Friday, November 22, 2013

Lamprey, fish ponds, and carp

The lamprey is a particularly repellent fish which lives by sucking (literally) the life blood out of other fish. It was also long a delicacy, prized by the rich and royalty. These two aspects of the fish meet in a famous anecdote from Seneca about Vedius Pollio, a wealthy Roman who wanted to punish a slave by throwing him to the lampreys in his fish pond. The terrified young victim begged the emperor Augustus to be killed in another way. The emperor, horrified by the threat, freed the young slave and filled in the fish pond. 

For a food historian, however, Pollio's cruelty is of less interest than his taste for lamprey, and the fact that he stocked them in his fish pond. By the end of the Medieval period, the rich would still eat lamprey and some would even have fish ponds. But the two are not mentioned together.

Fish ponds have a long history in the West, starting with the Romans. But that history is only fitfully documented. Pliny says that they were invented (following those for oysters) sometime in the first century B.C.E. by Licinius Murena; ironically, his last name means "lamprey", but it was a certain Caius Hirtius who was credited with inventing ponds specifically for that fish.

Other than lamprey, what fish did the Romans raise in ponds? Columella says that earlier Romans had raised salt-water fish in fresh water and fed "the mullet and scarus, with the same care as the sea-lamprey, or sea-pike, are now educated." He also mentions sea-jacks and gilt-head bream as sea-fish which had been raised in lakes, as well as "other kinds of fishes which can endure fresh water". But as tastes became more refined, "the daintiness, magnificence, and sumptuousness of the rich have shut up the very seas" - that is, both fresh and salt water ponds were now made. He lists various fish for various types of regions. "A slimy, muddy region" for flat fish like sole, turbot, and plaice, as well as various sorts of shellfish, including oysters and scallops; sandy gulfs for flat fish as well, and also gilt-head and sea bream, but not shell-fish; "a rocky sea" for rock fish such as sea-carp, sea-thrush and sea-bream. Later he mentions merlins, sea-mullets and sea-wolves.

Rich Romans - including those born in Gaul - had estates in Gaul and no doubt some had fish ponds. Any of these fish might have been raised in them, but no specific evidence appears to exist of which. Given that Gallo-Roman culture persisted for at least two centuries under the Franks, probably fish ponds survived as well. Whatever their origin, "fisheries" (piscaria) certainly existed in Gaul in the seventh century, when the Edictum Rothari (part of the Lombard Law) specified: "Who lifts from others' nets or traps, or takes from another's fishery, fish, will pay VI gold pieces." That term seems later to have applied to natural waters reserved for fishing, not artificial ponds; but the term may have been ambivalent at this point.

About a century later, Charlemagne ordered that fishponds (vivarii) be maintained on his estates:
21. Every steward is to keep fishponds on our estates where they have existed in the past, and if possible he is to enlarge them. They are also to be established in places where they have not so far existed but where they are now practicable.
The Romans had viewed these not just as sources of domestic supply but as sources of profit. Columella writes: "Let the man who has purchased islands, or lands contiguous to the sea, and cannot receive any fruits from his ground, because of the poorness of the soil, which, for the most part, is the case near the sea-shore, raise to himself a revenue from the sea." Pliny says that the fish from Lucullus' fish ponds were sold for several million sestertii after his death.

Charlemagne too sought to monetize his ponds:
65. That the fish from our fishponds shall be sold, and others put in their place, so that there is always a supply of fish; however, when we do not visit the estates they are to be sold, and our stewards are to get a profit from them for our benefit.
(Note that this also implies that enough infrastructure existed at the time for sales to occur, despite a frequent view of the early Middle Ages as being dominated by self-sufficient estates).

Audits of some of Charlemagne's actual estates show that one had a stocked fish pond and another had three. Presumably the situation was similar for those for which records have not survived.

After some silence in the records, through the eleventh century, mentions of fish ponds are found in various charters (from 1037, 1039, 1064, 1081, 1083, 1087, 1089,  and 1097).

Fish then were clearly kept or farmed through much, possibly all, of the early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, none of these records mention the types of fish stocked. The first such mention may be that from 1105 when, in founding the monastery of St. Fuscien-aux-Bois (in the Somme), a local lord committed to providing one hundred eels each year for the fish pond.

A more detailed mention of the fish stocked in ponds comes in the thirteenth century, in some fragmentary accounts for the Count of Champagne. These list specific fish being stocked in stagni (that is, "ponds"). Several fish are listed - bream, pike, roach -, but one stands out, both for its absence in previous texts and for its future importance: sixteen carp are added (along with "six large pike"). Says Richard C. Hoffman: "Carp almost explosively entered the French historical record in middle decades of the thirteenth century - and were there for the first time associated with ponds."

