The Breton site at Saint-Urnel-en-Plomeur has been revisited several times by archaeologists. During the last major examination, in the Seventies:
We had a surprise: it was the use of whale bones as a tomb furnishing. Since the beaching of cetaceans on our shores was once a rather frequent phenomenon, it is not shocking that the coastal populations used these veritable mines for various purposes... One must note... two adult graves with lateral furnishings carved out of large bones which could only come from cetaceans.
In this early medieval site, the bones had been shaped into planks, set tightly against one or both sides of each body – that is, whale bone had been used in the same way as wood. In a region with more beach and scrub than trees, a wealth of whale bones might well have seemed like “veritable mines”.
Whales have not completely disappeared from France today. Whale watching boats tour the Mediterranean and even in Brittany itself, from time to time, whales still beach themselves. But already in the eighteenth century, Le Grand d'Aussy wrote of the Middle Ages: “The whale was then more common than today; it was frequently seen on our coasts.”
Aside from archeology, the written record too shows the mammal's uses in early centuries both for light and food. In a life of the abbot Philibert (c. 608–684), the ninth century Ermantarius writes that the abbot had prayed for oil for the lamps and “a monk came and announced that the sea had left a dead fish... on the shore; from its flesh the brothers drew thirty modii of fat for light.” But Philibert's monks did not only profit from beached whales:
It is a wonder, what has never been seen in the world, they found profit out of a sea monster. For sea fish are caught of fifty feet in length, with hooks, nets and rafts, which the brothers could use for food, and also to drive away the shadows with light
This may be the earliest description of whaling in France. The equipment used was primitive – hooks, nets and rafts – and the hunt itself must have been breathtakingly dangerous. But Ermentarius' text treats it as a matter of course.
Le Grand considers whale hunting the first major fishing in France (though tuna fishing started early near Marseille): “It is rather singular, that of all the fishing of some importance, this, though the most dangerous and the most bold of all, is nonetheless the most ancient. Those of cod, herring, and others, come after it.”
By its manner of living, by the need it has to breathe, [the whale] shows itself often on the surface of the water. To go attack it, only courage was needed; and what Nation has ever had more courage than the French. It was not the same with other fish. As they continually hide under the waves, one can only take them with lures, tricks, particular nets; well, all this requires a long experience and deep knowledge of Fishing, which only time can bring.
The life of St. Vedastus, written in the ninth century (875), tells of fishermen from the monastery who have a contest with another group over catching whales (the monastery's men of course win by praying to the saint).
Rodulfus Tortarius (1063 – c. 1122), a poet-monk, wrote of visiting the region near Bayeux:
In winter time they take whales.
I was present, they followed after wild fish shouting.
Disappointed, their nets empty, they returned.
His explicit mention of whales (cete) here has been challenged, since these “fish” were hunted with nets; but then so, we are told, were those fifty feet long. If Ermantarius' account was at all accurate, either the nets were bigger, the whales smaller or the fishermen simply hardier.
An early twelfth century life of St. Arnulf is the first account to explicitly mention spearing whales:
At this time fishermen came out of Flanders, surrounding a very great whale, wounding it with lances and spears to bring it defeated to land, and from the beast's death gather wealth to themselves. But the very savage beast, though strongly wounded by spears and lances, could not be captured or subdued, but only grew madder from the pain, now spewing water towards the sky, now going deep underwater, now rising again out of the depths, now with its tail and fins attacking the ship's tackle.
The panicked fisherman then pray to St. Arnulf, vowing a portion of the fish in return for his aid, and the whale at once submits and lets the fishermen attach ropes to it and tow it to a quiet place. A similar story is recorded, around the tenth century, of a fisherman who prays to St. Bavon (of Ghent) and then thrusts his “iron” into the whale when it (miraculously) resurfaces.
