Spices of Medieval Times: Seasonings Fit for a Ship-Wrecked King

4-minute read

Summer, 1495. You’re Hans, King of Denmark and Norway, freshly anchored off the southern coast of Sweden for a little tête-à-tête with Sten Sture the Elder. You glance over your shoulder at your trusty water steed, Gribshunden, before trudging on to Kalmar to take care of matters of state.

This isn’t a shake-hands-and-kiss-babies kind of diplomatic trip. You’re there because Sture, the “protector of the realm,” is trying to keep Sweden out of the Nordic union you’re supposed to be ruling over.

Scandinavian Monarch. He reigned as King of Denmark and Norway from 1483 to 1513. Popularly called Hans, he was also titled King John II of Sweden from 1497 to 1501. Belonging to the Oldenburg Dynasty, he was the third son (two older brothers died young) of King Christian I and Queen Dorothy.

Baby Come Back

Hans and co. knew the Swedes would require cajoling. So, the king sailed in on his premier Danish warship loaded with enough opulence and status symbols to make Jeff Bezos blush. The message was clear: We can do this the hard way, or I can spoil you silly with clove and peppercorns. What’s it gonna be, Sten?

Medieval Spice of Life

This ship had everything. It carried Hans’ best and most valuable clothes and trinkets, a coat of mail, pewter plates, a fancy tankard, barrels of beer, silver coins, decorated birch wall paneling, iron cannons, artillery, a crossbow, and a handgonne, aka a very early handheld firearm.

Stored inside its larders were 40 different types of fruits, veggies, spices, nuts, cereals, and plants. The medieval lazy susan contained saffron, ginger, peppercorns, dill, mustard, caraway, and clove, while the king’s personal produce aisle boasted cucumbers, grapes, raspberries, and blackberries.

Back then, spices were a hot commodity. Many came from foreign shores hundreds or even thousands of miles away. They were perilous to ship and, therefore, insanely expensive. Showing you could source these types of sundries was the medieval version of having big D energy.

We can hear Hans now, regaling the dinner table about how at least a dozen merchants and sailors perished transporting the saffron sprinkled over their Scandivanian bread.

Get Your Ship Together

Basically, Gribshunden was Hans’ personal floating business/pleasure hub, serving as a warship, home to up to 150 people, a mobile office, and — we hope — a place to party.

definitely not the Gribshunden
they crawled so we could walk

Possibly constructed in Flanders or the Netherlands, the sophisticated Gribshunden came about during a time of great exploration, giving us detailed insight into how Columbus and Vasco da Gama’s ships might’ve been built.

How did we get this detailed insight into Gribshunden and what it carried? Well — it mysteriously caught fire while Hans was ashore and sank to the bottom of the Baltic. Hans, of course, survived, but we think a fair few of his 100+ crew died with the ship. To make matters worse, when he made it to Kalmar for his meeting with Sten Sture, Sture didn’t bother showing up.

Face detail on a wall monument by Claus Berg near King John's grave
my fatabur!!

Mange Tak for the Gribshunden, Modern Science

In the 1970s, a local diving club stumbled upon the wreck. Not realizing what it really was, they didn’t bother alerting any archeologists.

Word eventually traveled; the first archeological investigations started in the very early 2000s. To identify the ship, smartypants scientists sampled its timbers and used tree-ring dating techniques to discover they came from oak trees. Felled in the winter. Of 1482 or 1483. That’s. Insane.

By 2019, a team of people from 10 different countries managed to salvage incredible finds. Thanks to the low salinity and temperature of the water, they were in excellent condition. Think: saffron still stanky and fruit still rotting, even after 527 years underwater.

this is also not the Gribshunden
suck it, seaworms

By the way, in case you were curious, Hans’ full title was King of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Wends and the Goths, Duke of Schleswig, Holstein, Stormarn and Dithmarschen, Count of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst. Can’t blame Sweden for sticking with Sten — it’s way easier to write “the elder.”

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Sources: Medieval Pantry Stocked With Spices Found in 500-Year-Old Shipwreck. Spectacular discoveries during excavation of unique flagship Gribshunden. GRIBSHUNDEN. Medieval wooden ‘sea monster’ pulled from Baltic Sea.

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