Fishing in Viking Age Britain

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Fishing in Viking Age Britain
Viking Age Compendium articles on Crafts:
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Fishing in Viking Age Britain

When the Bishop first came into the kingdom and saw the suffering and 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 along. 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 about Bishop Wilfrid and the conversion of the South Saxons in 680’s AD
[MCCLURE & COLLINS 1969]:p.193

As the quote from Bede above shows, the ability to catch fish was seen as an essential part of Anglo-Saxon life and contributed to the well being and nutrition of a population, as even in times of drought the supply of marine fish would still be available. This story is somewhat discredited by the archaeological finds of conger eel and whiting bones (both marine species) in Bishopstone, Sussex [BELL 1977]. The ability to produce a miraculous fish is also achieved twice by St. Cuthbert and once by St. Martin. This may be because the fish is of Christian symbolic significance, but in a more secular world there were less legal repercussions to fear from finding a fish as opposed to a domestic animal. [HAGEN 2006]:p.164
In the Anglo-Saxon period there would have been a great demand for fish by the monasteries and the rich. Though fresh fish would have been favoured, most must have been preserved. In illustrations fish is often the only identifiable food on the table in front of an individual, who is usually important or even royalty. [HAGEN 2006]:p.171 The want of the rich and the monasteries for fish is recorded in the rents, keeping careful track of how much fish they are all entitled to [HAGEN 2006]:p.165.
From contemporary texts and archaeological finds we have good understanding of the species of fish caught and consumed during the Anglo-Saxon period. How they were caught, prepared, preserved and distributed is a bit more uncertain. But these issues are investigated below and all have much more scope for future research.

Freshwater Fish

We know from Aelfric’s Colloquy that the Anglo-Saxon fisherman would catch “whatever was available”. Aelfric’s fisherman lists pike, minnows, dace, lamprey and sprats. To this list can be also be added carp.

Migratory Fish

These are fish that travel between the sea and fresh water rivers and lakes as part of its lifecycle. Examples include the European eel, salmon, trout, smelt and flatfish. The fisherman from Aelfric’s Colloquy mentions catching eels and smelt in rivers and salmon and flatfish in the sea.


The eel’s life cycle has only recently been understood. In 1920 the Danish biologist, Johannes Schmidt, discovered that both the European and American eels migrate to the Sargasso Sea to mate. Here it is assumed that the adults die. The young then drift back to Europe in the Gulf Stream turning from transparent ‘glass eels’ to their more familiar black skin. The eels then travel upstream and even overland if necessary to reach the place of their mother’s origin. Once their goal is reached they grow over the next 5 to 12 years, reaching lengths of up to 2 foot long before returning back out to the Sargasso Sea. [STONE GAINES 2007]
Eels can be caught by almost every method known to fishing, nets, lines, traps and spears. The method used is dictated by the time of year. Nets can be used to catch young eels moving upstream in spring whereas wicker traps are used in autumn to catch large eels going down river back to the sea. Spears are used in winter when eels are huddled together in the mud at the bottom of estuaries and be used if necessary through holes in the ice. At all times of year baited hooks with meat or fish guts can be used on a line to catch eels at dusk suspended from a slowly moving boat. [STONE GAINES 2007]
Bede thought that the Ely in Cambridgeshire was so named for its eels. [CRAWFORD 2009]:p.100

Marine Fish

Again the fisherman from Aelfric’s Colloquy helpfully supplies us with a list of marine fish that he catches: herring, salmon, sturgeon, and plaice. The marine family of fish known as gadid include cod, haddock, whiting and Pollock and come from the colder more northerly parts of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. It is this latter group that was traded as stockfish by the Norwegians.

The Fish Event Horizon

The types of fish eaten in England can be divided into three periods:

Period 1: C7th – C10th

dominated by Freshwater and Migratory

Period 2: C11th – C12th

more Marine than Fresh Water or Migratory.

Period 3: C13th – C16th

some areas just have Marine

Flatfish, a migratory specimen, are intermediate between C7th and C12th. Site location does not bias the results as a whole. Non Marine species were preferred prior to the end of the 1st millennium AD. Herring increased 4 fold between period 1 and 2. [BARRETT, LOCKER & ROBERTS 2004] It is also interesting that there was no word for cod in Anglo-Saxon prior to the mid 11th century [BARRETT 2007]. At York the fresh water fish found were, pike, roach, rudd, bream, perch and the salt water fish were herring, haddock, flat-fish, ling, horse mackerel and cod. Smelt, eels and salmon were also represented. [HALL 1984]:p.94. It seems that in the late C9th there is a disappearance of Barbell and Grayling bones which may reflect the increase of pollution in the rivers from the growing town [BOND 1999]:p.186. It could be argued that the increase in marine species like cod and herring was due to population growth, particularly in towns, changes in Christian fasting practices and the human impact on fresh water eco systems [BARRETT 2007]:p.202.
In Scotland before the arrival of the Viking the Picts caught small fish from the shore. Once the Viking settlers arrived in the 9th century cod, ling and saithe entered the diet. It is worth noting that the numbers of these fish consumed still increased just like in England in the C11th [BARRETT, LOCKER & ROBERTS 2004].

