The major world religions all have dietary rules. You might’ve heard of Kosher, Halal, Ramadan, or Lent. Some of these refer to a seasonal regulation while some prescribe a lifestyle. Most 21st century Christians do not follow religious dietary rules, with the exception of seasonal fasting during Lent and the abstinence of red meat or poultry on Fridays, select Wednesdays, Saturdays, Advent, and holy days.
The 4th century Council of Nicea formalized the tradition of 40 days of Lent as a precursor to Easter (well, some sources make it a bit more complicated with spring fertility festivals, end-of-winter food stock, etc. but we’re talking about Christianity here). In 2013, Nicholas Russo described the early history of Lent as a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” His paper, published by The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, states that “We can surmise that Lent’s establishment before Easter was part of a broader movement toward alignment and standardization begun at the Council of Nicea and continued throughout the fourth century.” 40 days, he says, is a common period of time repeated throughout the Catholic Scriptures and the Council’s selection of this time period was far from coincidental.
So over those 40 days, how much fasting should happen? There are a few twists: Sundays were feast days, not fasting days. Christians can eat red meat, poultry, butter, eggs, etc. since only weekdays are counted as Lenten fasting days. Yup, eat what you want on the weekends. This evens it out to 40 days. The absence of animal products was encouraged by the late Antique and early Medieval Church however some interpreted that to only apply to “things that come from flesh” such as red meat, eggs, and dairy products. Cold-blooded scaly fish were exempt.
A lack of red meat on the medieval table meant the diners were having a humble meal, and fish was a convenient substitute protein. Fish on Fridays serves as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifices on the Cross and leads up to the celebration of Easter. There is additional symbolism attached to fish, such as the Old Testament’s claim that God created fish and marine life on the fifth day (Friday), the majority of the apostles were fishermen who then became “fishers of men” gathering converts to Christianity, and the use of the fish symbol in early Christianity. While the early observation of Lent asked Christians to keep themselves to one meal a day, this was gradually loosened to maintain the strength of manual laborers.
Some theories propose that the medieval Catholic Church continued to increase the number of fasting days/fish days to prop up the fishing economy dominant in monasteries, however Brian Fagan (UC Santa Barbara) and Michael Foley (Baylor University) both discredit this theory. Fish was relatively easy to source, harvest, and preserve through drying and salting. With the gradual development of hunting parks reserved for exclusively noble use, fish was more accessible to and cheaper for the general population.
Kathryn McGowan, on her historical food blog Comestibles, points out that Lent and its emphasis on fish corresponds nicely to the early spring season when food cellars and storage coffers were likely running low. Also, most white fish varieties are high in B Vitamins, Niacin, and Folate which would offer nutritional benefits after a winter of weak sunshine and a declining choice of vegetables.
Herring and cod were popular northern ocean fish, while trout and carp were cultivated in freshwater. Eel, salmon, turbot, mussels, oysters, and other varieties were also consumed. Medieval cookbooks offer descriptions not unlike modern cookbooks including recommendations on how to select a good cut of salmon based on the color, the sweet flavor of sole, the seasonal changes in trout, and the tendency of carp to hide in the mud.
There definitely was an economic impact to the increased consumption of fish in the Middle Ages. The Scandinavians traded their dried/smoked/salted fish for other consumables and goods (including slaves), peasants used fish harvests to pay tithes, rents, and to take to market, and monastic houses operated commercial fish farming operations. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 16th century and dissolved the monasteries, fish quickly became unfashionable among the nobility. As a result, lay operations increased and England’s commercial fish industry boomed. There’s even a Salters’ Guild! The 16th century also saw the rise of the English maritime power. Dan Brayton’s Shakespeare’s Ocean: An Ecocritical Exploration (2012) tracks this and other relationships between marine ecosystems and the 16th century.
If you’re looking forward to a Fish Fry this week, take a few moments to think about the medieval impact of these scaly little animals. Fish played a role in the economic, social, and religious changes in the Middle Ages. Stay tuned for future posts on the medieval role of fish!
For more details…
“The Early History of Lent” by Nicholas Russo, 2013
NPR article featuring Brian Fagan and Michael Foley
Kathryn McGowan on Comestibles