European Eel © Environment Agency

Eels in the Medieval Fenlands

The eel is a curious animal. Now listed on the international red list of threatened species, it used to be the ubiquitous food for small holders and poor peasants in the early middle ages

Elver eels for sale on the international market. Source: Wikipedia
Elver eels for sale on the international market. Source: Wikipedia

In 2014 the European Eel was finally listed on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Before that lobbyists had repeatedly tried to get the attention of the global community. Curiously enough, one should think that all was well. Even though the capture of wild eel has been reduced to a quarter of what it was in its heyday, farmed production has in recent years reached more than 100.000 tonnes, 20 times as much. However, one of the challenges is that this aquaculture is dependent on the live catches of very young “glass eels”, that is eels in the stage they reach after having drifted for more than 300-days back to Europe from Saragossa, where they are spawned. At this point they should instead enter the estuaries where they might live for 5–90 years (on average 10 – 15 years), until they become sexually mature, their flanks become silver, and their bellies fat and white. Now they they start their migration back to the Saragossa to spawn and die.

The challenge is, that scientists have worked for years to figure out what tricks the eel to produce the larvae that it may be done in a laboratory – a prerequisite for the really large aquaculture business, which might help to feed people in East Asia for whom the eel is a delicatessen of great importance (and whose local eel-species have also been hit by overfishing and deteriorating habitats.

So-far the work has unfortunately been unsuccessful. The problem is that it is all in the hormones; but also that no one really knows what impedes or triggers appropriate the aapropriate hormonal responses in the eel. Several international projects are coordinated inside PRO-EEl, a European consortium with partners reaching from Tunisia to Tromsø.

While we are waiting for this break-through, the wild eel is getting more and more threatened. One reason is that East-Asian entrepreneurs are involved in a big illegal business literally scooping up the glass-eels in the Atlantic, while these are happily trying to reach the brackish waters of the estuaries and rivers in Europe.  Another reason is that these estuaries and rivers are not very healthy: pollution (PCB) and physical barriers to migration such as hydroelectric dams are part of the explanation. Another is probably climate change, which is perhaps shifting the currents in the Atlantic.

Whatever the reason, eels are no longer as plentiful on the dinner-tables in Europe as they once were, when it was considered a stable source of fatty protein during fasts and a delicatessen to served up at royal tables.

Iron Age Taboo

St. Patrick charms the snake. Source: British Library: BL Harley 4751, f. 61r.
St. Patrick charms the snake. Source: British Library: BL Harley 4751, f. 61r.

Although, apparently not so in the Iron Age around the North Sea (800 BC – AD 100). Ten years ago, Keith Dobney and Anton Ervynck began to compare the composition of mittens from three countries bordering the North Sea to evaluate the amount of fish-bones; and found a near-total lack. Even though fish-bones are notoriously difficult to discover without wet-sieving, their overview presents us with a compelling conundrum: 117 published reports on bone-assemblages from Iron-Age British or Celtic England were reviewed with 98% yielding no remains at all. Compared to this, it is clear that Roman assemblages mustered somewhat more, 7–9%. Of all the sites reviewed, at least 22 (or 18%) had been wet-sieved. Of these only 2% mustered fish-bones. On of these sites was the ring-fort at Wardy Hill near Isle of Ely. However, a comprehensive review of the material assemblage from this site shows that people there were busy on the way to be Romanised [1]. Curiously enough, this near-absence of fish-bones in the 98% other sites did not correspond to an absence of bones from frogs and salamanders. Apparently, Iron-Age people were not afraid of searching for food in the nearby bog hole or stream. They just did not fish (as opposed to their future cousins residing on the shores of the continent in Holland).

The question is of course why? Were waters and lakes sacred? Or were fish considered ‘unclean’?

In order to explore this, it might be an idea to examine one of the founding myths of Ireland, which tells us that St. Patrick by a huge miracle succeeded in expulsing the notorious reptiles from the Emerald Isle; a feat he was also able to carry out at Guernsey. The question here is of course not whether he actually carried out this feat, but how old this story is and where it comes from.