The mention of “wealth” in the first account is an early one of whaling as a source of actual profit, rather than immediate practical benefit; references from the tenth century on (see below) imply some form of market for whale products. In 1066, William the Conqueror (busy as he was that year) granted a charter to St. Trinity of Caën and included the right to a tenth of the tolls on whales and salt. In most readings, a bull from 1145 from pope Eugene III grants a church at Coutances (in Lower-Normandy) a tenth (a tithe) of any whales taken at Merry; more specifically of their tongues (one version of the text might refer simply to any large fish caught with a line).
Meanwhile, Medieval France had its first official whale men: in 1098 a corporation of wallmanni was founded. (Normandy by now was mainly Scandinavian; it had been granted to the Vikings, that is, the Danes, and the word reflects that.) Similar terms occur elsewhere in the period as well; but there is some debate as to whether these “whale men” hunted actual whales or porpoises. In general, the various terms for whale “applied to all large fatty fishes”, says Noël, the first major nineteenth century writer on the subject.
Fishing was practiced [in the gulf of Gascony] by the Basques at a time when they were pirates, like the Normans; they did it on their own coasts, when the females of the whale gathered there in the season where they produced their young ones. When these animals, diminished in number or merely scared away, became more rare, they moved to the Spanish coast...
It was reserved to them to push their expeditions, over the following centuries, towards the north of the new continent, and to be, when it came to fishing, the models and the masters of other nations of Europe.
Le Grand, having cited some of the texts above, writes:
It has been written that the Basques were the first of the French... who dared try fishing for whales. It is even claimed that it was in going far to find these monsters that these intrepid navigators discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, about a century before... Columbus.... What one can say in [their] favor, that is when in their turn they undertook it, they did so with a great deal of success. One can even say that they are those of the French who have practiced it the longest.
A 1351 seal for the city of Biarritz may be one of the earliest proofs of the activity in that area: "[Whaling] is shown on it. The cetacean is very recognizable." (Demay).
While the accounts referencing St. Arnulf and St. Bavon are cursory, writers have found greater detail in them. Renaud interprets the earlier accounts as follows: “It involved a coastal fishing which consisted in making the whales beach themselves in forcing them towards the coast, no doubt in having recourse to nets stretched to form artificial enclosures.”
Stéphane Lebecq derives from these a more complex idea of whaling at that point:
[These accounts] show clearly, the ideal maneuver was to circle the cetacean with numerous boats to have some chance of reaching it. Then, the sailors armed their lance or their harpoon... The harpooner had to firmly hold the rope attached to the end of the arm... When it was finally defeated, sometimes bound by a multitude of ropes, it was brought back to port, it was cut up, it was shared among the sailors according to a strict custom..., reserving the part due to him for the commanders, for instance, the flippers. As for the part which was not shared among the sailors or sent to the commander, it was sent to a market...
Whaling did not seem to have greatly changed a century or two later, when Vincent de Beauvais (1184/1194 – 1264) wrote:
The boats intended to act together being gathered, the air was made to resound with the sound of kettle drums and other instruments; it was supposed that the whale had an ear sensitive to the accents of music; at the moment where the imprudent cetacean attended to it, the harpoon was launched, a long rope attached, and people moved away with great haste. The stricken animal gave itself over to terrible but foreseen movements; it reached the depths of the water; its wound grew larger with the efforts it made to be free of the iron: it returned to the surface, and soon gave signs of approaching death. Then they approached: the hope of success gave courage to the least bold: it was surrounded; it was finished with blows of the lance: it was bound with ropes: it was brought to land in triumph, to the sound of acclamations.
The thirteenth century German writer Albertus Magnus (1193/1206 – 1280) gives similar details, but specifies that each small boat held three men, one standing and holding a harpoon, which he describes as having a pine – because lighter – haft and a narrow, very sharp triangular head. He also adds these vivid details:
If the animal immediately dives, it is that it is seriously wounded and going to rub itself against the bottom because of the salt penetrating its wounds; this happening, it drives the points further and further into its flesh, and the blood which spurts immediately to the surface, boiling, is the sign of the sufferings of the fish which, weakened by its loss of blood, seeks solid ground and bit by bit approaches the shore.
