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Sustainable and Innovative: The Medieval Art of Fishing

By Lucie Laumonier and Lucie Galano

How did people catch fish in the Middle Ages, and what efforts were made to keep this resource sustainable?

Fish was a staple food of the medieval Christian diet. In the late Middle Ages, fish and eggs were consumed instead of meat on fast days and periods of abstinence such as on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the vigils of feast days, Lent, and much of Advent. Historians estimate that European medieval people “fasted” about 40 percent of the days of the year.

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Besides these mandatory fish days, the consumption of fish and seafood also responded to local constraints. Coastal communities, for instance, ate fish far more often than their inland counterparts. But the latter could fish in rivers and lakes. Artificial ponds have been attested since the eleventh century in France. They enabled communities to establish fish-farms aiming at local consumption and commerce. To those living near a body of water, therefore, fish was readily available and fresh. Once salted, pickled, or smoked, fish could be preserved for months. In the later Middle Ages, preserved fish was sold and shipped in impressive quantities to very distant areas.

Knowledge of fishing practices comes from iconography, narrative sources and legal documents. Some medieval calendars, for instance, included a freshwater fishing scene for the month of February, coinciding with the beginning of Lent. A number of treatises, such as the Tacuinum Sanitatis, as well as agricultural handbooks, discussed fishing practices and the merits of different techniques. The first treatise entirely devoted to fishing dates from 1496. Written in Middle English, the Treatyse of Fisshynge with an Angle covered the ins and outs of flyfishing. Archaeology, zooarchaeology and the ethnographic study of traditional fishing practices yield complementary clues on the way in which medieval people caught fish. Archaeology provides insights on the tools and techniques used to fish and to preserve fish, while zooarchaeology sheds light on the species of fish native medieval people ate—either local, native species or imported from farther regions. Ethnology, finally, informs on the posterity of medieval fishing practices, showing that, in many cases, fishing evolved little between the medieval era and the early twentieth century.

A fisherman in his boat from the 14th century – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 2092 fol. 20v

Fishing Techniques

Historians and archeologists have established different types of classifications to grasp the great variety of fishing techniques and landscapes that provided fish to catch during the Middle Ages. Typologies focused on different criteria, such as the place from which one fished (from the shore or on a boat), the type of fishing gear people used (from their bare hands to fishnets and harpoons), or whether fishermen were active (holding a rod) or passive (setting traps and going back home). Some archaeologists distinguish between gear used to puncture a fish (a hook, a harpoon) and gear aiming at capturing a fish (bare-hands, nets and traps). It should be noted that most of these techniques, such as the use of fish traps or harpooning, could be performed both on foot and from a boat. Lists drafted by historians and archaeologists therefore strive to include all techniques, from on-foot harvesting of seafood on a beach to net casting and sea mammal hunting.

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There is also an abundance of artifacts to work with. Dozens and dozens of hooks and lures of all shapes and sizes have been recovered across Europe. Likewise, fishnets were designed and used in various ways:  they could be dragged or immobile, with or without floaters, and with large or narrow meshes. Traps and weirs, which are large installations designed to obstruct and direct the passage of fish towards a trap, were also widely used, again in various shapes and forms. The lesson from these typologies is that medieval fishermen adapted both their gear and their fishing style to the species of fish they hoped to catch—salmon or carp, eel or crab—and to the type of body of water they fished in, whether a river, a pond, a lake, a lagoon or a sea. Fishing techniques and fishing gear were designed to respond to the constraints fishermen had to work within their own environment.

