Lenten Practices in the 15th Century: Fish and More Fish


Frans Snyders and Jan Wildens, Fish Stall (ca. 1618-1621) (Wikimedia Commons)

Given that Lent is coming up in a few weeks (February 10th, mark your calendars), I thought it would be interesting today to share with you a discussion of the practice of eating fish for Lent during the 1400s.  This comes from one of my more favorite books to come out in the last ten years, Brian Fagan’s Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World. I have preserved Fagan’s endnotes at the end of this excerpt.

Still, even when cod replaced herring on the menu, Lent was an ordeal for most people.  The Christian world of that era ran like a clock, its rhythms marked by fast and feast.  Each fast ended in a feast–Advent before Christmas, Lent before Easter.  The devout engaged in penance and then received both a lavish meal in this life and a spiritual reward in the next.  Fasts were the conscious offerings of each individual, each community, society as a whole.  Those of individuals could be nominal or rigorous.

Quite apart from private fasting, Catholic doctrine sanctioned official fast days to cleanse and discipline the faithful.  By the tenth century there were usually three such days a week–Wednesday, the day when Judas accepted a bribe for betraying Christ; Friday, to atone for the Savior’s suffering on the Cross; and Saturday, in commemoration of the Virgin Mary.

Advent was a time of personal renewal, of rebirth, when “so owe ye to begynne  and renewe youre lyffe.”[7] The fast was brief–four weeks or so–and relatively joyful, filled with anticipation for the celebrations to come. The six-week ordeal of Lent, the duration of Christ’s fast in the wilderness,was another matter: a lengthy intercession for forgiveness, a time for calling on God to save Humanity from its transgressions. The forty days of penance coincided with the dreary days of late winter, when food was often short. At this time people paid their tithes, up to a tenth of their harvest, to lord or parish priest.

The prolonged fast of Lent permitted one meal a day, eaten at the end of the day during the early centuries of Christianity but at noon by the ninth century. The one daily repast was no longer than one of the two or three meals normally served to working people–Lent was hard on people who labored in the fields or on other backbreaking jobs that required constant physical labor. The church encouraged the faithful by permitting a feast, a specially prepared meal of approved foods, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, sometimes called Mid-Lent Sunday. The occasion might only be marked by some small luxury like a sweet, but the introit appointed for the day came from the prophet Isaiah: “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her.”

The Lenten diet was difficult for everyone–fish and yet more fish, usually salted herring: “King Herring, who mounted his throne on Ash Wednesday, and stayed there, however much his subjects grumbled, until Easter Sunday,”[8] as historian Bridget Ann Henisch described it. When John Gladman of Norwich arranged a procession of the months and seasons in 1448, Lent was “cladde in white with redde herrings skinnes and his hors trapped with oyster shelles after him in token that sadnesse and abstinence of mirth shulde followe and an holye time.”[9]

This monotonous regime of herring ruled the households of rich and poor alike. Life was much easier for the wealthy, who moved their households to their properties near the sea or close to fishponds, so they could obtain fresh catches. Less affluent families took care to buy their salted fish after harvest in the autumn, when prices were lower, and then put it away for Lent. Prices spiked sharply as Ash Wednesday approached and stayed high until Easter. There was money to be made off penitents, notably by religious houses and towns, which imposed tolls on barges and carts laden with salted herring during Lent.

Vigorous celebrations preceded Lent on Shrove Tuesday, when people stuffed themselves with fresh meat and other indulgences before the belt tightening of the next forty days. A fifteenth-century schoolboy lamented in his notebook: “Thou wyll not beleve how wery I am off fysshe, and how moch I desir that flesch were cum ageyn. For I have ete none other but salt fysh this Lent.”[10] Imagine eating hard, kipperlike but flavorless sticks of fish week in and week out. Even the devout looked for ways around the monotony. Many found it in alcohol, taking as their text the words of St. Paul in the Scriptures: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for they stomach’s sake.”[11] In the words of a memorable fifteenth-century sermon: “In this time of Lent, when by the law and custom of the church men fast, very few people abstain from excessive drinking: on the contrary they go to the taverns, and some imbibe and get drunk more than they do out of Lent, thinking and saying: ‘Fishes must swim.'”[12] In fact, salted herring increased the diner’s thirst, and beer and wine were safer than the unsanitary water supplies of the day.

Salted herring posed an extraordinary challenge to even the most expert cooks, who concocted ingenious sauces to disguise the dry flesh.  Mustard, spooned promiscuously atop the fish, was a perennial favorite.  Herring with mustard is a gourmet dish in France today; the medieval ancestor of this dish was but a crude reflection of today’s refined presentation.  Dried figs, raisins, currents, and almonds imported from the Mediterranean added variety to more affluent tables.  Talented chefs with fresh fish to hand could bake it, grill it, simmer it, and dress it up in a myriad of sauces.  They used all kinds of ingenious tricks to substitute for forbidden ingredients like butter, eggs, or meat products.  Oil substituted for animal fat in the frying pan.  Almonds blanched and steeped in water produced a weak “milk” that could be used in fish stews or to bind pastry.  Some master cooks even devised “mock eggs,” magnificent creations of white and yellow almond purée served in an empty eggshell.

None of these ingenious concoctions was an adequate substitute for the real thing.  When Easter dawned, a collective sigh of gustatory relief could be felt across Europe.  Church bells tolled to commemorate the Resurrection.  Alleluias echoed high in cathedral naves.  The artist Pieter Breughel the Elder (1525-1569) portrayed the endless tension in his Fight Between Carnival and Lent in 1559.  We see a lively scene of celebration, with Carnival atop a barrel, brandishing sausages and chickens on a spit.  Lent faces him to the right, depressed and emaciated, holding forth a paddle with two herrings.  Behind him the fishmongers enjoy the roaring trade and beggars solicit for alms.[13]  The painting was powerfully evocative in an era when everyone, for a while, experienced at least some of the deprivation suffered by the poor year-round in urban poorhouses and slums, “bare places where every day is Lent.”[14]


7 E.H. Weatherly, ed., Speculum Sacerdotale (Oxford: Old English Text Society, 1935), old series 200, 4.
8 Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p.33.
9 E. L. Guilford, Select Extracts Illustrating Sports and Pastimes in the Middle Ages (New York: Macmillan, 1920), p.52.
10 W. Nelson, ed., A Fifteenth Century Schoolbook (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), p.8.
11 1 Timothy 5:23.
12 The sermon was preached by Robert Rypon, an eminent cleric of his day and a contemporary of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Discussed in G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1961), p.435.
13 Pieter Breughel, Fight Between Carnival and Lent, was painted in 1559 and can be seen at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
14 B. White, ed., Alexander Barclay: Eclogues (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1928), old series 9.1. (From the First Eclogue.)

From B. Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (New York: Basic Books, 2006): 147-150; 307 (notes).

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