51 pages • 1 hour readMark Kurlansky
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The Basques were different from the Celts and the Romans: “They were the first commercial whale hunters, ahead of all others by several centuries” (109). During the Middle Ages, the greatest amount of profit to be reaped from whaling was the sale of the fat and red meat that could be taken from the body. At the time, the Catholic Church did not permit eating meat on religious days, and the amount of religious days was continually expanding. But water animals were not forbidden, as they were not “hot” animals of red meat, which was negatively associated with sex. Salted whale meat was called craspoix, and was a staple of nutrition among the poor.
In the 9th century, Vikings arrived in Basque lands. They had no salt sources to use as preservatives, so they had to raid in order to find fresh meat. They were also willing to trade with certain allies. Basque ship-making improved in the 9th century; Kurlansky suggests that this is because the Vikings instructed them in the craft.
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With better ships, the Basques could sail farther, which led them into waters stocked with Atlantic cod, which were more profitable than whales. Cod has almost no fat, and meat without fat is easier to preserve with salt: “Fat resists salt and slows the rate at which salt impregnates fish” (113).
By Mark Kurlansky