Stable Isotope analysis

The analysis of human remains for Carbon and Nitrogen isotopes can show what that person’s diet was. It can also show whether the individual had a more vegetarian or carnivorous diet and also distinguish between the use of terrestrial or marine proteins.
A study by Mueldner and Richards [MUELDNER & RICHARDS 2007] looks at the changes in diet over 1500 years in York. The results show a distinct increase in fish consumption around 1000AD.
The study done on people from the Orkneys, showed an increase in the use of marine fish after the arrival of the Vikings around 850AD. This indicates the introduction of new knowledge and dietary habits from Norway [BARRETT 2007].

Comparitive European Evidence

In Norway people always consumed marine species with cod, saithe and ling (and occasionally herring) dominating. In the Baltic Isles herring seems to have been the most popular.

Eating Fish in a religious context

St. Benedict’s Rule was written by Benedict of Nursia (480-547AD) as a guide for his own monastic foundation at Monte Cassino, Italy. At the time it was one of many of these rules. During the reign of Charlemagne it was adopted as the rule for all unified monasteries in the Carolingian empire. From there it spread, as the Benedictine Reformation, through France, Italy, Spain and England in the 10th century. [BARRY 2003]:p.61

` Everyone should abstain completely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals except, of course, the sick whose strength needs building up`
The Benedictine rule regarding the consumption of meat [BARRY 2003]:p.61

This implies that members of the clergy would consume only fish and poultry, while the lay people would have been prohibited meat during lent and on fast days. Although, as Hagen [HAGEN 2006]:p.397 points out, a fasting diet would not have differed much from the everyday diet for the poor people.In the later medieval period tail of beaver, frogs, puffins and barnacle geese were classified as fish to get around the no-meat rule. However there are no indications this took place during the Anglo-Saxon period [HAGEN 2006]:p.405.

Catching Fish

Salmon is called a common hunt, because when they are taken in a net, or with a fish spear, or in any other manner, if any person whatever come up before they are divided, he is entitled to an equal share of them, with the person who caught them, if it be in a common water.

The hunting laws of Cambria- Wales C10th
[WILSON 1976]:p.389

The quote above describes a number of ways of catching fish.

Line fishing

This includes handline fishing, where the line is held in the hand, angling, where the line is attached to a rod and long line fishing where a number of hooks are placed on a line suspended across a river. Evidence for the use of a fishing rod being used in the C11th comes from an Anglo-Saxon illustration dated to c.1000AD in Belgium, Damme, Musee Van Maerlant fol. 2v T-M:T53. The Anomalous Welsh Laws mentions “taking fish on hooks”. And a C10th legend mentions a fishing line of hemp being sold in Lincoln. [HAGEN 2006]:p.158 The large fish hooks found at York have been interpreted as possibly being used for long line marine fishing. [HALL 1984]:p.94 Perforated antler burrs normally identified as spindle- whorls may in fact have been used for fishing [MACGREGOR 1985]:p.187. Net-sinkers found individually may have been used for line fishing particularly in deep water [ROESDAHL & WILSON 1992]:p.248 cat.85 for bone and horn fishing and bible quotes

Fish Spears

Fishing with the aid of spears has been done since antiquity and spearheads with 2 or more prongs are commonly attributed to this purpose. In winter spears were used to catch eels huddled together in the mud at the bottom of estuaries and could be used if necessary through holes in the ice [STONE GAINES 2007].


