Episode 16: The Fishy Tale of Willem Beukelszoon
In the latter half of the 14th century, a series of technological developments as well as ripe social and economic conditions saw the foundations being laid for the future Dutch takeover of the northern European herring industry. Up until then, the herring trade had been dominated by the Danes, Swedes and the Hanseatic towns of northern Germany and the Baltic Sea, with Dutch and other European consumers happily importing salted herring from those places. Within two hundred years this situation would be completely reversed; the fishing and exporting of salted herring would be one of the cornerstones of the Dutch economy and Dutch cured herring would come to reach dinner tables all across Europe. This remarkable reversal of fortunes was so integral to the emergence of Dutch national identity, that it required its own position within the narrative of the emerging Dutch state. From the 17th century onwards a myth was perpetuated which credited it all to a man called Willem Beukelszoon of Biervliet. He was a humble herring fisherman who, at some point in the 14th century apparently discovered the process of gibbing, which made this whole turn around possible. Although this legend has been debunked by modern historians, its perpetuation demonstrates the importance which the so-called “royal herring” enjoyed in the creation of a Dutch national identity. So in this episode of the History of the Netherlands, we are once again going to depart from the power games of the nobility, and the wranglings of urban elite and worker’s guilds, and focus on something even more slippery, the herring.
The Legend of Willem Beukelszoon
According to the popular story, at some point in the latter half of the 14th century Mr Beukelszoon, for some reason or other, began to go about things differently to other fishermen or fish curers. He is credited with discovering something called kaken, or gibbing: a method of gutting and deboning herring that left parts of its stomach and another of its internal organs, the pyloric caecae, intact. Removing the guts and bones took away the bits that would begin to rot first, whilst the remaining pyloric caecae would continue to emit an enzyme called trypsin. The herring would then be thrown into brine and basically pickle in its own juices.
So important was Willem Beukelszoon’s discovery of gibbing, that in addition to appearing in a stained glass window of a church and having his own statue in Biervliet, and as well as featuring in several chronicles of Dutch history, in 2005 Willem Beukelszoon was named by a Dutch television show as the 157th greatest Netherlander of all time. That is a remarkable achievement.
It becomes even more remarkable, when we look even deeper into who he was and what he is supposed to have ‘discovered’. Because, quite frankly, there is no firm record of when exactly this particular William Beukelszoon lived or what exactly he did. I say ‘particular’, because there are numerous Willems and other Beukelszoons who lived in the 14th century in Zeeland. The extent to which any of them were involved with fishing, gibbing, salting, packing or otherwise is unclear. Secondly, and more importantly, there is absolutely no way that this method of gibbing was invented in the Netherlands, or even by a Dutchman. If anyone tells you that Willem Beukelszoon invented this method, then they are merely fibbing about gibbing. What this means, astoundingly, is that this all important process of gibbing, which to this day provides us with one of the most traditional and Dutch of all traditional Dutch foods, the Hollandse Nieuwe, or pickled herring - something so Dutch that it is often proudly served on a plate with a little Dutch flag skewered into it - almost certainly originated in today’s Sweden. So, yea… Dutch pickled herring - bet you didn’t know that wasn’t Dutch!
Early fishing and religious reasons to eat fish
Humans have been fishing since the Paleolithic era, but these early attempts at fishing were mostly focused on the easiest to catch fish in the easiest to reach areas. Most fishing occurred in river ways, where people tended to settle, or in shallow coastal waters, which were easy enough to exploit from small open boats. As we have seen in a previous episode, from around the year 1100, people in the low countries began their first systematic attempts at changing the environment they were living in, by going beyond building terps, to constructing small dikes, then large dikes, dams, sluices and other methods to control flooding and manage the water level. This meant that by the middle-ages the population of river fish was dwindling, due to the intense growth of the human population in urban and regional areas of the lowlands and the pollution they created in the large waterways. Even more problematic was that the flood control methods, those dams, dikes and sluices, had begun to mess with the natural flow of those waters and to impact the life cycles of the freshwater fish that lived in them.
