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Plancius 1594 Nova Francia North Atlantic Map

The North Atlantic Fish Revolution

An Environmental History of the North Atlantic 1400-1700 (NorFish)

Professor Poul Holm

European Research Council Advanced Grant (2016-2020) NorFish, ERC-2014-ADG

Cabot_KellyIn 1497, John Cabot returned to Bristol from a voyage across the North Atlantic. He told of waters so thick with fish that they could be lifted straight on board in baskets. Within a few years of this journey fishermen from all over Western Europe made the journey across. This was the beginning of the Fish Revolution of the early-modern world.

The Fish Revolution was one of the first examples of the disrupting effects of globalization and climate change. Fish was a high-priced, limited resource in the Late Middle Ages. The Grand Banks fishery offered abundant high-quality low-priced catches to the European market. At the same time climate worsened as the Little Ice Age drove down sea temperatures and changed marine ecosystems.

John Cabot Raising the English Flag on Cape Breton Island, 1497 (JD Kelly, 1862-1958)

  • Consequences were dire for fishermen along the coasts from the Irish Sea right up to Northern Norway. As they caught less cod locally at higher prices, the fishermen had the choice of migrating across the ocean or give up fishing. Many fishing settlements were deserted as inhabitants took to the road to seek casual work in agriculture or towns.

  • Kings and high politics were similarly affected by the ‘fish revolution’. The new resource held strategic importance for all major western European powers, such as Spain, Britain and France. North Atlantic warfare was about fish as well as about gold.

  • We are all being affected by the impact of global climate change. The project seeks to know if we can untangle the drivers of prices and temperatures to explain the causes of the fish revolution, and how people understood and responded to the challenges of globalization and climate change. Perhaps the fish revolution is a distant mirror for today.

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Last updated 13 July 2017 History (Email).