age, when the animal was presumably venturing further southwards than before due to colder conditions. During the 21st century, (which again is a Warm Period, although this time global in nature and exacerbated by the greenhouse effect), it is interesting to note the increasing presence of whales in British waters and more significantly with regard to this article, increased numbers of stranding events. The highly publicised case of the lost Thames Whale was one of a number of recorded stranding events of early 2006 of both smaller and larger cetaceans along the eastern coast of England. While the major contributory factor accounting for the increase in the number of whales around Britain is due to the recovery of populations previously affected by commercial whaling, it is interesting to speculate that climate change may also be having an impact. Conclusions Future areas of research could include detailed studies of whalebone artefacts to try and refine the species identification where possible. It may also useful to re-examine artefacts of uncertain identification (for example, the London artefact which could be either walrus or whale) to check for any missed examples. Broader research aims could incorporate further investigation of the nature of English ship technology throughout the medieval age, (and particularly of Anglo-Saxon period) in order to better understand the apparent lack of hunting. This could be related to an interesting comparative study of whaling during the post-medieval period, when the development of ships with transatlantic capabilities, and advances in cartography and navigation combined to encourage the growth of a global maritime industry. Further work could also be undertaken within the field of climate studies, including a detailed survey of documented stranding records (medieval, post-medieval and modern) to identify any patterns presented. The hunt for butchery and processing sites through coastal zone survey (inter-tidal and underwater investigation) may also prove rewarding, particularly if combined with studies of place-names.