Fish on Friday Book Review

Fish on Friday Book Review

By Donald McKenzie

December 23, 2021

I started reading Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World in late November. I thought it would be a good read that would fit in well during Advent. Well, here I am at the end of the day on December 22. Advent is almost over, and I’m finally putting my thoughts to laptop screen.

Fish on Friday cover
Fish on Friday cover photo

Nowadays, Advent is simply a run up to Christmas. What was once a season of penitence and abstinence(with feasts thrown in to break up the monotony), is now a season of partying and indulgence. If you think I am overstating things, Check out this list

Fish on Friday: The Emergence of Cod

Brian Fagan, author of Fish on Friday, is an archeologist whose website describes his work as:

Popular Writings About Archaeology and Past Climate Change

Fish on Friday certainly falls into that category. On top of that Fagan has added religious history, and ocean going explorers to this book.

The basic premise of Fish on Friday is that our notion of how Europeans arrived in the Americans is incorrect. The traditional view of Columbus and Cabot as fearless explorers sailing out into the unknown doesn’t quite add up.

Instead, Fagan proposes that Columbus, et al, were able to make their trips, and gain sponsorship for those trips, because of the groundwork laid by centuries of fishing boats going out into the Atlantic to search for fish, particularly Cod. These fisher folk were the fearless ones. The ones who braved the seas, and created the routes that Columbus, Cabot and others would follow.

This need for Cod existed because the Church, at the time, imposed many meatless days upon its members. Fish however, was largely exempted from this. Fagan does point out several times when the eating of fish was discouraged as well.

On the whole though, the eating of fish during times of penitence such as Advent and Lent along with three weekdays the rest of the year created a great market for fish. Cod was not the first fish to rule the roost. There were Carp and Herring as well, but it was Cod that eventually came to dominate the fishing trade.

The Fishing Journey

Being an archeologist, Fagan takes us back to Roman days, and there history of fishing. Then we go through the Norse, and the Hanseatic League. From there we learn about the European countries that we tend to associate with sailing to the Americas: The Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and England.

Fish on Friday, takes us up to the emergence of the Puritans that settle Td in the United States. Over time, they were the people who came to dominate the transatlantic fish trade.

The fishing journey also starts local and over time stretches from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Fagan shows how developments in the styles of boats used to fish, and the methods used for catching fish allowed the fishing fleets to sail farther and farther away from their homes.

Another journey takes place alongside the fishing journey. That is the journey of preserving fish. Open air drying was an early method used to preserve the fish, which went rotten quite quickly. The evolution of salt-curing is covered in some detail in the book. From the early days of salting Herring, up to the industrial production of Salt Cod. 

Fish on Friday, Religious Habit and the Fate of the Fisheries

Two factors had a major effect on the lives of fisher folk. The first is the weather, and more specifically the climate. Yes, there were always bad weather days. However, as Fagan points out there were also periods when major climate change effected the availability of fish. I found this interesting, but for me, the second factor is the most interesting. That is the role the church played in dictating how much fish was to be eaten, and how often.

I grew up Evangelical Protestant, so although I knew it was common for Roman Catholics to eat fish on Fridays, I didn’t know about the longer history where the eating of fish was expected on more days than it was not.

Reading Fagan’s book, it is interesting watching the ebb and flow of religious fervour when it comes to dietary requirements for the faithful. One thing that stood out is how this desire for fish repeatedly led to overfishing. Fishing without regard to the future is not just a flaw of modern capitalism.

Other Thoughts on Fish on Friday

I haven’t said much about the political battles over fish. These are covered throughout the book. Whether they be fight between fisher folk, between monasteries, or nations, Fagan makes note of them throughout.

Fish on Friday is presenting an alternate line of history for the exploration of the lands beyond the Atlantic. It isn’t however, an alternative history.

Throughout Fagan lets us know that owners of the ships were largely callous people out looking for the big financial score. The sailors and fisher folk were paid well, but the tradeoff of life for livelihood was very steep. He also never fails to remind us that when the fleets landed, and came across indigenous people residing in the area where they were fishing, they were ruthless in their destruction of the people.

Fish on Friday includes a number of recipes for fish. These attempt to recreate the recipes of the eras the book is covering. While I’m a fan of the memoir or history with recipes, I didn’t feel they added that much to the overall narrative of the book.

Food and Culture

One thing that Fagan does do really well, he includes a very good bibliography. Because of his generalist approach to his subject, much of the material is not very deep in the subject it covers. With such an expansive bibliography I will be able to delve more deeply in the role of fish in the lives of monks and monasteries, as just one example.

When I was in my mid-20s Canada imposed a ban on Cod fishing. Fishing on Friday gave me some insight into the history of that industry, and the role that religious dietary rules played in creating it.

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