Wicker baskets used as traps are mentioned in Aelfric’s colloquy. An example of a fishweir from archaeology can be found at Colwick in Nottinghamshire and dated to the 8th or 9th centuries. Weirs were constructed by a V shape of wattle hurdles placed in a river that funnel the fish towards a basket trap. Other archaeological remains have been found at Castle Donington and Lincoln [BOND 1999]:p.186. Artificial fish ponds seem to have been rare before the end of the C11th.
Charter references to inland river fisheries occur from the C7th onwards, often they indicate some form of fixed weir containing traps [BOND 1999]:p.186. Archbishop Wulfstan described the construction of fish weirs on an estate as one of the tasks during summer. There must have been many in C11th England as King Edward the confessor in the 1060’s ordered the destruction of the fisheries that were blocking the flow of the river Thames. [LACEY & DANZIGER 1999]:p.59

With Nets

Vikings may have introduced some form of drift net which would explain the significant increase in herring bones in late Saxon Ipswich [BOND 1999]:p.185 [CRAWFORD 2009]:p.100 Along the coast a variety of stake nets and foreshore weirs were used to trap fish from the outgoing tide. [BOND 1999]:p.186

There is evidence of finds at Birka and Ribe these too were made from nettle-hemp [GREEN 1993]. A tenant of the manor Tidenham was expected to provide a ball of good net twine [HAGEN 2006]:p.159. The Gwentian Code gives values for different types of net with a bow net being valued at 4d and a salmon net at 24d. According to the Anomalous Welsh Laws a fishing net was large enough to entangle an ox. [HAGEN 2006]:p.159 Soapstone net-sinkers have been found in the Faroes [ROESDAHL & WILSON 1992]:p.310 cat.316. In York 2 were found of lead and 1 of stone [MAINMAN & ROGERS 2000:p.2535]. A pebble shaped stone net-sinker from Norway has grooves cut across its surface in a cross, rather than being perforated like the York example. [ROESDAHL & WILSON 1992]:p.248 cat.85

Trout Tickling

The Greek work of Halieutica written by Oppian describes catching fish by hand. A better description is supplied by another Greek, Aelian in circa 230AD, when he describes, “If men wade into the sea, when the water is low, end stroking the fish nestling in the pools, suddenly lay hands upon and secure them”. Trout when they have their bellies rubbed will go into a trance easily allowing them to be plucked out of the water. As the process uses no equipment what so ever, making it the ideal choice for poachers, we are unlikely to ever conclusively prove that the technique was used by the late Saxons.


The fisherman from Aelfric’s Colloquy mentions oysters, crabs, mussels, cockles and lobsters as all being caught by him in the sea. Bede also mentions shellfish and mussels that contain pearls as well as whelks from which scarlet dye is made. This list follows on from other edible species (whale, seal and porpoise), possibly indicating these too were eaten. [HAGEN 2006]
At York oysters were eaten in significant numbers much as they had been since the Roman era. Cockles, mussels and winkles were also harvested but in much smaller numbers [HALL 1984]:p.94. In fact so many oyster shells were recovered at York that once catalogued they were given away to visitors of the dig as souvenirs. Remains of various molluscs have been found at numerous archaeological sites near the coast: Bishopstone, Sussex; Portchester Castle; Poole, Dorset; Braunton Burrows, North Dorset; Mawgan Porth, Cornwall; Gosport House, Hampshir; and Ipswich. [HAGEN 2006]:p.169
More interestingly remains of molluscs have also been found at inland sites such as Sedgeford (5 miles inland), Thetford (40 miles) [WILSON 1976]:p.389, and in smaller numbers in Bedford (80 miles inland). [HAGEN 2006]:p.170
Saxon sites also produce lots of oysters but these are mostly near the coast or with easy access by river to the coast. Deterioration of the roads with the exit of the invaders and poorer organisation meant that oysters could not be sent far. To date there is still no evidence for farming or cultivation of oysters. [WINDER 2010]:p.5


When I but see the oyster’s shell,
I look and recognise the river, marsh or mud,
Where it was raised.”

Ascribed to the Roman Lucilius

It is often suggested that Oyster cultivation was introduced by the Romans but to date no physical or documentary evidence has been found to support this. Lucilius observation is astute as it is indeed often possible to determine the origin of Oyster shells by their appearance as they are affected by their environment. The average size of the oysters eaten by the Anglo-Saxons is slightly but significantly smaller than those from Roman sites. [WINDER 2010]:p.5
At Poole, Dorset a vast midden of oyster shells carbon dated to the late Saxon period represents between 28.56 and 57.12 tonnes of raw oyster meat. No other food remains were found in the midden, indicating the oysters may have been harvested, opened and preserved (pickling or salting) for re-distribution. [HAGEN 2006]:p.169
No hard evidence has yet come to light for oyster fishing during the Viking Age. Not much in the way of excavated structures or objects. Neither is there much ancient documentary evidence for oyster fishing. Having said this it is likely that oysters were harvested by dredging. Dredging frames today are made from a steel frame with a bag of iron rings towed by a boat. It is said that in the past the bag was sometimes made of slotted cow-hide that caused less damage to the oyster bed. (Winder personnel communication)
Waste oyster shells have a number of uses, they can, for example, be returned to the sea bed as cultch on which oyster spat can settle; used to fertilise (lime) the fields; be used in the manufacture of lime; crushed for chicken feed, shell-tempered pottery, medicines and cosmetics; used as hardcore, for paths and yard surfaces; and used as mortar for stone work. [WINDER 2010]:p.3

Other Marine Food

The swell lifted the fish up onto the cliff bank.
The whale became sad where he swam on the shingle. Whale’s bone.”

