Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Bishop's Sea: Fishing and "The Feudal Anarchy of the Year 1000:" Or 2020, Even


From January through October of this year, and most especially through the Canadian lockdown, I helped operate a "corner store" concept for my company --4000 sq feet of grocery attached to a pharmacy in the Oakridge shopping mall. An unwelcome legacy of the old Oakridge store was a queue of items that had gone out of stock just before the old store shut off automatic replenishment. Unless we manually removed them from outgoing orders, we got a very eclectic set of items, again and again. 

Yes, they included an  item identified as kippered herring, although as far as I can tell it's not quite the same preparation as the kippered herring that comes in cans. These particular kippered herrings had to be stored frozen and cooked before eating. I bought a couple and they were . . okay. Products of the Scottish herring fishery, they are Relevant to events of today, as fishing rights come up under Brexit. Foreigners fish some fishing grounds in British waters, and it is perhaps a matter of urgency that they be made to stop. Because of conservation. Or jobs. The fact that the British are great fishers but terrible seafood enthusiasts is a very interesting subtext to the discussion, and perhaps a historical question of some significance. 

Getting back to the fish I ate (not a normal part of my diet, either), Alison Mary Locker explains that these short-life preservation techniques came into vogue in Nineteenth Century London because the fish would last long enough to be distributed by costermonger, but didn't ask too much in the way of cooking equipment and time. She's probably not the only historian to explain such things, but, in comparison with agrarian history, there's a bit of shortage of fishing/salt industry historians. In spite of that, there's been some movement in the field in the last few decades, perhaps not entirely synthesised yet. (I keep finding references to Kurlansky's Salt in academic monographs. Surely if there was something less popular, it would be cited instead?)

(By some kind of miracle I actually found one of the songs that CBC Radio wakes me up with)

This week's title references George Duby's concept of a feudal revolution around the year 1000. According to Duby, the sudden and irreversible collapse of the Carolingian order around the millennium led to its replacement by "private" lordly power exercised through extended families of a larger aristocratic class. Because of the collapse of state power, the result is the appearance of "feudal anarchy," while the privatisation and decentralisation of armed conflict creates the perception of a more violent time. The profession has moved on far enough from Duby to be profoundly suspicious of the picture he presents without being able to set the fundamental insight aside. The last time I checked into the field seriously, the way forward appeared to be the deconstruction of the totalising concept of "feudalism." Given its grip on the larger world of letters, good luck with that, I say. 

If I were Simon Schama I would now take my picture of frying herring and write an entire book about it and make a million billion dollars. But I'm not, alas, I'm me. Instead I am going to try to anchor this post around one bit of scholarship and one bit of eccentric reading. The scholarship is about yet another revolution of the turbulent turn of the millennium: The "fish event horizon" of the year 1000. People, English people, more specifically, it seems, went from eating no fish in the Iron Age, to a little fish in Roman times, to a little more fish in the early Anglo-Saxon period, to eating a lot of fish around 1000AD. Based on fairly solid archaeological evidence, herring took off before cod. On the basis of more slender evidence, the cod consumed in England was locally caught until the 1300s, whereas northern Norwegian cod appears as a trade good at a Viking-era Danish emporium

The eccentric bit of reading is a potted history of the "British Fisheries Society," an offshoot of the Highland Society of London, founded to bring about "improvements" in the lives of Highlanders by teaching them to fish (their plight being rather desperate due to various Scottish gentlemen of London being energetically engaged in enclosing their crofts):

A fellow named Mr John Knox (not the John Knox; another one) proposed the building of fishing villages in the Highlands and Islands. From the map you would think that there were already plenty of them, well filled with fishers exploiting the rich Scottish herring grounds. But there were not. And this is an interesting fact! Knox proposed 50 fishing villages be built in the Highlands containing about 30 or 40 houses with gardens as well as harbours, storehouses, curing sheds, schools, churches etc. These fishing settlements would in turn create work for various tradesmen such as boat builders and craftsmen of various kinds, as well as a focal point for fish curers and merchants, paid for by subscription. Meanwhile, in 1775, George Dempster, MP, visited the Hebrides, returning to suggest the formation of a House of Commons Committee of enquiry to consider all aspects of the British fisheries, but especially the high salt duty. 

 It was probably a report of Dempster's Commons Fisheries Committee that was my actual "eccentric reading," and thank all the small gods of scholarship for UBC's former practice of putting the House of Commons occasional papers on the open shelves for browsers. I have not been able to find it online, and my current source will have to do in this time of COVID. The Committee followed up on Knox's proposal with a more modest scheme for two settlements, and also temporised in Knox's more ambitious scheme of full infrastructure, proposing that the inshore fishers of the new villages be allowed to sell directly to big busses, a sort of Eighteenth Century precursor to factory ships.  proposed that a society be set up with private money in order to build fishing villages and harbour facilities on the north west coast of Scotland, very much in line with the proposals put forward by John Knox and others. They also recommended strongly that the small boat fishermen might be allowed to sell their fish to the large British busses because of the complete absence of any worthwhile markets for herring in the Highlands at that time. 

