Medieval(ish) matters #3: the salmon of knowledge, rolling Roman mosaics, eels, and Crusades

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove rounds up the latest medieval content on the website this week – and gets a little bit distracted by fishy business, mosaic preservation, and medieval life and death

A Pictish stone carving featuring a salmon

I’ve become a little bit fixated by the ‘salmon of knowledge’ and the ‘fish event horizon’ this week. More on that in a moment though, because I’ve been quite diverted by the small matter of how exactly you can roll up a Roman mosaic (remember this blog is medieval-ish so I can do Roman if I want to). This post on Twitter by the curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, shows a very curious photo of some people in the 1960s apparently doing just that:

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Further investigation revealed that eminent archaeologist Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe was involved and actually in the picture. He’s spoken at our events before, so I dropped him a line to see if he would explain what was going on – and you can read what he told me here.


For more on Roman Britain, get the lowdown in my recent podcast with Dr Miles Russell:


Anyway, back to that salmon.

A fascinating piece of research came out the other day on the skeletons of the former occupants of the Pictish coastal site of Portmahomack, which has indicated that they did not eat fish. The Picts were one of Scotland’s earliest civilisations, with a sophisticated culture that flourished in what’s now northern and eastern Scotland in the late Iron Age/early medieval period.

Did these Picts eat fish?

Portmahomack was occupied first from 550-700 AD as a ‘high-ranking centre’ (as described by its excavator Professor Martin Carver) and then in the 8th century as a Christian monastery, until Viking raids around 800 AD put paid to that. It was swiftly reoccupied as a trading and manufacturing centre. We know this because it has been subject to detailed and long-running excavation: it’s open source, so you can read the full report on the excavations, carried out by Professor Carver from 1994–2007.

Pictish sea power is evident from archaeological remains

The new bone analysis report states that “no significant amounts of marine or freshwater fish were consumed by the Pictish lay or monastic communities”. According to Bradford University’s Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, who carried out the research, this might have been deliberate: “Pictish sea power is evident from archaeological remains of naval bases, as at Burghead, and references to their ships in contemporary annals, so we know they were familiar with the sea and would surely have been able to fish,” she says.

“We also know from Pictish stone carvings that salmon was a very important symbol for them, possibly derived from earlier superstitious and folklore beliefs that include stories about magical fish, such as the ‘salmon of knowledge’, believed to have contained all the wisdom in the world. It’s possible that fish were considered so special by the Picts that consumption was deliberately avoided.”

Some other researchers have expressed reservations about this interpretation. Dr Charles West of the University of Sheffield pointed out to me that, “Although the Picts aren’t as mysterious as they used to be, thanks in large part to archaeological excavations such as this one, we still know relatively little about their cultural practices, so it might be best to exercise caution before drawing any definite conclusions from this new evidence.”

In response to this, Dr Curtis-Summers replied: “I agree, there is still a lot more to understand about Pictish lifeways and culture. However, by combining archaeological evidence such as faunal remains with direct dietary evidence from stable isotope analysis, we are one step closer to understanding, at least in part, subsistence practices of Pictish inhabitants.”

‘Fish event horizon’

It is interesting to note that in England, from the 7th to the 10th centuries AD, an analysis of fish bone assemblages has indicated that “virtually all catches were dominated by freshwater and migratory species”, so people generally weren’t exploiting marine resources much up to that point. It seems that there was a huge increase in marine fishing from c 1000 AD onwards, an event described, quite splendidly in my view, by Dr James Barrett and colleagues at the University of York, as the ‘fish event horizon’.

According to Dr Curtis-Summers: “Previous isotope analysis of fish bones from Orkney has been conducted by Dr Barrett that also suggested no fish intake. However, archaeological evidence from other Orcadian sites has produced large quantities of fish bones during this period that do suggest fish consumption, so you can see the complexities of reconstructing past diets with such conflicting evidence. The burials at Portmahomack however, represent one of the few Pictish human remains collections in northern Pictland that enables us to reconstruct diet directly from the body and compare with faunal remains, rather than just relying on archaeological evidence alone.”