Feelings of a stranded whale as written on the Frank’s casket - which is made of whale bone...
[HAGEN 2006]:p.165

Whales and porpoises

In Aelfric’s Colloquy the opportunity of whaling is mentioned in the conversation with the fisherman, but does not appeal to the fishermen because of the danger involved, despite the fortune that can be made from it. This indicates that these large sea mammals were hunted, but to what extent is unclear. Artefacts made from cetacean bone have been found such as the sword pommel and comb at York [MACGREGOR, MAINMAN & ROGERS 1999] and a board (the use of which is debated) found at Ely [BJORN & SHETELIG 1940].
Besides hunting the other method of getting both whale meat and bone is from those animals stranded on the beach. There is a welsh law which states that any fish, dead or alive, washed up on the beach belonged to the king, but if not claimed for three days could be taken by anyone. The three day rule seems not to have applied in England though. [HAGEN 2006]:p.165
The Anglo-Saxon term mereswyn (sea pig) is often mistakenly translated with Dolphin, though the animal is most definitely a Porpoise. Though they both belong to the order of Cetacea, along with whales, they are very different animals. Porpoises are smaller, shyer and live in colder waters of the northern hemisphere, including around the British Isles. Dolphins on the other hand live in the warmer waters of the pacific.
Both Whale and Porpoise were called 'fat fish' or 'blubber fish' and were considered a delicacy and paid a higher duty at London Bridge than normal fish did [HAGEN 2006]:p.166. The reason for this is most likely that the fat preserves much better and would have been a much needed and appreciated high calorie food.
Porpoises are mentioned by Aelfric’s fisherman as one of the fish that he catches in the sea, as well as being mentioned in legal documents [HAGEN 2006]:p.167. Bede also mentions the capture of seals, whales and porpoises [HAGEN 2006]:p.157. A miracle contributed to St.Cuthbert was the miraculous appearance of three portions of Porpoise flesh, enough to feed him and his two companions for three days [HAGEN 2006]:p.164.


Guillemot bones have been found in York and may have been a marine delicacy [HALL 1984]:p.96. Bones of various Gull species were found at West Stow and Hamwic. Gulls were also part of the diet in Viking age Kvivik in the Faroe Islands. [HAGEN 2006]:p.141ff


...Who could fill his cellar or storeroom without my skill?
Look, you would even lose your butter and cheese, and you can’t even enjoy your vegetables without making use of me.

The Salter in Aelfric’s Colloquy

Different methods of preserving would have been available to the Anglo-Saxon people, most of which are described below. Open air drying would have been difficult in the climate of the British Isles. So a combination of smoke curing and salting is the most likely way to effectively preserve fish in this country.


In the cold, sunny air of Norway cod could be dehydrated to a point where it would keep almost indefinitely. In this state it was exported to England [HAGEN 2006]:p.158, as reported in Egil’s saga from the C9th [BOND 1999]:p.185. Drying can be achieved in the sun, in the open air, by a fire or in an oven or kiln, and where fish is concerned it works better on the less oily fish like flounder or cod [HAGEN 2006]:p.275. Fish dried by being hung on the front of ships may have helped Vikings reach distant locations like Greenland.


Salting works by drawing water across the cell membrane of some bacteria, stopping them from causing decay. Salting also impregnates the food stuff with acid. Ideally a combination of coarse bay salt and finer, refined salt is used for preserving, as the coarse salt slowly penetrates the meat all the way through while the finer salt quickly seals the surface.
Dry salting would have been more expensive than brining as more salt is required, and the salt has to be processed more. [HAGEN 2006]:p.276ff
Herring was often transported in barrels of brine.


