Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Something’s fishy in medieval Europe

Richard C. Hoffmann

If you cast your line in the right places medieval Europe is full of fish. “A surfeit of lampreys” reportedly killed England’s King Henry I in 1135, and Pope Martin IV (d1285) expired after consuming too many eels from Lake Trasimeno. Hildegard of Bingen (ca1098-1179) wrote about the biology, medical, and dietary qualities of each species. She also wrote of carp in the middle Rhine and of herring, a marine fish known to her only as preserved in salt. Her contemporary Alan of Lille described the latter as relieving ‘the hunger of the poor,’ a social commentary which echoed throughout medieval centuries regarding this northern species and its more southerly counterpart, the sardine (pilchard). In contrasting high status circles, 9th century monks at Prhm in modern Luxembourg, 10th century Polish princes, and humanist Pope Pius II (1458-64) dined on massive now almost extinct sturgeon, while 1170s chivalric tournament champion William Marshal once won a prize pike for his prowess.

From Scotland to Sicily, Venice to the Baltic, and along the Rh^ne, Loire, Thames, Rhine, Elbe and other rivers elaborate timber and stone structures guided sturgeon, salmon, tuna, sea bass, herring, and other species into enclosures for easy capture. Modest artificial ponds held locally taken wild fish in Charlemagne’s royal manors, at monasteries like San Vincenzo al Volturno and Cluny, and beside or within the walls of London, Paris, and Madrid; captives in the former three settings were destined for domestic consumption, the latter three for sale.

Antoine Sardine and two shipmates plied a net off Antibes in 1380, as had Radosz, Switosz , Plewna, and Nudasza at Domnik on the river Warta until 1210, when the Duke of Kalisz gave them to a new Cistercian foundation. Baited hook and line took dozens of tench from slow-moving rivers, hundreds of trout from Alpine lakes, and thousands of cod from Norwegian and Icelandic waters. Users of these and other techniques necessarily possessed the traditional local ecological knowledge needed for success; fragments thereof entered the written record only toward the end of the Middle Ages. Sethwin, Satmer, and two dozen other named fishers sold their catches on the market at Worms in 1106 and two centuries later the town of York counted as many as fifty fishmongers and nine more as their purchasing agents. Luce Rossel and Margot la Goujonne [Margaret ‘the gudgeon’], though also living two centuries apart, both made their poor living as fishwives on the streets of Paris. There they competed for customers with fishmongers supplied by fast pack trains with inshore marine species from Norman ports and the output in bream, carp, and pike from multi-pond fish farms along the upper Marne in Brie and in former wetlands south of Orleans. By the mid-1400s much larger aquaculture enterprises fed fresh carp to towns and palaces across east central Europe. Real identifiable medieval people all over Europe engaged with. fish in many ways. Medievalists concerned with human lives need to consider how all these particulars fit into a millennium of evolving European societies and cultures.

Waters webbed medieval Europe, rivulets to inland seas and open oceans, fresh and salty, all providing habitats for aquatic creatures. Predation by terrestrial humans was but one source of pressure on these ecosystems. Notably from the tenth century human modification of landscapes by agrarian clearances and later growing effluents from urbanization and preindustrial manufactures strained the carrying capacity of local waters. Nor was European nature itself simply stable across the centuries, for differing regional precipitation regimes shifted the course and morphology of streams and rivers, while coastal deposition and variations in local sea level or storm floods altered estuaries and shorelines alike. Notably along margins of the North Sea and Baltic coastal morphologies of ca.1500 differed markedly from those a millennium earlier. So, too, did lagoon formation along Languedoc, ProvenHal, and Sicilian shorelines both destroy and create aquatic habitats and human access to them. Beyond such local phenomena we now can observe long term and superimposed decade scale shifts in regional climates, which could vary temperature regimes and water chemistry enough to affect the life cycles of certain fishes. Human perceptions and responses to these changes bear upon even present-day understandings of aquatic ecologies.

The Catch seeks to engage this interplay of the natural and the cultural at the scale of the European subcontinent and cultural community of medieval Latin Christendom. It is an environmental history giving equal status and autonomy to the cultural evolution and drivers of human practices and the non-cultural forces of nature, which come together in human societies and their biophysical structures. Sometimes forces rooted in planetary physics, chemistry, and biology propelled and shaped the interaction; in other circumstances learned human prerequisites were the primary drivers. Neither is without effect on the other.

Writing The Catch merged the historian and the naturalist. A professional career of fascinated engagement with the everyday and the suddenly exceptional material lives of ordinary and extraordinary medieval people grew from discovery as an undergraduate that history was more than kings, laws, wars, and religious disputes. But there came also recognition that, even after the most careful traditional archival research and application of critical methods, all history confronts inevitable problems of missing data. These can be mitigated but not resolved by a necessary turn to material and other unwritten, even non-verbal remains of the past. Yet despite the further insights from kitchen middens, human skeletal remains, and an array of palaeoscientific analyses, the past is still a foreign country. Their awareness and understandings are not the same as ours. We can only take the evidence to its limits … and then just one step beyond with hypotheses.

A lifetime of enchantment with the natural world was grounded in a childhood at the edge of a small industrial city amongst an agricultural landscape beside a great inland sea, and later enhanced by awareness and experience of geophysical forms, soils, waters, plant communities, insects, birds, mammals, and fishes in communities on both sides of the Atlantic. From childhood on I have learned to expect nature to matter and from the start of my professional training I was instructed to observe the sites and areas where history took place.

So interdisciplinarity has encompassed my approach to life and academe and the principle of consilience underlay my scholarship long before I encountered the term. From capture to consumption and even waste disposal all fishing is simultaneously an economic and ecological act. An environmental historian is obliged to ascertain the activities of certain humans in a particular time and place and seek to understand what they thought they were doing and the grounds for the material outcomes. Some of the latter might well have been beyond even the imagination of the participants, even as some of their intentions may now be beyond our present detection. Teasing out the entanglements of medievals and their fishes will, however, teach us more about medieval civilization and its legacies and about vulnerabilities and resiliencies of aquatic ecosystems. The Catch is meant to speak equally to medievalists and to fisheries scientists with both palaeo and present-day interests.

The Catch by Richard C. Hoffmann

About The Author

Richard C. Hoffmann

Richard Hoffmann is Professor Emeritus in History at York University, Toronto, and author of the acclaimed An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2014)....

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