As already Alexander Krappe demonstrated, It is obvious that this story falls into line with a number of ancient stories relating how a hero might free a region from vermin of all sorts. Such stories were already recounted in ancient Greece and were also known among the Hellenistic Jews. Nearer to home is the story told by St. Gregory the Great in his dialogues of how Boniface, a bishop in Ferento drove caterpillars from his garden, while St Envel – sometimes mixed up with St. Gwenvael (attested AD 862) – delivered his community in Brittany of wolves. Closer to the time of St. Patrick we are told that St. Severinus († AD 482) drove away locusts and St. Urban († AD 390) from Gaul freed the countryside of rats. If anything, this was a topoi constantly repeated in the Early Middle Ages. Other saints connected with performing the duty of a snake-charmer are St. Hilary of Poitiers († AD 367) and St. Honoratus († AD 429). It will be remembered that St. Patrick according to legend spent seven years at Lérins together with St. Honoré

But when was these legends first voiced? How far back can we trace the topoi? One peace of evidence can be found in Bede, who tells us in his general introduction to Ireland that it is well-known there are no reptiles in that Island, “nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land, they are affected by the scent of the air…” (I:1, p. 11). However, Bed lifted this description from the writings of Solinus, author and compiler of De Mirabilibus Mundi (c. AD 250); and Bede does not tell us about the feat of St. Patrick, whom he in fact does not mention.

However, it is around the same time that we are told of St. Pirmin, the founder of the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau (724) that he freed the isle in the Lake of Canstance from all reptiles; and Reichenau and Pirmin had impeccable ties with the Irish saints and Celtic Christianity. It is thus probable that St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated there from the inception of the monastic foundation [2].

What has all this to do with eels? Well, it is well-known that later Irish folklore witness to the widespread conflation of eels, worms, serpents and water-monsters [3]; and also, that it is an archaeological fact that Iron-Age British people in the first millennium BC seemingly did not eat fish nor eels, even though they ate frogs and salamanders. Might we speculate that the early Celtic church jumped appropriated on to the back of ancient Celtic stories in order to naturalise an old pagan mythical complex?

Anglo-Saxon Fishmongers

Reconstruction of Nazeing Fish Spear
Reconstruction of Nazeing Fish Spear © Daegrad tools, Sheffield, England

What we do know is that with the migration of Angles, Saxons and Dutch people after AD 400, people arrived who were comfortable with eating freshwater fish as well as Marine resources.

In 2012 an article was published presenting a study of 76 adult skeletons form 5th – 7th century

. Now, it appeared that “marine foods tended to make up a somewhat greater proportion or protein sources than was the case for the other sites. However, the authors caution that animals may have fed on sea-weed and salt-mashes disrupting the profile of the diet somewhat. Also, it is not known to what extent the collection of shellfish and mussels contributed to the menu (it probably did).

Given all sorts of statistical cautions a fair representation seems to indicate that eel and freshwater fish constituted a fifth of the diet in inland communities and coastal communities, with a possible third in the riverine settlements after AD 400.

It is perhaps not odd that one of the few remains of a burial feast found is a 7th century copper alloy bowl – a so-called Perlrandbecken – in which were the remains of three whole ells. The bowl was found by the left food of the skeleton of a 25-year old female. This bowl measured 17 cm in diameter and was over six cm deep with a flat base. With its out-turned beaded rim, it obviously belonged to a group of Frankish imports, which is generally found in 6th century contexts. The bowl was found in Cambridge, a location where – according to place-names – Anglo-Saxon immigrants rowed up to along the Great Ouse and the River Cam. [5]

One of the challenges with this study is that the skeletons, which underwent an analysis, were chosen according to the grave-goods – warriors with weapons and high-status females with jewellery said to indicate the dead being “Anglo-Saxon”. However, recent studies of ancient DNA seem to indicate that the identification of such individuals as being of immigrant origin does not necessarily correspond to the assemblages of grave goods. Nevertheless, we may conclude that changes in diets and material culture seem to have been concomitant.

How to Catch an Eel the Early Medieval Way

© Ely Basketmaker
© Ely Basketmaker

We don’t know much about the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons – or for that matter their medieval descendants caught their eels. However, Bede writes about the newly converted people, who lived down by Chichester that Wilfred was not only instrumental in baptizing them, but also taught them how to survive in spite of drought, when “a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them… when the bishop first came into the kingdom and saw the suffering an famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing; for both the sea and the rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected “eel-nets” from every quarter and cast them into the sea so that, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds”. (Bede, Iv; 13 pp. 193)

This is the traditional translation, which can be found in numerous histories about Anglo-Saxon fishing. However, what Bede writes is in fact “retibus anguillaribus”, which can be translated with ‘net’ (as in Vulgata: Luke 5:13) but also with ‘snare’ or ‘trap’. Bede may of course have thought of the typical handheld nets, which may have been used for scooping up glass eels in spring. These were typically fried or boiled, and as such eaten by peasants all along the Atlantic coast. However, it is more likely Bede wrote about eel-traps, the tool which was used to catch eels in rivers and waterways swimming downstream; and which Bede obviously must have been familiar with. Although the Anglo-Saxons probably knew of nets, the most usual form of catching eels in a river would be to make an eel-trap of willow work and set it in the river so that eels migrating to the sea would swim into the trap and get caught.

