In search of cod, not God

Fish on Friday
August 11, 2006

Michael Coe savours some salty tales in a 1,000-year trawl of the Atlantic.

Like most Americans of my generation, I was schooled to believe that the European discovery and settlement of the New World arose from two iconic events: the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the landing of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. All else was an interesting sideshow. Brian Fagan's book tells a dramatically different story, one centred on the immense fish resources of the North Atlantic and North Sea, and upon the Catholic Christian prohibition on eating meat during Lent and fast days. Virtually ignored in most history books are centuries of exploitation of these resources by unsung and often unrecorded brave fishermen who ventured across some of the most perilous seas on the planet to net cod, herring, hake and other fish for the European market, and, in the process, touch upon previously unknown shores.

Fagan's book is a wonderful treatise, combining social and economic history, maritime archaeology and marine biology. When he talks of the challenges of navigating the Maine coast or the North Sea or elsewhere, he clearly knows what he is talking about, for he has navigated some of these very waters in small boats.

His story begins with early Christianity and its wealth of piscatorial symbolism, beginning with Christ himself - IXTHEUS, the "big fish", who miraculously fed the multitudes on bread and fish. Most of the apostles were themselves commercial fishermen (visitors to the cathedral of Amalfi, Italy, will see a plastic fish dangling from the hand of the statue of St Andrew), and fish soon became the main dish in sacred meals of the nascent religion. It was not long before the early Church decreed penitential fasting at regular intervals of the religious calendar: 40 days of Lent, symbolising the period when Christ was in the wilderness, and every Friday, the day on which the Saviour died on the cross. Stricter devotion demanded fasting on Wednesdays and Saturdays as well as on Fridays.

As European populations expanded during the course of the Middle Ages, the demand for fish to be eaten on fast days increased accordingly. Initially, this could be met by coastal fishing and by subsistence fishing in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. The monastic establishments throughout Europe and the British Isles resorted to artificial fish ponds in which species such as carp could be raised, but this was never very productive. The problem with fish from the sea was that they readily spoiled and could not be transported very far before they became inedible. This was especially true of herring, an oily fish that abounded in the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the Baltic and elsewhere. The solution was to preserve them once the catch reached the coast, either by salting and/or drying or smoking, or by a combination of the three, and to pack them in barrels for transport.

Nevertheless, as Fagan makes clear, eating a dried and salted herring was truly a penance; and it was a food that was detested by all, especially by the soldiers and the poor, whose daily sustenance it was.

The cod (also called "stockfish"), and its relatives hake and haddock, were another matter. These fishes were not oily, they were substantially larger than herring, and they had tasty white meat; they were also far easier to preserve in palatable form by smoking and salting than the lowly herring, and thus were in vast demand in Catholic Europe until the 20th century. The herring fishery of the Middle Ages had been an enterprise that involved fishermen and traders all over northern Europe and the British Isles. The pursuit of the cod took hardy mariners in their wooden boats into even more perilous waters, as far as Iceland and even Greenland.

Some of the most lucrative international trade in fish was in the hands of the Hanseatic League, whose long commercial arm extended even to Bergen, on the northernmost coast of Norway, and to the Dutch. Another major centre for commerce of all kinds was Bristol (once Bristowe), and it is almost certain that by the 15th century, Bristol merchants had learnt of distant lands lying in the northern Atlantic even beyond Iceland and the old Norse settlements in southern Greenland. The Basques are also candidates for pre-Columbian contacts with New World shores, since they were expert mariners, fishermen and whale hunters; by the 16th century, they had a prosperous whaling station at Red Bay, on the Labrador shore. But, as Fagan shows, in the absence of documentary proof, one can only speculate about such matters, including the possibility that Columbus learnt of a New World on a visit to Iceland.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Fagan's exposition and discussion of the kinds of boats that these early fishermen and explorers might have used - along rock-strewn European coasts, in the face of dangerous shoals, tide rips, ferocious currents, gales at sea and other hazards. In this field he is clearly an expert. In excellent descriptions and illustrations, he tells us about all kinds of sailing craft that plied the western ocean, from the sleek lapstrake-constructed ships of the Norse, which could survive any kind of weather, to the immensely serviceable Hanse cogs and the long-range caravels that enabled the Spanish and Portuguese exploratory expeditions, including the four voyages of Columbus. It should be said Fagan's book is excellent on maritime history.

The greatest riches in this commerce came to those whose ships managed to reach Newfoundland. This huge island was discovered and temporarily settled by the Norse about AD1000 and rediscovered by John Cabot in 1497, under letters-patent from Henry VII of England; significantly, it was Bristol from which he sailed on his voyage of exploration. It soon became clear that the world's most productive fishery was the Grand Banks, just east of Newfoundland and literally teeming with giant cod. It was not long before other English, Basque and French fishers were on site, and soon other similar banks were found off the coast of what would eventually be called "New England". In time, the "stockfish" from this seemingly inexhaustible resource would feed not only hungry Catholic Europeans on fast days, but also millions of Africans forcibly brought by European slavers to the West Indian plantations (salt cod cooked with ackee fruit is still the Jamaican national dish, and very good it is, too). As Fagan rightly says, "over the next four and a half centuries, the brutally tough Newfoundland cod fisheries would generate more wealth in Europe than all the gold of the Indies".

Which brings me to 1620 and the Mayflower Pilgrims. In spite of the fact that I am a direct descendant of the ship's carpenter, I found myself convinced by Fagan that these Puritan zealots - largely middle-class "city slickers" with little knowledge of how to farm or hunt - were for many decades no more significant in pioneering North America settlement than the many English fishermen and fur traders who had stations at various places along the Maine coast as early as the 16th century. Now being rediscovered by historical archaeologists at sites such as Pemaquid and Fort Popham, these fishing stations were occupied by rough, largely leaderless and somewhat lawless Englishmen whose only religion seems to have been cod, not God.

A particularly attractive feature of Fish on Friday is the collection of recipes spaced at intervals throughout the book. These have been given to the author by food expert Daphne Derven and various "chefs and food authorities". They all sound very good indeed. However, I am a bit disappointed that no recipe appears for the numerous New England chowders that are based on codfish, hake and haddock. Those who wish to look further into culinary matters should consult the third edition of the late Alan Davidson's magisterial North Atlantic Seafood: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes (2003).

Fish on Friday is an enormously erudite, enjoyable and well-written pioneering journey into a world that all too few histories touch upon. As Fagan reminds us, "the fishers who supplied the fish consumed by the devout were part of the anonymous background of history". His final sentence says it all: "It was not the sudden inspiration of famous names that brought Europeans to North America - not Columbus or Cabot or the settlers at Plymouth Rock - but the thousand-year journey in pursuit of fish." Sadly, there are almost no cod now left in the great fishing grounds of North America, and the cod fishers of Newfoundland and New England are a thing of the past.

Brian Fagan is justly renowned for his immensely readable books on the human past. Fish on Friday is by far his best.

Michael D. Coe is emeritus professor of anthropology, Yale University. He is the author of many books on pre-Columbian civilisation and is a fanatical fisherman.

Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World

Author - Brian Fagan
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 338
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 465 02284 7

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