Beyond Braudel’s ‘Northern Invasion’? Aspects of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean fish trade in the early seventeenth century1

Heywood, Colin
May 2014
International Journal of Maritime History;May2014, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p193
Academic Journal
It is not just in recent Spanish maritime historiography that fisheries history and the history of fish have been perceived as ‘the Cinderella of early modern … economic history’. Fernand Braudel, when he was rewriting his Méditerranée more than half a century ago, took as little notice of the dried fish staple in its Mediterranean context of consumption as in its North Atlantic context of production, and he largely passes over its origin in the Newfoundland fisheries, or its share in the coming into the Mediterranean of the ‘Northern Invasion’. The same is true of his specialised study from 60 years ago on the shipping history of Livorno in the second half of the sixteenth and first decade of the seventeenth century, based on the (admittedly incomplete) Livorno port records. Equally, Braudel’s more recent commentators and re-evaluators appear to have failed to notice the connection, preferring, together with their North Atlantic colleagues, to operate ‘within the box’ of their chosen region of specialisation. The ‘big question’, therefore, which I pose in this article, may be expressed thus: ‘What came first—grain or fish?’. In other words, was the need of the Mediterranean (or at least of its north-west, ‘Christian’ quadrant) for dried salt fish more important or significant (or ultimately more long-term) than the need for grain as a trigger for the late-sixteenth century ‘Northern Invasion’? Can a case be made for there having been a serious undervaluing of the fish trade, in terms of commodity volume, the number of vessels and men involved, and its general economic impact, as a component of the complex movement of men, ships and cargoes, which made up the ‘Northern Invasion’? This article provides an analysis of the original problem and draws on a number of unpublished early-seventeenth century archival sources to offer some preliminary observations on how to go about solving it.


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