Such traps are known from the prehistory and have been continuously in use in riverine landscapes all over Northern Europe. A special variation of that would be an eel buck, where traps would be lined up side by side virtually blocking a river-stream. Or a trap might be set up as the centre of a proper fish-weir constructed of hurdles or brushwood sea-hedges

Whether or not Bede’s story is a fishy fairy-tale is of no matter; his readers could obviously make sense of it by its allusions to the biblical tales of the great miraculous catches of fish (Luke 5 and John 21). But they would probably also think of the innovative new construction of fish-weirs on the sea-shore rather than the throwing of nets (which was not invented until later). In fact fish-wears have been archaeologically documented on the Isle of Wight just south of the settlement, Bede writes about.

Perhaps, the story is about a Northumbrian noble turned priest and bishop, who ends up teaching his “British Parishioners” about how to fish the Anglo-Saxon way? It should be noted that the word ‘weir’ is in fact of Proto-Germanic origin (*wer-jon-) – to defend, protect/cover/close off)

Mill with eel buckes © British Library: The Luttrell Psalter
Mill with eel buckes © British Library: The Luttrel Psalter, Add MS 42130 fol 181r

Spearing the Eels

Eel spears of a Later Age © wikimedia
Eel spears of a Later Age © wikimedia

Another way of catching eels is of course by spearing them. This might be done in winter time, when eels are huddling together in the mud at the bottom of the estuaries, making it easy –if you knew the good places – to go and catch several hundred eels in one swoop. Such spearheads would typically be fitted with two or more prongs and feature barbs or serrated edges. Such an iron trident was found in the Nazeing Hoard from Essex; although probably used for fishing salmon as the tines are too widely spaced. [6]

Technically, this fishing would take place in the early autumn at the light of lanterns and in shallow waters. The light would get the insects to swarm and the eels to wriggle their way to what they falsely believed might be a feast. Instead, they would get caught between the prongs of a vicious spear. This method, though, is prohibited by law in for instance Denmark, while allowed in Germany. The argument is that the spear is said to catch and destroy the young eels, but most experts suspects it has more to do with the protection of commercial interests.

Boys out Fishing

In the late 20th century Danish boys might still be caught out trying to fish for eels with the help of a nylon-stocking pilfered from their mother and some rotten meat. When the eel tried to get at the bait its tiny teeth would get entangled in the nylon and could be heaved on land. Another version of this easy way of procuring a lunch for youngsters out herding cattle or sheep would be spinning a yarn from some wool and threading sandworms on it. Bundling it all up in a ball of wool and worms it could then be dangled into the mud until the eel bit. A good idea would probably have been to hold a basket underneath, in order to be able to scoop up the catch.

This is of course a special version of Thor fishing for the huge snake, the Midgard Serpent (Miðgarðsormr). The myth tells us that when Thor went fishing with Hymir, the latter refused to provide Thor with bait. Thor then stroke of the head of Hymi’s largest ox and used it to try and catch the worm. Folklore has it that this might be tried out by boys who had access to a cranium of an ox or a horse.

Digging for Eels

This is not documented in the written sources from the Fenlands. But in France it was an important part of the eel-economy to catch them in connection with the yearly effort of keeping canals and salt-pans open. Eels will hid in mudbanks, and from time to time – when the canals or salt-pans had to be dug up in order to keep them open – fenmen would carefully dig out the sludge and collect the eels, they found slumbering in the silt. From modern France we know two or three days work might yield 200 kg eels. [7]

Early Medieval Staple and High Medieval Delicacy

Composition of Diet in Anglo-Saxon England
Composition of Diet in Anglo-Saxon England. Source: An investigation of diet in early Anglo-Saxon England using carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of human bone collagen. By S.. Mays and N Beavan. In: Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), Vol. 39, pp. 867–874

Was the eel the food of the common man? Or was it the highlight of royal feasts?

On one hand, one should think it was very common. Until 1950, the eel was the third most abundant fish in European rivers and estuaries and eels would have supplied a much needed fatty supplement to an otherwise fat-free diet during periods of fasting. It might also be a quick way of securing a meal in springtime, when the larder was empty. It must also be remembered that fasting was not such a challenge in Southern Europe where olive oil and chestnuts, almonds, and walnuts were relatively abundant. In Northern Europe, however, animal fat was all there was – whether in the form of butter, cheese, milk or simply just lard. Eels were, together with salted herrings, mackerel, trout or salmon the fatty supplements. In a medieval peasant household, the eel might thus be what made a difference in medieval peasant household during Advent and Lent – the long continuous periods of fasting.

