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Hvar reru fornmenn til fiskjar?: Um vertíðamynstur miðalda.

Helgi Skúli Kjartansson
Orri Vésteinsson
Birtist í
Saga: Tímarit Sögufélags 2018 LVI: II
Mikilsvert álitamál í hagsögu Íslands á miðöldum er hvort sjósókn hafi skipst á árstíðir og landshluta með líkum hætti og síðar varð. Hér er borinn saman vitnisburður ólíkra heimilda: frásagna, skjala og fornleifa, og reynist flest bera að sama brunni. Hið vel þekkta vertíðamynstur, þar sem sjósókn var langmest við Suður- og Vesturland og sérstaklega á vetrarvertíð, hefur ekki mótast fyrr en á síðmiðöldum. Þangað til tengist vitnisburður um sjósókn norðurhelmingi landsins ekki síður en suðurhlutanum og fátt bendir til vetrarvertíðar.
Changing Geographical Patterns of Fisheries in Medieval Iceland In Early Modern Iceland, most marine fishing took place off the west and south coasts. The principal fishing season lasted from February to May and was manned to a great extent by farmers and farmhands who had often travelled long distances, sometimes right across the island, to take part. The geographical spread of the fishing stations is explained by the cod being most abundant in this region at this time of year, but the season comes down to two factors: carrion flies first appear in May, making winter and early spring the ideal time to air-dry the catch, and in winter labour could most easily be spared for fishing without conflicting with the farming schedule. This pattern is well attested from the 16th century onwards, but the evidence is less clear for the medieval period. Several scholars have postulated that the pattern goes back to the beginnings of settlement, while others have pointed out the absence of clear signs of south coast winter fisheries. This paper reviews the medieval evidence for the location and season of marine fishing in Iceland. Evidence from the Book of Settlements, the Sagas of Icelanders and the Contemporary Sagas is collated and compared to evidence from the laws, annals and charters, as well as the fast-growing body of archaeological data. The sources clearly suggest that in the Middle Ages significant fishing took place along the north-western and northern seaboard — from Snæfellsnes in the west to Langanes in the east — and that summer was the principal fishing season. Summer fisheries imply a specialised workforce, suggesting that under this earlier system inland farmers traded for fish rather than providing the labour themselves. Indications of a winter fishing season only appear in the 14th century and the fishing stations in the Southwest — around Reykjanes — seem to have started to attract migrant labour only in the course of the 15th century. The shift appears to have been gradual. The northern fisheries may have declined in absolute terms in the course of the Late Middle Ages and by 1500 they had certainly become overshadowed by the more efficient and profitable fisheries in the south and west. Several factors affected these developments. Marine fishing is attested as an integral part of the household economy in the earliest settlements — inland as well as coastal — in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Its relative importance grew in the course of the 10th century, while significant increases are seen in the 12th and 13th centuries, related to increased domestic consumption. Fish exports had begun in the late 13th century and stockfish had become a major export commodity by the 1340s. There was therefore clearly a trend towards increased demand, first domestic and later international, which affected decisions about where and when to catch the fish. Judging from the effects of rising sea temperatures on the cod’s spawning runs in the 20th century, it can be inferred that there would have been a general southward shift of the Icelandic cod stocks with colder climate setting in from the 13th century onwards. The extent to which this would have affected the small-scale (in terms of off-take of the total stock) inshore fisheries is uncertain, however, and it may only have become significant once English fishing vessels started fishing in deeper Icelandic waters after 1410. Increased production required more labour and this seems to have been provided primarily by farmers and farmhands who could only absent themselves from their farms during winter. The shift to a winter fishing pattern is about labour control, towards a regime which could increase output without upsetting the balance of social relations.