By this time, as we know, this was a Christian realm. According to the traditions that had developed, people were prohibited from eating meat on certain days of the week, as well as during other holy periods such as lent, good Friday, advent and so on. According to the Christian tradition, fish did not count as meat, so medieval pescatarians rejoiced and on the 130 days a year when meat was prohibited, fish was permitted to be consumed.
The big problem with fish, however, was that it was not cheap. A huge amount of effort had to go into getting it out of the water and into a market without it going off. Grains were much cheaper in general. Even in times of grain shortage, when the price of bread skyrocketed, fish was still, with a few exceptions, more expensive. For this reason, whatever fishing was done was first on simply a subsistence level, where the fishermen themselves would eat what they caught or use it to feed their family, or perhaps the lord they served or their local abbey or church. It is estimated that fish would make up somewhere between 3-5% of the calories people would consume, but cost 10-20% of their food budget, which is a terrible ratio. For this reason, it was often seen as a rich person’s food, and this is testified to in many old paintings, in which table displays exhibit lavish banquets with a fish in the centre.
Early sea fishing in the low countries
Sea fishing began in the lowlands sometime just after the turn of the first millennium. Sea fish like cod, plaice, haddock and herring, of course, became of ever greater importance. In Flanders there is evidence of it from about the 11th century, and in Holland and Zeeland from the 13th century. Small-scale Dutch fishing operations would have fished off the Dutch and English coasts. Herring was best caught in these waters in the winter months, when the fish were spawning and so at their fattiest. This was also when the supply of other forms of fresh meat were dwindling. Not yet having access to gibbing knowledge, the majority of fish caught would be sold at markets either fresh or lightly salted and semi-preserved, a product called korfharing. Lowlander fishermen very often landed off the coast of England, selling their catch straight to curers there.
After not long, however, the increase of sea-fishing off the lowland coast and English coast was not proving sufficient for the growing demands of a rapidly urbanising society in Flanders and then also in Holland, Brabant, Zeeland and Guelders. Over time Flemish and Dutch fishermen pushed into deeper and deeper waters. They learned that as they went further away, and north up the English and Scottish coasts, they were then able to follow massive herring shoals south again. The fish would move south as they spawned, so if the fishermen timed it correctly they would be able to catch bigger and fattier fish. The distances they were travelling in pursuit of herring, however, were making it more difficult to land in England or bring a fresh catch back to the lowlands. This was compounded by other problems that arose in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Piracy was one of them. But significantly so too was the strife that erupted between England and France, and Flanders, and in which the rest of lowlands became embroiled, with the onset of the Hundred Years War in the 1330s. Dutch and Flemish fishermen, wanting to head ever further out into northern waters, could not rely on being able to make land as frequently as the ports of England were sometimes closed to them. In addition to this they were chasing fatter fish into further, deeper waters. They needed to figure out a way to keep their fish good and to stay at sea longer.
Gibbing in Scania and the Hanseatic League
All evidence suggests that gibbing was already happening in other parts of northern Europe. It was certainly happening in a place called Scania, the southern part of what is today Sweden, but back then was part of Denmark. There, on a daily basis, thousands of small, open boats, with perhaps 5-6 men aboard, would set off to catch herring in the strait between today’s Denmark and Sweden, a body of water known as the Sound. Here, as historian Richard Unger puts it, herring stocks could be so thick in number that fishermen had trouble moving their rudders in the dense water. The literal boatloads caught would be taken to the Skanör Peninsula, where the fish would be gibbed. This process involved the fish being picked up in one hand, while the other knife-wielding hand would stick said knife into a precise location in the gills, push down with their thumb on the underside, and twist the knife in such a way that, when it was pulled from the fish, the insides would become outsides. It would then be tossed in a barrel of salted water and fish blood.
