Paid in Fish: 8 Facts About the Use of Eels in Medieval England | History Hit

Paid in Fish: 8 Facts About the Use of Eels in Medieval England

The 14th century Tacuinum Sanitatis showing lamprey (eel) fishing.
Image Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Eels aren’t exactly commonplace in Britain today. Save for the odd eel pie shop in London, and the famous Eel Pie Island in the Thames, there’s barely a trace left of what was once one of the most important commodities in the Medieval world.

Used for everything from food to paying rent, eels were part of the economy and lifeblood of medieval England. Here are 8 facts about these snake-like fish and how they served the medieval citizens of England.

Just how vital was the presence of Eels in the Middle Ages to Britain?
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1. They were a key foodstuff

Eels were one of the most popular foodstuffs in medieval England: people ate more eels than all freshwater or marine fish combined. They were found almost everywhere in England and were cheap and easy to come across.

Eel pie is perhaps the most famous eel-based dish (which can still be found in London today if you look hard enough), although jellied eel and eel stuffed with all kinds of substances were also popular in their heyday. Eels remained popular in Britain until the early years of the 20th century.

2. Eels were found in rivers across the land and were fair game

Eels were found in the rivers, marshlands and oceans across and surrounding England. They were plentiful, and caught using willow traps. These traps could be found in pretty much every river, and legislation was passed in some areas to limit the number of traps in rivers to prevent overcrowding.

An eel diagram from the 1554 book Aquatilium Animalium Historiae.

Image Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Public Domain

3. Eel-rents were commonplace

During the 11th century, eels were often used instead of money to pay rent. Landlords would take in-kind payments of all sorts, including corn, ale, spices, eggs and above all, eels. By the end of the 11th century, over 540,000 eels were being used as currency every year. It was only in the 16th century that the practice dropped off.

The Domesday Book lists hundreds of examples of people expecting payments in eel-rents: these eels were bundled together into groups of 25 in a denomination known as a ‘stick’, or groups of 10, known as a ‘bind’.

4. Some families included eels on their family crests

Some families accepted more eel-rents than others, even earning centuries-long associations with the practice. Over time, these groups began to incorporate eels into their family crests, marking the importance of the creatures to their families for centuries to come.

5. They could be easily salted, smoked or dried

Eels were mostly salted, smoked or dried for longevity: landlords didn’t want thousands of squirming fresh eels. Dried and smoked eels were much more easily stored and could last for several months, making them far more sustainable as currency.

Eels were predominantly caught in the autumn as they migrated through England’s rivers, so preserving them in some capacity also meant they could be eaten out of season.

An eel marinating factory in Comacchio, Italy. Engraving from the Magasin Pittoresque, 1844.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

6. You could eat them during Lent

Lent – and the Lenten Fast – was one of the most important periods in the religious calendar during the Medieval period, and eating meat was forbidden during the period of abstinence and fast. Meat was seen as a reminder of carnal appetites and desires, whereas the seemingly asexual eel was virtually the opposite.

As such, the Church believed eating eels would not excite sexual appetites in a way eating meat would, so they were permitted.

Eleanor Janega visits the city of Oxford to explore the lives of the clergy in Medieval England.
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7. The eel trade was seen as a vital part of the economy

There was a roaring trade in eels across the British Isles, where they were found in huge quantities. In 1392, King Richard II cut tariffs on eels in London to encourage merchants to trade them there.

The implementation of such measures suggests that the eel trade was viewed as a mark of a booming economy and had beneficial knock-on effects more widely.

8. Eels were so important that the town of Ely was reportedly named after them

The town of Ely in Cambridgeshire is reportedly derived from a word in the Old Northumbrian language, ēlġē, meaning “district of eels”. Some historians and linguists have later challenged this belief, but the town still celebrates Ely Eel Day in May every year with a procession and an eel throwing competition.

Sarah Roller