Smoke is a complex substance that contains alcohols, acids, phenolic compounds and some toxins, which inhibit bacterial activity and retard fat oxidation, not to mention giving the food a characteristic flavour. Smoking works best on oily fish like herring. Smoking could have been achieved in purpose built smoking huts or incidentally while hung up in a smoky house.[HAGEN 2006]:p.275


Pickling can be done in salty brine, vinegar or honey. Which method you choose depends mainly on what food stuff you are preserving. For fish brine would have been used. [HAGEN 2006]:p.276


In Anglo-Scandinavian York a roman building was used for fish processing as seen in the compacted layer of scales and bones. It contained about 40,000 fish remains [HALL 1978]:p.34, [WENHAM 1987]:p.77, [BOND 1999]:p.186.
Romans transported oysters inland to towns. Oysters packed correctly can stay fresh for up to 10 days. During the Anglo-Saxon period oysters seem to have been mainly found at their place of origin. This may be due to the deterioration in roads making travel to inland towns difficult within the 10 day window [WINDER 2010]:p.5.
First written record C12th – herring salt-cured wet in barrels [BARRETT 2007]
Doomsday book records 68,000 herrings a year being produced at Dunwich [BOND 1999]:p.185

See Also



Barrett, J.H.; Locker, A.M. and Roberts, C.M. (2004) 'Dark Age Economics revisited: The English fish bone evidence AD 600-1600'. pp.618-636. Antiquity: Vol.78(301) [BARRETT, LOCKER & ROBERTS 2004] ^ 1 2 *
Barrett, James (2007) 'Sea Fishing and long term Socio-economic trends in North Western Europe'. In Graham-Campbell, James (ed.) (2007) The Archaeology of Medieval Europe. [BARRETT 2007] ^ 1 2 3 4 *
Barry, Patrick (2003) 'Saint Benedict's Rule, A New Translation for Today'. In Marett-Crosby, Anthony (2003) The Benedictine Handbook. [BARRY 2003] ^ 1 2 *
Bell, Martin (1977) 'Excavations at Bishopstone'. Sussex Archaeological Collection: Vol.115. [BELL 1977] ^ *
Bjorn, Anathon, and Shetelig, Haakon (1940) Viking Antiquities in England. Edited by Haakon Shetelig. (Available Online) Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland: Part 4 [BJORN & SHETELIG 1940] ^ *
Bond, C. J. (1999) 'Fishing'. In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon and Scragg, Donald (1999) The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. [BOND 1999] ^ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 *
Crawford, Sally (2009) Daily life in Anglo-Saxon England. [CRAWFORD 2009] ^ 1 2 *
[GREEN 1993] ^ *
Hagen, Anne (2006) Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink. Anglo-Saxon Books [HAGEN 2006] ^ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 *
Hall, Richard (ed.) (1978) Viking Age York and the North. CBA Research Report: no.27 [HALL 1978] ^ *
Hall, Richard (1984) The Viking Dig. [HALL 1984] ^ 1 2 3 4 *
Lacey, Robert and Danziger, Danny (1999) The Year 1000. What life was like at the turn of the Millennium. [LACEY & DANZIGER 1999] ^ *
MacGregor, Arthur (1985) Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn, The Technology of Skeletal Materials since the Roman Period. Barnes & Noble Books. [MACGREGOR 1985] ^ *
MacGregor, Arthur; Mainman, A. J. and Rogers, N.S.H. (1999) Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn from Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. York Archaeological Trust: 17/12 [MACGREGOR, MAINMAN & ROGERS 1999] ^ *
McClure, Judith & Collins, Roger (1969) Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford World's Classics. Republished 1999. [MCCLURE & COLLINS 1969] ^ *
Mueldner, G. And Richards, M.P. ‘Stable Isotope Evidence for 1500 Years of Human Diet at the City of York, UK’ American Journal of Physical Anthropology 133: 682-697. 2007. [MUELDNER & RICHARDS 2007] ^ *
Roesdahl, Else, and Wilson, David M. (eds.) (1992) From Viking to Crusader, The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200. Nordic Council of Ministers. [ROESDAHL & WILSON 1992] ^ 1 2 3 *
Stone Gaines, Jennifer. ‘Eel Fishing’ in Spritsail, Vol.21 No.1. 2007. [STONE GAINES 2007] ^ 1 2 3 *
Wenham, L.P.; Hall, R.A.;Briden, C.M.; Stocker, D.A. (1987) St Mary Bishophill Junior and St Mary Castlegate York Archaeological Trust: 08/2 [WENHAM 1987] ^ *
Wilson, David M. (ed.) (1976) The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England. [WILSON 1976] ^ 1 2 *
Winder, Jessica. Two thousand years of eating oysters in the UK: An archaeological perspective. 2010. [WINDER 2010] ^ 1 2 3 4 *

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