What remained, after this process was finished, was called tonharing, a product which could last for up to one year. Once packed, barrels of these tonharing could then be submitted to the trade routes of the Hanseatic league, and make their way off to markets around Europe. Being so well preserved meant it could travel far distances, going from merchant to merchant, before ending up as food for people who had never heard of Scania. The lowlands, and particularly Flanders, was one of the most important destinations along the way. Flanders, as we know, was the major market of the lowlands and one Europe’s biggest hubs of international trade; it was the place where merchants from the northern Hanseatic League met merchants from the lowlands, England, France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. For this reason the Hanseatic League established a kontor - a trading outpost - in Bruges, with merchants and businessmen based there to protect its interests, not least of which was its import of tonharing.
Flemish and Dutch fishermen, besides scouring their local coast, were also working in and around Scania. In his article “The Netherlands Herring Fishery in the Late Middle Ages”, upon which we are relying heavily for this episode, Unger notes how at one point, around 1350, Amsterdam, Enkhuizen, Brielle and eight other towns from the low countries had been given the right to participate in herring fishing in Scania, where they were allowed to bring the fish to shore to be cured. Some or many of them would certainly have witnessed the gibbing process on Skanör peninsula.
The beginning of Dutch competition with the Hanseatic League
The Dutch word for the gibbing process is kaken, and herring produced in the low countries was known as kaakharing. Joining the Danes from Scania in producing very well preserved herring meant that Dutch and Flemish herring began to be seen more on the continent. By the 1330s, Flemish merchants were selling herring in France, what would become known as caque-haring, directly derived from the Dutch kaakharing.
The increase in Dutch kaakharing in Flemish markets provided more problems to the platter of perpetual pressure from which the prince and patricians in Flanders had to partake. Hansa merchants in Flemish cities fought stiffly to protect their imported tonharing from Scania against incursions by the local Dutch equivalent kaakharing. Their angst only increased due to how vulnerable the Scania herring industry could be to massive, unpredictable interruptions. A poor season, bad weather, war, or other major issues in the North might open the door for Dutch herring in Dutch markets. With the rise of kaakharing, tensions between the Hanseatic League and fishing towns and villages in the lowlands began to surface.
This was a delicate situation which had to be balanced carefully by the count of Flanders. The conflict between Scania herring and Dutch herring had direct implications on a culturally important consumer good because for 130 days of the year those who could afford it would eat fish. Domestic fishing loads were essential to the availability of fresh fish to the local market. If Dutch herring was cured it was more likely to make its way to foreign markets, and so there would not be enough supply to just replace the local demand for fresh fish. As kaakharing had more value in more markets, greater portions of a catch would be committed to the preservation station.
In 1396 an edict was passed by the Flemish count which banned the landing of any type of preserved herring in Flanders. This derived firstly from protestations by merchants in Bruges with interests in the protection of Hanseatic trade of tonharing, and secondly by the need to protect the supply of fresh fish to local markets. But this ban was quickly ended after it became clear that merchants in Flanders would simply travel to Zeeland where the ban did not apply in order to buy preserved herring there instead. The new rules, however, only allowed fishermen in the town of Biervliet to sell cured herring for a certain four week period, in specially marked barrels, which were not allowed to be sold in Flanders, but which were only for export. This was a concession to the anxious Hansa merchants.
The real innovation: gibbing on board ships
Whether it was due to overfishing, or a climatic change in weather conditions between the 1390s and 1420s Scania supplies of herring began to dwindle. There would even be years of catastrophe, when herring simply wouldn’t show up to the party. That circumstances is a contender for the saddest party ever, a Danish fisherman alone on his boat in the early 1400s, looking at an empty sea where he had expected to see literally millions of fishy friends. When tonharing couldn’t be supplied by Hansa merchants, this created an opportunity for the Dutch fishermen to fill that gap.
It was at this point that the Dutch herring industry would begin its astronomical rise. As we’ve seen, gibbing was nothing new. They’d been exposed to it and they’d been using it already for years. What was truly revolutionary at this moment was the way they solved the problem of needing to return to port daily in order to bring the herring in fresh. And the solution for it was magnificent, and simple. Dutch and Flemish fishermen began to conduct the process of gibbing on their ships, rather than take their loads to be cured on land. Ta-daaa. Brilliant. It was this innovation, rather than the mythical act of Beukelszoon, which changed the game.
