This is an important volume, not only for those already interested in fishery history, but for those interested in the development of commercial activity in the Middle Ages and in the social history of diet. It provides fascinating detail, interesting statistics (where available) and wide-ranging arguments by experts in full command of their material. It is (as its editors, James H. Barrett and David C. Orton, rightly say) a ground-breaking volume in its combination of archaeological and documentary evidence and the new application of stable isotope analysis to archaeological deposits. Together these sources provide evidence for a convincing hypothesis on the chronology of fishing and fish consumption spanning over a thousand years, between c.500 and c.1550, around the northern seas (north Atlantic, Irish, North and Baltic Seas). Fish has long been a part of the human diet, but (as the contributors to this volume demonstrate) marine fish became a significant dietary element for most of northern Europe only in the high and later Middle Ages. In the early period, consumption was mainly of freshwater fish by elites and urban societies; sea-fish bones are rare deposits on archaeological sites for this period, except in Scandinavia. The evidence suggests that consumption of sea fish, especially of herring, increased in the long eighth century, intensified c.850 to c.1050 at varying speeds (quite quickly in England, more slowly in the Netherlands and Poland, not yet in Estonia), and surged in the high Middle Ages, with increasing supplies of cod. Catches probably peaked c.1300, and preserved herring and cod contributed to long-range trade in high-bulk, low-value goods. This development was part of the great economic expansion of Europe at this time, with its increasing demand for food, growing facilities for regular international trade and greater availability of capital. The risks, investment and effort of sea fishing became worthwhile. There were, of course, regional variations across northern Europe in the speed of change, types of fish traded and organisation, but it seems clear that, overall, growth in the consumption of sea fish occurred throughout northern Europe. The volume contains much for British historians: more than half of the chapters deal directly with British evidence; several others deal with areas in direct contact with England; and the remainder provide valuable context to show how England’s experience compared with the wider northern European pattern. The volume opens with James Barrett’s lucid introduction explaining the methodologies of the various disciplines, the geographical and environmental contexts, and the central themes. He also raises interesting supplementary questions, such as the possible role of state formation and Christian rituals as drivers in the expansion, and whether the shift to sea fish ad c.1000 was ‘revolutionary’. The introduction is followed by nineteen specialist chapters divided into two sections, ‘Perspectives from History and Settlement Archaeology’ and ‘Perspectives from Zooarchaeology and Stable Isotope Analysis’. In the first section, the chapters most immediately relevant to British developments are by Maryanne Kowaleski, exploring the origins of English commercial fishing; Mark Gardiner on English fishing and trade in Icelandic waters; Colin Breen on fishing in Ireland; and Alison Locker on the declining use of preserved fish in the post-medieval period. Chapters by Poul Holm (fishing in the western Baltic), Arnved Nedkvitne (the Norwegian stockfish trade), Helge Sørheim (Norwegian fisheries and techniques), Alf Ragnar Nielssen (cod fishing settlements in northern Norway) and Orri Vésteinsson (the role of fishing in Icelandic life) are also directly relevant, as they relate to places where England regularly fished and traded. In the second section, chapters focus on the archaeological evidence of fish bones, which show the types and sizes of fish consumed, methods of preservation and (through the recently available stable isotope analysis of protein extracted from the bones) their approximate geographical origin and role in human diet. The authors in this section all write with great clarity and deserve historians’ gratitude for making their methodologies understandable to non-specialists. The first four chapters range widely: Lembi Lõugas examines Viking sites in the western Baltic and medieval sites in Estonia; Daniel Makowiecki, David C. Orton and James H. Barrett consider changes in Poland; Inge Bødker Enghoff surveys Danish activity from prehistory to the sixteenth century; and Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck examine sea-fish consumption in inland Flanders. All find a similar trajectory, although at different speeds. Of the following six chapters, five focus on British sites. Jennifer Harland, Andrew K.G. Jones, David C. Orton and James H. Barrett revisit the rich zooarchaeology data from York, and David C. Orton, Alison Locker, James Morris and James H. Barrett examine the cod remains in London. In both cities butchery techniques and stable isotope analysis point to the consumption of mainly local (North Sea) fish, supplemented by Arctic imports. Rebecca Russell compares two high-status Anglo-Saxon sites (which show a wide selection of fish) with mainly herring deposits in early towns, and Sheila Hamilton Dyer reviews data for medieval Ireland. Anne Karin Hufthammer’s survey of Norway AD 80–1400 provides a contrasting chapter, and, in a final chapter, Gundula Müldner discusses the stable isotope analysis of human bones in medieval Britain. She emphasises that the use of this technique for this purpose is still in its early stage, but preliminary results confirm the archaeological and documentary evidence, showing a significant shift towards consumption of marine fish in the medieval period, although these remained a relatively minor part of total diet. In a masterly conclusion, James Barrett draws the volume together, analysing each chapter in detail, providing a scholarly, nuanced discussion of the broad convergence they show, drawing attention to some contrasting interpretations and pointing to areas for further research. No review can do sufficient justice to all the contributors in such a richly informative and rewarding book. As its editors say, it may not be a definitive volume, but it is an excellent, eminently clear synthesis of current research, demonstrating how well different disciplines, different types of evidence and new scientific techniques can complement and challenge each other, and provide stimulating encouragement to further research. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 13, 2018
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