Fishes and other aquatic species in the Byzantine literature: Classification, terminology and scientific names

Fishes and other aquatic species in the Byzantine literature: Classification, terminology and scientific names

By Maria Chrone-Vakalopoulos and Angelos Vakalopoulos


Abstract: Fishes and other aquatic species were substantial food in the every day life of Byzantine people. The predomination of Christianity contributed to the increased consumption of fishes and other seafood compared to the meat of land animals and chicken. More than a hundred ten names of fishes and about thirty names of other aquatic organisms are found in the sources of the Byzantine literature. Most frequent references are found in the medical texts of the Byzantine doctors, where, fishes are classified in categories depending on their physiology and origin, because, according to the writers, these are determining factors for the evaluation of the nutritional value of each species.The purpose of this study is to present the terminology of the fishes and the various aquatic species that are found in the Byzantine sources and to identify, in parallel, each species with its current scientific name.

Introduction: Fish was a substantial food item during antiquity and the Middle Ages for the people living around the Mediterranean area, as it is considered of high nutritional value. Fishes are mentioned in respective Byzantine texts more often than any other foodstuff. After Christianity was predominated and the rules of the new religion were established, the statute of fasting contributed determinatively to the increased consumption of fish and aquatic species in general, since the basic criterion for defining the foods allowed for eating was the content in blood. In some fasting days, such as the Lent of Christmas, the Transfiguration feast day on August 6 that is included in the fasting period for the Assumption of Virgin Mary on August 15, or the feast of the Annunciation on March 25 that is included in the lent of Easter, eating of fish is provided. In addition, the consumption of all the other seafood, except of fish, is allowed in all the fasting periods. This might be concluded from the absence of any relevant prohibition in the extant typologies of monasteries and from the oral evidence expressed by modern monks, whose monasteries have adopted the Byzantine tradition. During also the breaking of fasting, fish takes the place of meat in the monastic meals, if its consumption is prohibited by the rules of the monastery.

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