Further back in time, there is some evidence that fish were not consumed widely in the Iron Age, which has led some to infer that there may have been a taboo associated with eating them then, though others have concluded that it’s more to do with an increased focus on the importance of agriculture in society.

Anglo-Saxon documentary sources before the eleventh century say hardly anything about marine fishing

It’s curious to note that “the Anglo-Saxon documentary sources before the eleventh century say hardly anything about marine fishing” (I enjoyed a chapter by Maryanne Kowaleski in The Archaeology and History of Medieval Sea Fishing that goes into detail about this).

There is a reference in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People to the 7th-century bishop Wilfrid having to teach the pagan south saxons how to catch fish, because they were only any good at harvesting eels (though, of course, this isn’t necessarily comparable to Scotland). You can read a nice summary of the story in the blog of eel historian Dr John Wyatt Greenlee (who has a piece forthcoming on eels for BBC History Magazine, so look out for that).

In about the year 1000, the monk Aelfric of Eynsham produced a colloquy – or conversational teaching aid – to help students learn Latin, which includes a dialogue with a fisherman about what he catches and how. It’s a good read. The fisherman talks about catching mostly river species and sea fish only “rarely, because it is a lot of rowing for me to the sea”. Understandably, he’s not keen on catching whales because that is obviously a potentially dicey enterprise. This document would align broadly in time with the ‘fish event horizon’. Anyway, it’s up for discussion as to exactly why, and how far, fish (particularly marine fish) may have been off the menu in the Iron Age and early medieval periods, and the Portmahomack analysis adds to the conversation.

Fish was certainly eaten later in the medieval period

Moving on, fish was certainly eaten later in the medieval period, particularly as a fast day foodstuff. According to Prof Chris Woolgar, writing in the book Food in Medieval England, “By about 1300, fasting had produced a pattern of consumption among the laity that frequently led to abstinence from meat, often substituting fish, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; throughout the season of Lent; the eves of the great Marian feasts; the eves of the feasts of the apostles; and the three days before the Ascension.” Come back to this web site next week for a virtual lecture in our special Medieval Life and Death week (more below), on food in the Middle Ages from Prof Woolgar: he talks about fish in his lecture and I quiz him about eels afterwards. I’m reminded too that Prof Judith Jesch talked about how air-dried fish became an important food source in the Viking age on our ‘Everything you want to know’ podcast conversation last week.


Listen: Judith Jesch responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Scandinavian people


On the subject of our ‘Everything you want to know’ podcast series, I had a tremendous chat with Professor Rebecca Rist about the Crusades on Wednesday. We cast the net wide and covered a lot of ground, so hopefully it’ll be a good listen. It’s out a week Sunday. This week’s podcast (dropping Sunday) in that series is Professor Diarmaid Macculloch on the English Reformation; you can read his piece on the European Reformation on the site already.

I’ve talked a bit before in this blog about how much fun it is to investigate the historic landscape from above, using readily available aerial maps and lidar sources, so I was pleased to see this report on a project that’s revealing a wealth of new sites on the Devon/Cornwall border. My former PhD supervisor Professor Steve Rippon is behind that project, which is brilliant because it’s getting volunteers involved in trawling the countryside for overlooked landscape archaeology.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m trying to learn Old Norse in lockdown. Progress has stalled a bit I fear, due to me struggling to get to grips with verb inflexions, and because I’ve been spending most of my spare time checking over the films for our virtual medieval festival next week. Aside from Chris Woolgar on food, we have Hannah Skoda on medieval violence, Sally Dixon-Smith on medieval love and marriage, Elma Brenner on medieval medicine and Emma Wells on medieval religion. I hope you’ll be hooked enough to join us for those talks. And come back to hear what I’m blogging about next week – I promise it won’t be about fish, but I can’t promise it won’t be about Viking Age log boats (spoiler, it will).

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove