Great Britain

Geography and Settlement

Great Britain—Britain for our purposes—is an island north of France. England, Scotland, and Wales constitute the island, which humans occupied about 30,000 years ago.133 During the last ice age (с. 115,000-c. 11,700years ago), the poles held enough water as ice to diminish sea levels, connecting Britain with the rest of Europe and facilitating movement between both. A rising ocean made Britain an island in the fifth or fourth millennium BCE but did not end migrations, which continued during Europe’s Neolithic Period (c. 4000-c. 2500 BCE), Bronze Age (c. 2500-c. 800 BCE), Iron Age (c. 800 BCE-42 CE), Roman antiquity (43-410), Anglo-Saxon rule (c. 500-1066), Viking raids (793-850), and Norman conquest (1066).134

Centrality of Fishing in Earliest Times and Antiquity

The North Sea, North Atlantic Ocean, rivers, lakes, and ponds supplied fish and shellfish. Spears for catching salmon in Northern Ireland’s Bann River dated from the Mesolithic Period (9600-4000 BCE) and provided the earliest evidence for fishing near Britain.135 During these millennia, Scots on Oronsay Island ate crab, limpet, mussel, whelk (Busycon carica), oyster, European conger (Conger conger), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), sea bream, ballan wrasse (Labrus bergylta), thorn- back ray (Raja clavata), skate (Dipturus batis), and shark. Throughout prehistory and history, shellfish fed the poor. The rich sometimes disdained it for that reason, eating it only occasionally. In modernity, however, all classes consumed shellfish. Seafood was most plentiful during summer. Transition to agriculture let farmers fish in early summer, when chores were not onerous.136 During the Iron Age, cod fishing intensified. Around 600 BCE, Celts in Britain began salting fish and meats. Fishers salted the catch on the coast, selling it at inland markets.137

Conquering Britain in 43 CE, the Romans targeted cod, lingcod, haddock, crab, lobster, oyster, whelk, cockle, mussel, and limpet, shipping oysters to Rome.138 The Romans taught Brits to prefer marine over freshwater species, partiality that persisted centuries. Although the Romans practiced aquaculture, evidence is absent from Britain.139 Also unclear is the extent to which it adopted Rome’s enthusiasm for garum, a fermented sauce of red mullet (Mullus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus), sprat (Sprattus sprattus), European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), mackerel, and salt (sodium chloride).'40

Fishing in the Middle Ages

Rome left the island in the early fifth century, leaving Germanic Anglo-Saxons and the Christian Church in charge. A unifying force, the church permitted fish but not meat on Fridays. Chapter l noted the biblical connection between fish and Jesus, unsurprising given that the canonical gospels were written in Greek and that the Greek ichthys means “fish” and is an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”141

During the Middle Ages, abstinence from meat came to encompass all Lent, the forty weekdays between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This requirement made sense in temperate regions. Lent comes late in winter, after the slaughter of all livestock but what could be kept for reproduction given inability to graze when grasses were dormant. Moreover, until 1216 British monks obeyed the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530), a set of guidelines by Italian abbot Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 543), which forbade meat but not fish or poultry to all but the ill.142 In addition to Fridays and Lent, the church banished meat from Wednesdays, Saturdays, and all fasting days, a total that eliminated it half the year. Readers, accustomed to the reality that few honor traffic laws when police are absent, might wonder whether people obeyed these strictures. Malcontents must have ignored regulations, but faith was strong in medieval Britain, and communities expected conformity.

Whatever the magnitude of compliance, consumption was large enough that Britain imported dried fish, chiefly cod, from Norway beginning in the ninth century.143 The Anglo-Saxon practice of cooking fish in iron cauldrons must have been ubiquitous, inspiring the expression “kettle of fish.” In the ninth and tenth centuries, Vikings settled Britain, targeting herring and white- fish. In 1066, French Normans conquered Britain. Enthusiasm for fish is evident in their promotion each year between September 29 and November 11 of a herring festival in Great Yarmouth, England.144 Normans accepted rent as salted herring, mackerel, salmon, and eel (species in the order Anguilliformes). Church leaders like abbots and bishops took two or three courses of fish at meals, and Duchess of York Cecily Neville (1415-1495), mother of King Edward IV (1442-1483), served fish thrice daily—one salted and two fresh—during fasts.145 Royalty employed fishers to supply this bounty. Laws gave lords half the fish and all unusual specimens caught on their property.146 Royalty claimed all sturgeon. Twelfth-century texts listed consumption of plaice (Pleuronectes platessa), cod, European flounder (Platichthys flesus), gudgeon (Gobio gobio), loach (species in the superfamily Cobitoidea), roach (Rutilus rutilus), tench (Tinea tinea), Dover sole (Solea solea), mudfish (Neochanna burrowsius), and lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis).

During the Middle Ages, salted herring became the Lenten staple.147 In addition to herring, British food historian Constance Anne Wilson (b. 1934) asserted that during Lent, medieval Brits combined Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), codling, or haddock with figs (Ficus carica), raisins (Vitis vinifera), apples (Malus domestica), pears (Pyrus species), and sucrose.148 The last, however, was uncommon before the sixteenth-century establishment of plantations in tropical America. Before 1500, Brits and other Europeans seldom had sucrose, though fructose and glucose—both (C6H|206)—were available in honey. In the sixteenth century, the average European consumed just 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of sucrose annually.149 The only commercial source then was sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) because sugar beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) was unknown until the mid-eighteenth century. Chapters 2 and 11 discuss sweeteners.

Consumption of Salted Fish

By the thirteenth century, Britain’s appetite for salt necessitated imports from France.150 The prevalence of salting for preservation implies that everyone who ate salted fish consumed too much. Whereas preagricultural peoples ingested under 1 gram of salt daily, by roughly 1400 the average European ate 20 grams per day.151 This peak doubled today’s intake, which remains inordinate.

Chapter 2 implicated sodium in high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease. Although bones contain sodium, too much in the diet depletes their calcium, causing osteoporosis.152 Sodium raises the risk of stomach cancer, asthma, liver disease, and obesity. Children who overindulge undermine health into adulthood. Superfluity appears to weaken cognition in the old. Sodium especially harms sub-Saharan Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis.153

Despite hazards, Chapter 2 identified sodium and chloride as electrolytes. As noted above and in Chapter 2, sodium is in bones. With hydrogen, chloride forms hydrochloric acid (HC1) to aid digestion. From early times, salt was essential to replace electrolytes lost from perspiration in warm climates. Nomads did not cross deserts without it. Like several other nutrients and as indicated, however, surfeit damages rather than benefits the body. The generalization that if small amounts are good, then more must be better is untrue.

Wilson wrote that the poor ate more salted fish than the affluent, implying that poverty correlated with illnesses from excess sodium.154 Fresh fish’s expensiveness dissuaded the poor rather than the rich from buying it. Contradicting her, American economist, historian, and 1993 Nobel laureate in economics Robert William Fogel (1926-2013) asserted that British elites weakened their health by eating too much salted fish and meat before roughly 1725.155 Britain’s poor lived as long as members of the House of Lords (peers) because they ate healthier diets. The next section details these circumstances.

Increasing Demand for Fish and Shellfish

Whether salted or fresh, demand for fish drove the British, benefitting from improvements in navigation and shipbuilding, to seek cod near Iceland in the fifteenth century.156 Leaving port in February or March, sailors salted cod aboard ship, returning in autumn to sell their catch. The masses purchased cod, pollock (Pollachius virens), sculpin, lingcod, and shellfish. After declining in late antiquity, shellfish sales rose after roughly 700, a trend that continued into modernity.157 Large families bought hundreds on a single trip to market. London’s poor ate oysters, which were much cheaper than fish. Wilson noted consumption of lobster, crayfish, or crab with sucrose, almond milk, cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), and mace (Myristica fragrans).158 Her narrative must have omitted the masses because sucrose, cloves, and mace were expensive tropical imports in the fifteenth century. Beyond shellfish, perch, carp, bream, salmon, trout, grayling, barbel, chub (Squalius cephalus), tench, roach, Eurasian dace (Leuciscus leuciscus), bleak (Alburnus alburnus), ruff (Arripis georgianus), flounder, eel, pike, and minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus) were popular.159 Commoners bought eel because it was the least expensive fish, making stew with it or other seafood, barley (Hordeum vulgare), oats (Avena sativa), herbs like parsley (Petroselinum crispum), or their combination.

Fish stoked the appetite. A sixteenth-century menu indicated that one wealthy couple shared two loaves of white bread (probably Triticum aestivum) known as manchet, ten herrings or sprats, and 0.9 liters (1 quart) each of beer and wine for breakfast.160 Affluent Brits ate up to 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) of fish or meat daily.161 Even children consumed fish and beer.

This paragraph attempts to detail fish intake. Taking herring as an example, FAO graphed a range of masses, though a typical herring is between roughly 70 and 200 grams, whose average is 135 grams.162 Ten herrings for a couple at breakfast allot five per person or 675 grams. But Neville served fish at every meal, a practice that triples our 675 grams to just over 2 kilograms. The mean between it and the above 1.4 kilograms is 1.7 kilograms of fish daily for a wealthy Briton.

Retaining herring as the example, Table 5.4 lists calories and nutrients in 1.7 kilograms.163


Nutrients in Herring 1.7kg







Protein (g)






Carbs (g)



Fiber (g)




Ca (mg)



Fe (mg)



Mg (mg)



P (mg)



К (mg)



Na (mg)



Zn (mg)



Cu (mg)



Mn (mg)



Se (meg)




A (IU)



В! (mg)



B, (mg)












B<, (meg)



В l2 (meg)



C (mg)



D (IU)



E (mg)



К (meg)



Even at this mass, sodium is under DV. But one-third of Neville’s fish was salted. Applying this proportion to our example, one-third of 1.7 kilograms equals 566.7 grams of salted herring. I know no way to pinpoint the amount of sodium in this quantity in the sixteenth century, but an estimate is possible using U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) measurement of 1,181 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams of salted herring.164 This value is 49.2 percent of sodium’s DV, though 566.7 grams of salted herring exceed DV almost 2.8 times.165

Returning to the narrative, Parliament encouraged fish eating by reinstituting Wednesday and Saturday bans against meat that had lapsed in the late Middle Ages.166 Overfishing resulted in the next century, increasing fish prices. Parliament further heightened prices by taxing salt.167 Britain depleted, fishers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries entered waters near New England, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia.168 At the same time, nobility relinquished sturgeon, allowing it to sell in markets. In the eighteenth century, Britain met the demand for fish partly by importing mullet and anchovies from the Mediterranean Sea.169 That century, consumption of freshwater species, long overexploited as mentioned, declined in favor of ocean fish. Toward century’s end, processors began packing fish in ice, obviating the need for salt.170 This transition occurred first with salmon in Scotland, where fresh and frozen supplanted salted.

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