Weir-type fish trap. Image by Gossman75 / Wikimedia Commons

In Lower Languedoc, Southern France, local fishermen had developed sophisticated fish traps, called “maniguières,” designed to catch eels in the brackish waters of their lagoons. These traps, invented in the Middle Ages, are still used today in the same lagoons under the name “capéchades.” Eel fishing was an essential source of food for these coastal communities. The small community called Maguelone, back then nested on a small island in the middle of the Languedocian lagoons, consumed approximately 90,000 eels yearly, according to the 1331 statutes of the chapter Maguelone. They of course ate other types of fish, but eels were the most common in the area. Catches sometimes included sea mammals, such as dolphins, whose brain was reserved for the bishop’s table. As this example shows, fishermen had tailored their techniques to their local constraints and resources.

Who were the medieval fishermen?

The diversity of fishing practices shines a light on fundamental distinctions between professional and casual fishing. Indeed, not all fishermen could afford a boat or a barge, and one fishing with a rod from the shore was not necessarily a professional fisherman. Historian Maryanne Kowaleski has shown, for instance, that most late medieval English maritime peasants fished as a by-occupation to supplement their diet and their income. Only a few owned a boat and made a living off fishing. In short, fishing existed on a broad spectrum that went from occasional and self-sustenance fishing to a (nearly) full-time occupation that implied selling the catch to others. Gradations between the two depended on access to appropriate gear and one’s expertise. Casting and lifting large nets at sea required the presence of several trained individuals, while installing a crayfish trap in a shallow river was a task a child could undertake.

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Yet even professional fishermen, who earned most of their income through fishing, had to diversify their activities. As we shall see below, fishing was restricted at certain times of the year,  putting a stop to the fishermen’s activities for a few months. In the spring or in the Summer, depending on the local customs, full-time fishermen had to find another occupation. In England, most fishermen were also peasants who could live off the fruits of their lands, at least temporarily. In the South of France, fishing was forbidden during the summer, which coincided with the height of the salt-harvesting season. Many fishermen worked at the coastal salt marshes, harvesting and processing salt, until they could go back to fishing. Pluriactivity then typified the work of professional fishermen and of coastal peasants who fished as a by-occupation.

‘Fyshynge wyth an Angle’, from Book of Saint Albans in 1496

Indeed, harvesting seafood and sustenance-fishing from ashore were customary across all the Middle Ages. Local populations had usually the right to harvest and fish for their own consumption within the boundaries of the communal lands. Fisherwomen only emerge from sources in this “domestic” fishing perspective. Women were traditionally excluded from professional fishing, but evidence shows that they fished or set traps to sustain themselves and their families. Still, the wives of fishermen as well as their children had a part to play in their husband’s business. Women and children untangled fishnets and mended the damaged ones. Women also worked on the sails, sewing and mending them. They prepared the fish that they sold at the docks or at the marketplace. Professional fishing, therefore, was a family business. In England, many fishing crews were organized around kinsmen, with a prevalence of father-son and brothers-based crews.

Sustainable Fishing

Until the eleventh or twelfth century, with geographical variances, fishermen working at sea remained close to the shores. Technological innovations of the high Middle Ages led to the development of new techniques in boatbuilding and on-sea navigation. They enabled fishermen to reach off-shore and deeper sea waters, home to larger schools of fish. The revolution in navigation went hand in hand with innovations in fishing gear and techniques. Fishermen created larger fishnets that could be dragged from their boat and that caught fish in greater quantities. Written and zoo-archaeological sources testify to an intensification of cod and herring fishing in Northern Europe, and of tuna and skipjack fishing in the Mediterranean. Improvements in fish-preservation techniques, at pretty much the same time, enhanced the scope of commercial fishing and of the international fish trade.

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Demand for fish was then rising due to the rapid expansion of the high medieval population. The conjunction of these factors put increasing pressure on natural resources, to the point where the rarefaction of fish in freshwater systems became an urgent issue. Aware of the limited nature of fish stocks, lawmakers issued rules to better manage natural resources and guarantee the sustainability of fishing practices. In England, seeing the conger eel stocks plummeting in Anglo-Norman waters, King Edward I asked fishermen to catch the abounding mackerel instead from Easter to June 24. The law was issued pro salvatione congrorum, or “to save the conger eels”.