Jean Dunlop's potted 1952 history of the Society continues:

By 1800, a shift in herring migration routes led to "the rise of Pulteneytown and the decline of Ullapool and Lochbay." Somewhat confusingly, Pulteneytown is rising again in 1830, when cholera caused fishers to divert to other ports, many not returning, although "famine and apathy [i]n the west" can hardly have helped, and the Directorate sold its western property and undertook harbour works at Caithness. The deaths of an  entire village of fishers at Wick trying to pass the narrow harbour entrance while fleeing a storm in 1830, and the 1873 failure of the breakwater at Caithness underline the importance of this sort of work. 

 "It has already been shown that the disappearance of the herring after 1798 ruined Ullapool," Dunlop says.  The failure, Dunlop goes on to say, had  less obvious, but important impacts on the Society. Concerned about the possibility of bad years, the Directors  "gave the settlers land and the chance of alternative employment in industry to help them over occasional bad years." This is Knox's garden scheme.  

This brought out what Dunlop calls the Society's "inherent clash of interests." A "benevolent joint stock company," the Society was founded on commercial lines, while the Directors were elected to promote the fisheries. The Directors wanted flourishing settlements that supported flourishing fisheries. The original subscribers needed dividends from the rents on cottages and gardens, and certainly not dues for poor relief. The Society, splitting the difference, found its benevolent promotion of the fishery gradually mutating into the role of absentee landlords of villages unable to find reliable local agents. Had the villages developed according to Knox's original and ambitious plans for secondary processing, the villages would have supported the kind of professionals that the Society could put its premodern faith in, but no bankers or "writers" settled in these towns. (An interesting parallel is drawn with the "Board of Manufactures' linen stations," apparently a parallel undertaking and failure.)  A perverse consequence of this is that, because the settlers were expected to build their own cottages (on Society land) to the Society's plans, they exhausted their capital before buying boats or nets, while the Society's own reserves were spent on infrastructure. Boats and nets, perhaps the most important aspect of the scheme, were neglected in favour of real estate that could only have value if the fisheries flourished. 

". . . [The] case for too much land was that the settlements would not prosper until there emerged a class of professional fishermen as distinct from crofter-fishermen since the essential work of hay and harvest always came at the height of the fishing season. This proved true on the north east where great progress was made as soon as the two occupations of farmer and fisherman were separated, which began to happen after 1800. In the west . . . the supply of food for landless fishermen [was] more difficult . . . . The Directors found that they had to give some land or they would have attracted no settlers. They therefore allowed each man a garden for vegetables, arable to grow potatoes and fodder, and grazing for one cow. This did not produce enough food to live on and the tenant was expected to spend the money he earned at the fishery on oatmeal and other necessities brought from the south by trading companies. The movement of the herring overthrew this economic balance leaving the settlers dependent only on their land. The Directors were condemned for collecting people into villages without adequate means of support from the land, and blamed for the consequent destitution which was more serious in Lochbroom than in any other highland parish except Gairloch."

 Apart from the attractive and well-built villages of Ullapool and Lochbay, which finally developed an integrated fishing industry after the Second World War, it was the success of Pulteneytown that was said to justify the Society. With a residual Nineteenth Century paternalism (I've skipped a long section on the "Highland character," complete with gallant Highland regiments), dunlop credits the Agents before moving on to the Independent traders who built the infrastructure for secondary processing and provided equipment for the local fishermen. "Finally the Society received high rents not only for building lots but also for open spaces to be used as curing grounds while fishing and trading vessels produced a large annual sum in harbour dues."

Without being excessively cynical, it would seem as though the industry had a better grip on the preconditions of fishing port success than did the Society, and that the main success of the Society's efforts of improvement and benevolence lay in its development into a significant absentee landlord collecting healthy rents in Pulteneytown.  There is also the problem of the migrations, or alleged migrations, of the herring. An 1877 Commons inquiry suggested that the most important reason for the failure of local fisheries was migration of fishers, not fish. The more productive fishers tended to migrate to successful towns, catches collapsed, and with them so did the landings that supported curing grounds, storehouses and harbours. 

And the mysterious factor that accounts for flourishing of Pulteneytown and the decay of Ullapool and Lochbay? Proximity to market. As Alison Mary Locker explains, cutting through much geographical determinism, it is not proximity to the sea that determines the availability of seafood in a local market; nor (all other things being equal) the presence of fish in  particular waters that determines the size of a local fishery. It is the relationship between industry and market. Paris might be 150 miles inland and be served by a high-speed carriage trade bringing fresh fish to market, but Paris is Paris. (In much the same way, London is London.) 

