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  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Freshwater Fishes for Dishes

The fish that people ate in the Middle Ages could come from the sea, estuaries, rivers and ponds. In this post I want to just focus on the freshwater variety (although some of these could also be caught in the estuaries, e.g. salmon). The freshwater varieties eaten are shown in the picture below (although I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve missed one or two!). Some varieties were raised in fish ponds, others were caught in the wild with fish weirs and fish traps. Some had higher status and were therefore more expensive than others.

Freshwater fish eaten at the medieval table

Fish was the only kind of flesh food served on fasting days in the Medieval church calendar, and as there were more fasting days than fish days, quite a quantity was needed. However, fish weren’t only served on ‘fish’ days, but also at sumptuous feasts, where the host would show his wealth with a dish of high status fish (such as pike). In 21st Century England, pike is rarely eaten but I have read accounts that, cooked properly, it is a sweet tasting flesh. Shame about the bones though.

Another bony fish considered inedible today but which was expensive and high status in the Middle Ages was the chub. It is a very coarse, very bony creature, but it must have had something to make it so special! High status fish were also often given as gifts, maybe between king and subject, or between towns and royal officials (perhaps as a bribe).

Men buying pike from a fishmonger in the 15th century

Poorer people had less fish in their diet as, like meat, it was a luxury. The only sort of fish within their budgets were roach, dass and small eels which sold for around ¼d. The fish vendors at market tended to specialise in certain types of fish, some may have sold only eels and others, pike. The vendors obtained their wares from fish farmers themselves who maybe rented a fish pond from the manor or a monastery or a river fishery. Sometimes surplus supplies from fishponds were also sold, but mainly to the merchant class who could afford such delicacies.

A medieval fish pond still exists at Stanway House in the Cotswolds

Many people have thought that the large ponds found in villages were fishponds, but it is generally considered now that these were just for watering livestock. True fishponds required a great deal of skilled construction, being clay or timber lined and fitted with stone water channels. As the Middle Ages progressed, these ponds became more and more elaborate. In any case, they cost a lot of money, not only to build but also to maintain, clean and stock: the only people who could afford them were the aristocracy and rich monasteries. At this time the ponds were not actually used for the breeding of fish but for their rearing. Young stock was bought in from farmers who specialised in the breeding (or catching) of young. As with other valuable livestock, fish ponds often fell victim to poaching and there are many accounts on record of people being prosecuted for breaking into ponds.

Reconstruction of a basket fish weir on the River Severn

Other fish were caught in fish weirs - an obstruction placed either in a river, on a beach or in an estuary which shepherded fish into an area from which they could not escape. The obstructions could be either of wood or of stone. In a tidal location the fish would be brought in with the incoming tide and then left high and dry when the tide went out. A line of baskets could also used to trap fish. It was built as one conical basket inside another making it hard for the fish to escape from once they had swam in. Fish weirs, although very productive for the fish farmer, were not at all popular with other sections of the community. Because of their abundance and locations, these weirs often caused a hazard to shipping as well as depleting fish stocks. Laws were passed to restrict their use as early as Magna Carta in 1215 but they had to keep being updated as they tended to have little effect.

Also, because the free passage of ships and boats in the great rivers of England is often disrupted by the raising of gorces, mills, weirs, stakes and kiddles, to the great damage of the people, it is agreed and established that all such gorces, mills, weirs, stakes and kiddles which were raised and placed in such rivers in the time of the king's grandfather and thereafter, by which ships and boats are disturbed so that they cannot pass as they are accustomed, shall be removed and completely demolished without being rebuilt. (Stat. 25 Edw III, Chap. 4)

Nets were also used for river and estuary fishing, as well as being positioned at the end of fish traps. Fishing rods and hooks, however were not as popular, probably because they could not compete with the more productive methods of fishing. That is not to say that they were not used by villagers - it was probably their only means of catching a fish.

The remains of a medieval fish trap in shallow coastal water in Pembrokeshire

Once the fish was caught and in the possession of the kitchen of the household, it could be made into any one of hundreds of dishes depending on the skill of the cook. It was usually served with a piquant sauce such as Galantyne (wine, vinegar spices and onion) or in a jelly or a blancmange. However it was not the whole household who received a part of such well crafted dishes: lower orders still had to make do with cheaper versions, such as salt fish or stock fish (next post).

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