From the second half of the thirteenth century, the kings of France, too, started issuing legislation to prevent overfishing. The first ordinances to that effect, dating from 1289, 1291, 1317 and 1326, focused on freshwater fishing. Royal legislation required that fishermen use fishnets with larger meshes to spare smaller fish that had not yet reached maturity. A 1388 ordinance provided that, from the Feast of St. Remy to Easter during the spawning season, all meshes should be larger than a “gros parisis,” but the rest of the year, meshes could be smaller, the size of a “gros tournois.” Although “gros parisis” and “gros tournois” were names given to certain coins, the ordinances referred here to a unit of measurement specific to fishnets. When making their nets, fishermen, their apprentices and their wives used a piece of wood of the appropriate mesh-size around which they knotted the threads.

Royal ordinances also banned a number of traps and weirs deemed to be too destructive for the fish stocks. The masters of the waters and forests who would find such traps were to confiscate them, burn them down and fine their owners. Clemency was allowed for poor fishermen. Certain fishing techniques, more intensive than others, were only authorized when fish stocks were high. In Languedoc, fishermen could only use high-sea fishing devices in the briny waters of the lagoons from Advent to the month of March—at the height of the Lent season—when fish were mature and demand for fish was rising. Some ordinances, for instance, forbade fishing at certain times of the year—usually breeding and spawning season, which varies according to species and environments. It is for that reason that Edward I had banned spring conger eel fishing. In France, access to riverbanks and lakeshores was restricted when fish laid their eggs, which they do in shallow waters and close to the banks, so that fishermen did not risk destroying them.

In sum, fishing laws aimed at respecting fish development to ensure population growth. In France, implementation of the ordinances was entrusted to the “masters of the waters and forests”, a royal office established c. 1220. Their job was to patrol the said waters and royal forests and to find offenders to fine. From 1318, the masters’ work was supervised by a “master inquisitor of the waters and forests”, who often complained that his officers were not thorough enough and should fine more people. Yet revenues provided a reliable and impressive source of income for the king. The office of the masters of the waters and forests, as the laws framing fishing, was long-lived. French fishing laws of the seventeenth century still recycled and repeated the content of the medieval texts.

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At the close of the medieval era, fishing was closely regulated to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks. Sustainability also governed ordinances framing the exploitation of forests and game. The concept was all but foreign to medieval people and lawmakers. The medieval laws endured for centuries and guided the early modern ways of fishing. They inform, in some parts, today’s fishing regulations, from the size of meshes to a fishing calendar. The only measure absent from medieval laws, but familiar to a modern readership, are fishing quotas.

Finally, medieval fishing techniques and innovations, like the fishing laws, have a long legacy. Drag nets and fish traps are among the devices that modern fishermen still use. If the tradition of self-sustenance fishing has nearly disappeared from western countries, it has been replaced by fishing for leisure and fun.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Lucie Galano, PhD, is a medievalist whose research focuses on environment and natural resources. Her 2017 dissertation, Montpellier et sa lagune. Histoire sociale et culturelle d’un milieu naturel (XIe-XVe siècles), looks at the exploitation of the halieutic resources of the Lower Languedocian lagoons.

Further Reading:

Alison Locker, Freshwater Fish in England: A Social and Cultural History of Coarse Fish from Prehistory to the Present Day (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2018).

James Barrett and David Orton (eds), Cod and Herring: The Archaeology and History of Medieval Sea Fishing (Oxford-Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2016).

Abigail P. Dowling and Richard Keyser, Conservation’s Roots: Managing for Sustainability in Preindustrial Europe, 1100–1800 (NY: Berghahn Books, 2020).

Silvia Orvietani Busch, Medieval Mediterranean Ports. The Catalan and Tuscan Coasts, 1100 to 1235 (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

Top Image: Medieval fishing – British Library MS Additional 29433 f. 2 

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