Itâs been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herringâs own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:
When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. Thatâs two to three hundred per every person.
From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.
Herring has really always been fished, well, âsince the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Agesâ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticusâs words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: âthe whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.â In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herrâŠ I wonât go there.
It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BLâs Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, âroof slates and herring fisheriesâ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Svenâs Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).
Douglas S. Murrayâs comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, âone of the finest of its kindâ, namely the Herring Era Museum in SiglufjĂ¶rĂ°ur on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the âAtlantic Klondikeâ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of âthe fact that without herring, Iceland â like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere â would not have possessed a modern society.â The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.
The lyrical beauty of âIcelandic goldâ in paintings by Gunnlaugur BlĂ¶ndal. Above: âThe Herring Workerâ (1934); below: âHerring Packersâ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur BlĂ¶ndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13
A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull Äșslands: sĂldarsaga Äșslendiga (âSilver of the sea: Icelandâs gold: the history of herring in Icelandâ; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion HalldĂłr Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxnessâs 1972 GuĂ°sgjafaĂŸula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as âThe Song of Godâs Giftsââthe book has not been translated into English. âGodâs giftsâ is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:
âNorĂ°urlandssĂldin er aĂ°alborin skepna bĂŠĂ°i aĂ° fegurĂ° og vitsmunum, kanski ĂŸaĂ° dĂĄsamlegasta sem guĂ° hefur skapaĂ°.â
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]
ââŠ ĂŸĂĄ munu margir men tala aĂ° ĂŸessi fagri fiskur hafi veriĂ° sannkĂ¶lluĂ° dĂœrĂ°argjĂ¶f, jĂĄ ein sĂș mesta sem himnafaĂ°irinn hefur gefiĂ° ĂŸessari ĂŸjĂłĂ°.â
[âŠ then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]
GuĂ°sgjafaĂŸula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by MatthĂas ĂĂłrdarson from MĂłar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, SjĂłn, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel ArgĂłarflĂsin (âThe Whispering Museâ; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In SjĂłnâs novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and ĂĂłrdarson before him. One of Haraldssonâs early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:
It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.
The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldssonâs memoirs is not lost on the reader. Godâs gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the âblood and soilâ rhetoric of continental fascism. SjĂłnâs novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by GĂŒnter Grass. But that is for another postâŠ
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections
References and further reading:
Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439
HalldĂłr Laxness, BrekkukotsannĂĄll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)
SjĂłn, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955
James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, âCommercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600â