Bringing this process on board their ships meant that now Dutch fishermen could set sail and take their ships north along the Scottish coast and beyond, heading into deeper, more herring-laden waters, where they could remain until their holds were full of pickled herring. Gibbing on board meant being able to stay at sea for much longer, allowing Dutch and Flemish fishermen to become more intimate with the happenings of herring, furthering their understanding of things like the seasons and regions that they were the fattest and best for commercial purposes.
Innovation begets further innovation
This surge towards herring also opened the door for other innovations, as such trends tend to do. At some point in the 1300s somebody created a type of net called a vleet. These were wide and sprawling, about 30m long and 15m wide, and extremely effective in catching massive hauls of herring. They would be tied together, to make even bigger nets and to make them operable for the fishermen on board. The first open Dutch fishing boats to use the vleet would carry up to forty of them at once. Soon though, ships across the lowlands would be dragging more than 75 of them, tied together, scooping up hundred-of-thousands of herring at once.
Ship-building was another area that tied in with this fishy fortune. For a long time already, it had been one of the main industries in Holland, Zeeland and Friesland, and as necessity drives development, so did Dutch ships develop to cater to the growth of the herring industry. The cog and corver were styles of ships with large hulls, and so could carry more stuff in them. Cogs had originated in the lowlands by the 10th century and by the 14th century were widely used in Northern Europe, especially amongst the Hanseatic trade networks. For Dutch fishermen they became perfect in combination with the large vleet nets, and soon became equally central to the whole industry. Over the latter half of the 14th century Dutch shipbuilders began modifying these ships to cater to the needs of herring fishermen. Dragging such massive nets meant needing specialised ships to balance out the immense force. The boats became shaped to have bigger holds, and capacity to carry and haul the vleet nets. By the beginning of the 15th century this evolved into the haringbuis, or herring buss, which was essentially a floating herring factory. Up to 30 sailors would work on each bus, fishing, gibbing and packing herring for up to eight weeks at a time before returning to port.
The superiority of the herring buss meant that Dutch fishermen could travel into deeper waters where herring stocks were more reliable and less subject to the vagaries of shallower, coastal waters. More reliable herring meant higher yields, which could be preserved for longer, which could be sold in more distant markets. This led to more profits, which could be used to invest in more busses, or perhaps to take part in other commercial activities during the herring off-season, such as the grain trade from the Baltic or the import of the salt necessary to preserve the fish. By the end of the 15th century, the Dutch would be the ones selling cured herring to the Hansa towns, a 180 degree turn around in fortune.
Herring provided a product that had demand in markets all around Europe. Innovations in the low countries in things like making nets, on-board gibbing and ship-building allowed the Dutch to take over a whole industry, one which relied on international trade cooperation and large initial investments, which needed many highly skilled and many unskilled workers cooperating, which required the import of the necessary raw materials to turn an unfinished product into a marketable one, which required merchants to then sell it throughout the continent and book-keepers and accountants to make sure that everybody received their share of the profit. This was setting up the foundations for what would later become a transcontinental trade system which did much the same, albeit on a grander scale.
As for William Beukelszoon, whoever he was and whatever he did, his name belongs now to history, even if only as the personification of this period of technological innovation. Although we’ll never know what role he played, if any, in the process of moving gibbing onto ships, it is his name which has filtered down through the ages as the one which is so remembered. In the 1660s, in the period just after the successful Dutch revolt against Spain, a stained glass window was created in Biervliet in honour of Willem Beukelszoon, and his supposed invention of kaaken. In it he wears orange, blue and white, the colours of the Dutch national flag whilst in one hand he holds a knife and in the other a herring. By the 1600s the Dutch herring industry would be so entrenched in the new national identity, that some of its biggest towns, like Enkhuizen would bear crowned herrings on their city coat of arms and you can still see many buildings in cities across the Netherlands which feature herrings in their architecture. The herring industry would even infiltrate the language, with the Dutch equivalent of the English expression “like sardines in can” translating to “like herring in a barrel”.