However, there is no reason to believe that English peasants after the Benedictine reforms in the 10th century and after the conquest, when the establishment of the large monasteries in the Fenlands came to fruition, could afford to drop an eel in the pot [8]

Comparing prices between 1450 -1499 paid for barrels of salted herrings with that of barrels of salted salmon or eels show an increase by an average factor of 5.4. Several times it is indicated these hefty prices was paid for stub eels, the fat silver eels on their way back to spawn in the Saragossa. Thus cheaper eels were occasionally bought up. But the fatty stub  eels could get triple the price of salmon and double the price of sturgeon. [9]

Grazing in Front of the Ely Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia
Grazing in Front of the Ely Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia

However, eels were by far the most important catch. As such, we hear of debts being settled with eels as well as rentals and tithes being paid by eels or in “sticks” of eels, every stick having 25 eels. No less than 77 fisheries are mentioned in the Doomsday Book as paying rent in the Lincolnshire Fenlands; some of these were paid in money, others were paid in eels. Such fisheries might have to pay between 1500 -2500 eels a year.

In one particular charter from the end of the 10th century we are told that 20 fishermen from Wells (now Upwell) had paid 60.000 eels or 3000 eels each to the Monastery of Ramsey. There is no doubt that eels were an important trade-commodity and one, which the large great landowners in the medieval fenlands tried to exploit as best they could. One of the consequences was that rivers and canals were all to often blocked by the raising of weirs, which meant that boats could not pass. This gave occasion to numerous royal interventions, when locals tried to get away with making their eel-fishing as effective as possible. The importance of eels can be measured by the fact that fresh eels were imported to London from the Low Countries as well as by their prevalence in Lenten menus [10].

There is no doubt: eels were big business after AD 1000. But until then it was perhaps just as much a stable food.

Find the medieval recipes with eels here.


[1] Power and Island Communities: excavations at the Wardy Hill ringwork, Coveney, Ely
by Christopher Evans
In: East Anglian Archaeology (2003) Vol. 103. 323 – 330.

[2] Irish Earth. By Alexander H. Krappe. In Folklore (1941) Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 229 – 236
St. Patrick and the Snakes. By Alexander H. Krappe. In: tradition (1947), Vol 5., pp.

[3] Eels and People in Ireland: From Mythology to International Eel Stock Conservation. 
By T. Kieran McCarthy
In:  Eels and Humans. Ed. by Katsumi Tsukamoto and Mari Kuroki.
Springer Verlag 2014, pp.  41 – 61

[4] An investigation of diet in early Anglo-Saxon England using carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of human bone collagen
By S.. Mays and N Beavan
In: Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), Vol. 39, pp. 867–874

[5] Anglo-Saxons on the Cambridge Backs: the criminology site settlement and King’s Garden Hostel cemetery. By Natasha Dowell, Sam Lucy and Jess Tipper.
In: Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, (2004) Vol. XCIII pp. 98

[6] A Late Saxon Hoard of Iron and Copper-Alloy Artefacts from Nazaing, Essex. 
By Carole A. Moris.
In: Medieval Archaeology (1983) Vol. 27, No.1.

[7] Freshwater Eels and People in France
By Eric Feunteun and Tony Robinet
In: In:  Eels and Humans. Ed. by Katsumi Tsukamoto and Mari Kuroki. Springer Verlag 2014, pp.  75 – 91

[8] Medieval waterways and hydraulic economics: monasteries, towns and the East Anglian fen
By Duncan Sayer
In: World Archaeology (2009), vol 41, no. 1, pp. 134 – 150

[9] A History of Agriculture and Prices in England from the year after the Oxford Parliament (1259) to the commencement of the continental war (1793). Compiled entirely from original and contemporaneous records.
By James E. Thorold Rogers, M.P. Vol. III, 1401 – 1582
Oxford, Clarendon Press 1864

[10] The Culture of Food in England, 1200 – 1500
By C. M. Woolgar
Yale University press 2016. p. 117

See also the literature listed here

Crowland Abbey © Rex SlyeMedieval Fenlands


Hoch and his Family in Oakington

Culture and Identity in the Early Medieval Fenlands

Recipes for Medieval Eels


European Eel © Environment Agency