Exactly which whales – when these actually were whales – were in question in these accounts? De Smet is one of the few to examine the issue closely. First he addresses the least likely:
Of the large whales, several can easily be excluded... the Greenland whale, Balaena mysticetus, could hardly have been involved... The balaenopterids are ocean dwellers and fast swimmers, who until 1864 when the harpoon gun was invented, remained beyond the reach of whalers. The sperm whale, Physeter catodon, is a species of tropical waters and only an irregular visitor to the North Sea. It is quite possible that in a few cases, especially when the fishermen had to invoke the assistance of the saints, it was this species that they were hunting, but it could not have been the object of a regular business.Then the more promising candidates:
This leaves only 2 species of great whale, the Biscayan or black whale. Eubalaena glacialis glacialis, and the grey whale, Eschrichtius gibbosus.
The Biscayan whale is a slow-swimming species, approximately 15 m long with a thick layer of fat.... the southern sub-species (or species?) Eubalaena glacialis autralis, which was considered as being unbelievably abundant in the beginning of the century... was reduced to the verge of extinction some 40 years later. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, each of at least 20 fishing towns on the Bay of Biscay captured some 3 whales per year, until the species became more and more rare... The diminishing numbers of whales in their waters induced the Biscayans to undertake longer voyages into the Atlantic Ocean....
Many ribs, vertebrae and jaw bones found near the Flemish coast in Belgium and France (Ostend, Furnes, Mardyck, Calais) and even far inshore (Guemps in northern France)... have been identified by van Beneden as belonging to Eubalaena...
The other possible species, the grey whale, Eschrichtius gibbosus, would seem to be easily ruled out because it is at present extant only in the North Pacific Ocean...[But] it would not be out of the question to assume that in the Middle Ages the grey whale was still present in the eastern part of the North Atlantic Ocean... The story that in the mouth of the Seine "fishes" 50 ft long were repeatedly caught would fit quite well with such an assumption.
Certainly, some very large whales reached the northern seas, even as late as the sixteenth century, when the great artist Albrecht Dürer noted that on November 24, 1520:
At Zierikee in Zeeland a whale has been stranded by a high tide and a gale of wind. It is much more than one hundred fathoms long and no man living in Zeeland has seen one even a third as long as this is. The fish cannot get off the land; the people would gladly see it gone, as they fear the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut in pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year...
(Beached whales don't just stink. As a recent viral video shows, they can explode, shooting very large internal organs out onto the unwary.)
Otherwise, as this activity grew, what products did it yield?
The use of whale bones as a form of timber did not end with Saint-Urnel. De Smet, citing Thomazi, writes: "in the village of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue (in Normandy), whale bones were so numerous that they had different uses". Though whale bone was not yet used for corsets, whale products served for dress in the twelfth century, when a chronicler describes the Duke of Burgundy wearing baleen plates in his helmet. A 1403 ordinance from Charles VI regulates the making of ornaments using them.
But the whale's main use at this point was as food. Noel: "The tongue above all was regarded as a very healthy food, and it is often praised in writings of the time. This salted flesh was an object of commerce; it was part of the food provisions for armies of land and sea."
It is important to note that by the late Medieval period fasting rules had changed greatly. Catholics could no longer eat birds or cheese on fast days and so “fish” - that is, virtually any aquatic creature – had become far more important in the French diet. As noted in a previous post, the idea of a “fish day” had not existed in the early Medieval diet; it now became central to it.
The fact that whale meat, if it did not taste like beef or pork, was nonetheless more substantial than the flesh of actual fish made it particularly popular at such times. Eating whale, Le Grand writes, may have been the best fast-day option before the more common options later became available: "One did not yet have, for fast days, herring, or cod; commonly caught fish was used; and once the custom was established, it was perpetuated, even though, later, much better fish were had." (He does add that "nonetheless bit by bit the latter prevailed.")
If whale tongues were prized, the item most available was the blubber, sold as craspois or graspois. This term is said to come from Crassus piscis (“thick fish”), one of the words used for what are typically thought to be whales (or any large fatty “fish”); it is more likely however to have come from the French version (gras poisson). (Since the blubber was often eaten with peas, one writer suggests that the term comes from gras (fat) and pois (peas), but this seems less likely).
