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24.04.03 Hoffman, The Catch

24.04.03 Hoffman, The Catch

In recent years there has been a growing awareness of human impact on the environment and the vulnerabilities that this causes. Through necessity, our focus is looking forwards--trying to avoid even greater damage to our planet--but we can also learn from studying the past. In The Catch, Richard Hoffman provides a fascinating account of the development of fishing across the entire medieval period, showing how it changed from a relatively minor component of subsistence economies to an important part of the international economy. Hoffmann’s study is notably interdisciplinary in its approach, using archaeological and documentary sources. It adopts the philosophy of environmental history that rejects the traditional focus of purely economic aspects of supply and demand and instead examines the dynamic inter-relationship between natural forces and human communities, including how changes to the natural and cultural landscape affected fish stocks.

The Introduction sets the scene very well, explaining how “The Catch explores human interactions between two dynamic communities, namely human societies and the aquatic ecosystems of Europe during western Christendom’s medieval millennium, roughly 500-1500 CE” (1). Three “sampler tales” provide a flavour of what is to come: the long decline of the Atlantic sturgeon (a large and impressive species that was only ever a luxury food); the changing approaches towards fishing and stock management of fisher communities in central and western Europe’s third largest natural lake (Constance); and the dramatic rise in the North Atlantic trade in cod, which was linked to its ability to be stored through drying. The Introduction also provides an important discussion of “doing environmental history,” and how this differs from outdated approaches that can be classed as environmental determinism. Hoffmann (21) explains, for example, that “An effective environmental history can avoid a priori assumptions of environmental, material, or cultural determinism by starting from the palpably human constructs of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ as identifying two autonomous realms of identity and causation,” with the former being how “humans comprehend and communicate their own being and the world around them,” while the latter refers to the natural environment, both living and non-living. The Catch is an example of this approach, in showing how human communities developed a surprisingly good awareness of natural fish stocks, the impact that fishing was having on that resource, and--in some cases--what needed to be done to avoid over-exploitation.

The following two chapters also provide extremely useful background. Chapter 1 outlines the natural aquatic ecosystems found across Europe, both inland/freshwater and marine/saltwater, in a very accessible way, including the complex food-webs and other connections between fish species and their natural environments. Chapter 2 then explores where the medieval demand for fish came from in a society where people got most of their calories from grains. Two key trends are apparent: the development of medieval western Christianity that imposed restrictions on when non-fish “meat” could be consumed (e.g., Fridays and Saturdays, as well as some festival days and other periods) and the development of large urban populations that needed feeding.

The subsequent chapters follow a very logical chronological structure. Chapter 3 examines the early medieval period--broadly the 6th to 11th centuries--when fishing was predominantly carried out as part of subsistence economies, and when there is some evidence for peasant communities being obliged to spend a certain number of days working on their lord’s fishery (in the same way that they were required to provide labour services in the lord’s arable fields and hay meadows). There is also an excellent discussion of the evidence for the equipment used in fishing, both in terms of portable items, such as spears, hooks and lines, and nets, as well as fixed structures constructed on riverbeds and in the intertidal zone, such as woven baskets and large V-shaped weirs constructed out of wattle panels, which are surely the “sea hedges” referred to in Domesday Book (127).

In Chapter 4 we hear about a marked intensification in the exploitation of fish with the emergence of full-time artisan fishers around the 10th and 11th centuries. This was the period when fish could be sold in urban markets, peasants changed from having an obligation to fish to an obligation to pay from the proceeds of fish, and fishers started to acquire a distinctive professional identity. Fishers were predominantly men, while those selling the catch were usually women, although there were exceptions. The growing professionalisation of these fisher communities is seen in the development of guilds--to look after their interests--and specialist fishmongers, alongside specific fish markets in towns (such as the Rialto in Venice). The catch was not guaranteed, however, and prices fluctuated markedly. Chapter 5 shows how aquatic systems were increasingly coming under stress. This was both from natural forces, such as changes in temperature and hydrology, and from human-induced environmental change, such as increasing woodland clearance and arable cultivation on dryland leading to more sediment-rich surface runoff into rivers that could lead to siltation and nutrient enrichment (this affected species differently, some positively, others negatively). The construction of water mills and towns was a particular problem in that they disrupted the passage of migratory fish and their spawning grounds. A particularly fascinating part of this book is the evidence from medieval sources showing awareness of over-fishing and the impact that certain fishing techniques could have on the environment. The expansion of carp --originally only found in the catchment of the Black Sea--is an early example of how alien species have been introduced into the countryside across Europe.

Chapter 6 explores how human communities responded to the growing scarcity of fish in the later medieval period, which is reflected in clear evidence for rising prices. Regulation was one solution that was adopted, such as restricted fishing seasons and limiting the techniques that could be used--both approaches still being used to conserve fish stocks and habitats today. Other approaches are considered in Chapters 7 and 8, which included new techniques and technology. Chapter 7 is a detailed examination of “aquaculture” that developed from the 12th century, which was the breeding of carp (a particularly fast-growing species) within systems of artificial ponds that gave a constant supply of fish from a carefully controlled environment. Chapter 8 then looks at how coastal communities sought out new and distant off-shore fishing grounds, which through necessity involved the use of larger boats. Preserving fish was key, with different approaches being developed: herrings could be salted, whereas cod could be preserved through drying and the creation of what was known as “stockfish,” in which there developed an international trade. This is an example of an important theme that emerges in the book: that the changing approaches towards exploiting fish are a key part of far wider social and economic trends, such as the development of artisan fishers reflecting the early development of urbanism, and the emergence of the stockfish industry reflecting increasingly complex patterns of international trade. These changes also led to profound changes in landscape character, such as the building of complexes of fishponds close to high status settlements and the development of specialist coastal fishing settlements.

In addition to being extremely well written, The Catch is supported by a wide range of very useful illustrations, including archaeological artefacts, contemporary images, reconstruction drawings, graphs that present statistical data, and maps. Great credit must also be given to the author for collecting data across such a wide range of nations (with their different languages). Overall, this is an impressive and fascinating discussion of an aspect of the medieval economy that grew in importance and that reminds us of just how aware past communities were of their environment and the impact that their activities were having.