This extended diversion into a certain scheme of improvement bears on the mysterious dawning of 1000AD mainly focussing our attention on what might otherwise be neglected details: Work force, markets, secondary processing and class relations. I've been holding the "gardens" issue in my head for some years now, and it has informed my reading of Barrett on "anthropogenic soils." It isn't accidental that the fishing event horizon coincides with the formation of human-made soils on the northern isles, and it is not just the detritus of fishing that explains it. Established fishing communities  need "gardens," and there are tensions between gardens and actual fishing. 

The rise of markets as an explanation for increased fishing has another implication. Whatever we make of the "feudal anarchy of the Year 1000," it can't have been caused by, or led to, an economic recession --not if the fisheries evidence is our guide. On the contrary, this fragmentation of comital control and rise of local and private lordship and concomitant decentralised violence needs, on this evidence, to be understood as growth pains in the European economy. The markets that Locker identifies, mainly thanks to the survival of domestic records, are abbeys. She tentatively suggests an explanation for monastic consumption of seafood rooted in mentalite as well as church law, seafood perhaps being seen as a more suitable died for the clerical life than meat. But there is also something to be said about the extent to which the great abbeys must have been drawn into market relations with entrepreneurs who will encourage fishers while making the connections needed to deliver seafood, especially more exotic and higher status catches. 

Of course, I don't imagine that archaeologists counting fish bones are going to be allowed to overturn grand historical schemes, but this is a conclusion I feel sure enough in my bones for enough other reasons to press. The Society's tendency to devolve into rentiers also tells us something about how labour needs must have been organised during the fishing event horizon. Owning fishing grounds was futile; planters needed to own the labour. Exactly how capital came to own the floating proletariat is another question --it might have been as innocuous as wage labour; or, at the other extreme, slavery in all but name. 

Finally, I opened with cures, and will end with them. The serial rise of herring and cod doesn't have an obvious explanation. Technological explanations (trawling is first mention in thirteenth century law codes) don't help us very much with the Hedeby evidence, which suggests that the Norwegian stockfish trade was underway by 1000AD. If Locker is right to describe demand for seafood as being ultimately related to protein deficient diets, then cod, and not herring ought to be preferred by the consumer. What does help is consideration of the costs and infrastructure associated with each fish. Cod, outside of northern Norway and Iceland, is cured by drying and smoking --with fuel, in other words. Herring can be hard cured with just a very strong brine, although the final product is usually given at least a light smoking, or with some drying and less salt. Either way, herring's relatively oily flesh makes it more economical to cure. Or, at least, herring might require less onshore infrastructure, curing grounds aside. Some kind of investigation of the medieval salt industry on the same level of rigour as the BAR-sponsored work on the Iron Age trade, might be in order.

This finally leads me to at least a tentative suggestion for the United Kingdom's resistance to seafood. Meat is just too cheap there. Having passed all too lightly over Paris' magnetic attraction to seafood, I will extend the story. On the continent, there are more markets for livestock, and less danger of low prices on the urban meat markets that might lead to livestock being slaughtered at home. Even impoverished Scotland is covered off by this hypothesis. Yes, a crofter would prefer to sell an old sheep in town. But what if there's no town? (The danger being that the labour will go away to where the meat will not.)


  1. Interesting. In both Mauritania and Somalia, fishermen
    were traditionally looked down upon by the herder majority, who in Somalia refuse to eat it at all - fish is fit only for vassals too weak to defend herds of their own, more or less. I wonder if similar attitudes might have been found in the Highlands at some point.

    Incidentally, there's some classic linguistic work on "fisherfolk" dialects of Gaelic by Nancy Dorian. These villages, bringing together dispossessed people from far afield, apparently showed an amazing degree of internal dialect variation, with even members of a single family often using strikingly different forms.

  2. a couple of other things:

    1) fish and chips! how does that fit into your theory? of course the fish has to be fresh, and a good chippy is one that has a good wholesale fish market connection.
    2) the old school navy thing of sailors refusing to eat fish - Lameen's point might bear on this.
    3) kippers are one of those products where the gap between the basic and the good is huge.

    1. Fish and chips are certainly the great exception to this idea that the English eat beef and foreigners across the Channel eat whatever they can get their hands on, including fish. But it is deep fried food, so there's also the fat (and chips) to take into account. The whole is dietarily satisfactory, and the frying is a social signal of at least some minimal level of status.

      Also, deep frying goes together naturally with whaling and sealing.

    2. OFF TOPIC BLURT: have you seen this?

      Ballistics, coastal trade, the great siege, and the tarmacking of the roads!