To complicate matters, the term also sometimes refers to the fish itself, as in a twelfth century Norman custom which says of craspois ”that if it is wounded in any port and it flees or it comes after one incoming and one outgoing tide, if it is worth more than fifty pounds, it is the duke's, and if it is worth less it is to the baron in whose land it arrives." The same text specifies that only the bishop of Bayeux and the count of Chester have equipment to take "craspois". Here the word clearly refers to a creature to be caught (either whale or porpoise, though the deciding value, probably in English money, suggests a large animal).
Still, the more common reference is to a food. Fréville cites a statute by Ethelred from 979, sparing merchants from Rouen taxes on the craspois they sold in London – which however he says was of porpoise. After that, there are numerous references to it. The fourteenth century Menagier de Paris specifically defines it as “salted whale” and says “it must be in raw slices, and cooked in water like thick bacon; and serve with your peas.” In a note to this, Pichon quotes a trial of the period in which it was called "Lenten bacon": "Forty thousand people lived during Lent on craspois, cuttle fish and herring." It was only sold in Paris, he says, at Lent.
One version of the Viandier also includes a recipe for it, in which it can also be boiled and served with peas, but alternately fried and served with jance (a ginger and almond sauce).
Both whale fat and tongue would still be eaten through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Le Grand provides examples from Rabelais, Champier and Etienne to that effect. But the use of craspois began to decline. "Already in the XVIth century.... only the poor ate the flesh and the blubber of whale; but when the art of converting this blubber into an oil of some value was found, the animal itself was completely disdained." Couperie writes that it no longer appeared in markets after 1670.
In the early eighteenth century, Delamare said that whale meat was no longer eaten: "As for the flesh, it is very tough, smells bad, is difficult to digest, and only the Cafres... half-savage people, eat it when they can get it." Only the tongue was still well regarded, and said to be "very tender, very fine and of an exquisite taste".
This was hardly the end of whaling however. The mammal's bones were used in corsets and parasols and other products. Above all, one of its oldest uses returned, and on an industrial scale. The Basques by then had lost ground to the Dutch in the hunt, but says Le Grand:
The Basques at least had the glory of being the first who made felt how advantageous was the trade of whale oil; well then, this oil, when the animal itself was no longer eaten, became something very important for the use which was made of it, and of which a host of different manufactories and crafts still make use today.
FOR FURTHER READINGS
Giot,Pierre-Roland, Jean-Laurent Monnier, “Le cimetière des anciens Bretons de Saint-Urnel ou Saint-Saturnin en Plomeur (Finistère)”, Gallia 1977
WDCS:The Best Whale Watching in EuropeUne baleine échouée à Penmarc'h (29)
Une baleine s'échoue à Plomeur
Le Grand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean Baptiste, Histoire de la vie privée des françois 1782
DeSmett, W. M. A., "Evidenceof Whaling inthe North Sea and English Channel During the Middle Ages”, Mammalsin the Seas: Report,V3 1981
Demay,G., “Inventaire des sceaux de la Flandre recueillis dans les dépôts d'archives, musées et collections particulières du département du Nord,”, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes V34 1873Video of exploding sperm whale carcass
Moulinier,Laurence, “Les baleines d'Albert le Grand”, Médiévales 1992
Darsel,J., “L'Amirauté en Normandie [VIII. - Amirauté de Dives]”, Annales de Normandie 1976
Fréville de Lorme, Charles Ernest de, Mémoire sur le commerce maritime de Rouen, V1 1857
Établissements et coutumes, assises et arrêts de l'Échiquier de Normandie, au treizième siècle (1207 à 1245) 1839
Pichon, Jérôme, Le ménagier de Paris, V2 1846
Taillevent, Jérôme, Frédéric Pichon, Georges Vicaire, Le viandier de Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent 1892
Delamare, Nicolas, Traité de la police,V3 1729