What fish were stocked before these appeared? Hoffman points to a (then) very French England for clues:
In England, where after 1066 an ethnically and culturally French elite built and managed fish-ponds like those of their continental cousins, the king's own fish-ponds commonly supplied "fat mother bream" (bremas matrices et grassas) and pike for stocking his other ponds and those of his favorites. A late thirteenth century guide to estate management, Fleta, explicitly recommended bream and perch for ponds.
Carp would remain absent or rare there for a long time:
The species is unrecorded in the British Isles before the mid-fifteenth century, and acknowledged as a rare and recent introduction there well into the sixteenth... A relative lag crossing the Channel fits other evidence that the fish had failed to reach northwestern France before the 1204-6 collapse of the Angevin realm split Anglo-Norman estates into different lordships and social networks.
Among other things, this scattered data allows us to make a credible guess at what Charlemagne and those who kept fish ponds right after him stocked. Bream, pike, perch, roach and eel are all likely candidates. Carp on the other hand was almost certainly absent: "In the twelfth century carp were unknown west of the Rhine. The native range of this heat-loving species covered the lower Danube and Black Sea drainages of southeastern Europe. Millenia of premedieval bone finds and verbal records are confined to that region."

The fish had already moved farther west by the eleventh century, but was still unknown in France until its use in fish ponds from the thirteenth century on. But at that point, carp became closely associated with domestic pisciculture; so much so that it ultimately spread to the wild:
Just the written records which survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries itemize hundreds of thousands of small carp going into ponds there. As objects of controlled monoculture these fish were becoming domesticates.....In other words, the "wild" carp of central and western Europe are feral descendants of domesticates.
It very quickly made its way too onto tables - and into recipe books. It is only glancingly referenced in the Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes, which is very roughly dated to the end of the thirteenth or start of the fourteenth century. But Taillevent's Viander includes more, if still very cursory, mentions. Finally, the Ménagier de Paris has several recipes for both carp and lamprey (including "etouffées" for each fish, though these were probably not very Cajun). One for carp includes this note:
The Germans say of the French that they put themselves in great peril by eating carp so little cooked. And it has been seen that if the French and the Germans have a French cook who cooks them carp, these carp cooked in the French way, the Germans will take theirs and have it recooked more than at first, and the French not.
This is of particular interest since the Germans at that point had probably had more experience with the fish.

By the fourteenth century, then, carp was fully established in France. Hoffman sees broad implications in that fact:
Twelfth-century western Europeans, almost certainly French, evolved ways of controlling water and the fish they put in it to get consistent and seasonally useful food. When the technology was joined, probably not much before the mid-1200s, to a naturally well-adapted fast-growing fish of exotic eastern European origin, the carp, the result was the dominant and most advanced artificial fish production system used from the Atlantic to the Urals well into the nineteenth century and, in some regions, still today. Aquaculture revolutionized local ecologies and human relations with them, forming and controlling synthetic habitats for the sake of a non-native animal and to the harm of some native varieties. Whether aimed at indirect subsistence or market sales, fish farms made ordinary people and nature alike submit in new ways to elite cultural preferences and powers.
Otherwise, this development is one of several which clearly differentiate the late Medieval centuries from the earlier ones. The lamprey meanwhile had not lost its status on aristocratic tables. But - by all surviving evidence - its days in fish ponds were done.

UPDATE (11/25/13): Ironically, the lamprey-carp story doesn't end in the Middle Ages:

So one could call this post "The March of the Invasive Species"


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (le Jeune), Sir Roger L'Estrange, Seneca's Morals: By Way of Abstract. To which is Prefixed the Life of the Author 1807

Pliny's Natural History. In Thirty-seven Books 1848

L. Junius Moderatus Columella Of Husbandry: In Twelve Books: and His Book ... 1745

"Leges Langobardorum", Monumenta Germaniae historica: Legum VIII  1868

Isaac Espinasse, A Digest of the Law of Actions at Nisi Prius 1791

The Capitulare de Villis

Richard II, duc de Normandie, confirme à l'abbaye Saint-Ouen de Rouen les bien donnés ou restitués par ses prédécesseurs (1026)

Richard C. Hoffman, "Carp, Cods, Connections" in Animals in Human Histories: The Mirror of Nature and Culture, edited by Mary J. Henninger-Voss, 2002

Félix Bourquelot, "Fragments de comptes du XIIIe siècle", Bibliothèque de l'école des chartes     Year   1863    Volume   24    Issue   24    pp. 51-79  70

Enseignements qui enseingnent a apareillier toutes manieres de viandes

Taillevent, Jérôme Frédéric Pichon, Georges Vicaire, Le viandier de Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent  1892

Jérôme Pichon, Le ménagier de Paris: Traité de morale et d'économie domestique Volume 2  1846

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