It’s no mystery that medieval people ate fish. The fish industry was a vital element of the medieval European economy, and fueled lots of movement around the continent. However how did they get onto the trestle tables and trenchers?
Most medieval industries aren’t fully documented, however there is a surprisingly high volume of material relating to medieval fishing, fish collection, fish trading, and fish farming. Simple devices like fish hooks and spears were used by individuals, but fish harvesting happened on a commercial scale too. “Fisheries” and “kiddles” were used to gather large amounts of fish intended for sale or trade. Fisheries were usually made of semi-permanent fish traps, while kiddles used nets. Bede’s 8th century text mentions Bishop Winfrid of Colchester using eel nets during a food shortage:
“[he]…found so much misery from hunger, he taught the people to get food by fishing. For, although there was plenty of fish in the seas and rivers, the people had no idea about fishing, and caught only eels. So the Bishop’s men got together eel nets from all sides, and threw them into the sea. By God’s help they caught three hundred fish, of all different kinds.”
To my knowledge, no medieval nets have survived in large enough sections to be positively identified. It’s difficult to say what materials were used to make nets, however it may have been hemp, horsehair, or flax. Women and men were both involved in the creation of nets and used small netting needles, a special tool for creating the knots and patterns in net-making. You can get your own reproduction netting needle if you want to have a go!
However it wasn’t all net in the Middle Ages. In streams, rivers, and coastal areas with moving water, fishing weirs or traps made of hazel and willow rods were commonly used. These traps left behind posts and other refuse, such as in Essex and Bradwell-on-Sea. These locations reflect thousands of square feet of complex patterns designed to funnel fish and eels into basket-woven boxes and nets. The Essex tidewater sites, known as the Blackwater sites, show evidence of fish traps from the 7th century. More evidence exists throughout the medieval period for fishing in this area. The Domesday books documented fisheries in this area too: three at Mersea, two at Bradwell, one at Osea and one at Tollesbury.
Extensive data collection at seven sites in 2006-2008 through aerial surveys and fieldwork reveals large enclosures in either a V or L shape, placed on gently sloping coastline or on river estuaries. Relatively long sections survive, some up to 1600 meters long! With this high level of preservation, archaeologists can form a comprehensive image of the efficacy of medieval fish traps like these. Four of the seven are now included on England’s Schedule of Ancient Monuments.
Of course many medieval people were not associated with commercial fishing operations and only collected fish for their own household using a rod, line, or small net. A boy’s grave in Balnakeil near Durness in Sutherland offers a glimpse of this type of fishing. The boy was buried between 850-900 a.d., and his grave included adult weapons with the other objects. While many of the objects were highly corroded, x-rays and comparative studies allowed a reconstruction of a pumice stone, pair of iron shears, iron needles and a wooden needle divider bound with thread, and an iron fishhook and thread.
People still enjoy going out and casting their line, but in the later Middle Ages the fishing industry moved into increasingly deeper waters. Researchers from Cambridge, York, and the Max Planck Institute identified a shift in the type of fish consumed around 1000 a.d. Locally caught freshwater fish were on the decline while ocean fish were swimming upstream in the medieval food chain.
The development of ocean fishing escalated in the late 1500’s when ships began to use nets to gather larger quantities of fish. Larger ships which crossed greater distances more quickly developed in the Age of Exploration meant that fish made it to market more efficiently, affecting the economic dynamics around local fish industries. The shift to a different economy and the use of new technology marked a new age and new tastes.
More on the Economy of the Medieval Fish Industry here
Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.