Paradise’s first circle

On the 3rd of February 1432 did something remarkable happen on a small island far to the north in the then known world. What happened that day, and the next three months have shaped the identity of that small island.

It is common knowledge that in the fifteenth century did the European economy consist of two major trading networks, one based around the Hanseatic League, the Baltic Sea, Flanders, Britain and Scandinavia in the North, and the other with the Italian city-states, Catalonia, and the Mediterranean in the south. The two networks were not separate of each other, and places as far afield as modern-day Russia, the Lofoten Islands, Iceland, The Holy Land and Spain were all connected through these networks. It was in this economical context a Venetian trader by the name Pietro Querini set sail from the eastern Mediterranean with a cargo of Wine, his goal was Flanders and the rich wool trade there. Unfortunately for Pietro, did his ship never made it to Flanders, it drifted of course and got caught in a storm in the North Sea. The ship and part of the crew was lost as a consequence of the storm, but Pietro and 10 others survived the storm and the following hardship as they got stranded on an uninhabited island in Northern Norway. Like countless other ships over the course of history had Pietro’s ship been lost at sea. And then in the middle of the dark winter of the polar north Querini’s luck change, he and the surviving member of his crew got saved by the population in of the local island of Røst, in the Lofoten Islands, and thus they were moved to the small community on Røst itself.

During the next 3 months Querini and the remaining of the crew lived alongside the already existing population of Røst, before travelling back to Venetia in the spring and summer of 1432. Querini’s story was later published, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth century was the text translated to German and English. As a source is Querini’s tale highly valuable as it describes the livelihood of a small community at the edge of the world. The people of Røst lived in the Late Middle Ages of fishing and preserving fish for export. Querini noted in his story that the fish (Stokkfish) was in the summer shipped to Trondheim and Bergen, where it was sold for commodities like grain and fabrics, but also spices and art. Røst like other communities in Northern Norway are the home to the most concentrated collection of German late medieval church art. This art was often exported to Scandinavia and other parts of the world, and survived the reformation most likely due to the remoteness of their location in comparison to the bishops in charge of cleansing the Norwegian Church after the Lutheran reformation. Querini notes in his story that the people of Røst wore garments of English cloth, this illustrates that trading links existed to Røst from the more central parts of Medieval Europe. For from England came the cloth, whereas grain and flour came from the Hanseatic Cities in exchange for the fish that was caught at Røst. Querini noted that the people eat fish, milk, and meat, and although they could not grow much themselves, as the summers were too short, yet each farmer keep 4-6 cows to provide the families with milk and butter. What this suggests about the diet and food availability among these people is quite astonishing; a small fishing community in the far north of the European trade network could draw of all the resources available and were able to have enough food to feed an additional 11 people throughout the winter.  Not only did they feed and care for their guests, but they also, according to Querini had access to spices to flavor their food, as well as the other foreign goods previously mentioned.

This tale is seen through Querini’s eyes, and this is evident in his remark about a loaf of rye bread given to him just days before he leaves the island; it was round, just like those he was used to at home. In addition to this did he find that the people of this island were faithful Christians, that at Easter took part in the communion, and observed all of the fast days and feast days that the church calendar contained. Querini called the island the first of paradise’s seven circles, for the Island and its people saved him and his crew. It has recently been argued that Querini’s visit was the beginning of the Stokkfish trade to Italy, and through this link with the Stokkfish the Røst community have a window into a long-lost past, that shows life in the fifteenth century was not so very different from that of the nineteenth or possibly beginning of the twentieth century.

It is worth mentioning that until the beginning of the twentieth century was the fisheries in the Lofoten Island’s an important element in the economy for people along the North Norwegian coast. Their livelihood depended on the fisheries, and the imported goods that they could buy based on the sales of this fish. It is easy to say that what Querini observed in 1432 was a snapshot of a culture and way of life, which lasted long into the modern world.

(Querini’s journey provides together with the journey of Othere a set of valuable insights into the lifestyle in Northern Norway prior to the modernization of society, and it is evident that there have been more continuity that change in the life’s of people in the North over the last 1500 years, but that’s a topic for another update.)

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