Pike (Esox lucius) in late medieval culture: from illiterate empiricism to literate traditions

Richard C. Hoffmann

For a millennium after the late fourth-century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius first mentioned E. lucius, (Mosella lines 120-124), those few Europeans who read and wrote rarely thought human use of this or any other fish worthy of purposeful attention. Only the occasional unintentional reference augments osteological evidence that Europeans did eat pike and, therefore by implication, somehow captured or reared them. A tenth-century Anglo-Saxon schoolmaster, Aelfric of Eynsham, taught his pupils Latin with made-up stories, including one about a fisherman who earned his living taking pike and other species with hooks and nets (Garmonsway 1978). About the same time Aelfric was composing his schoolbook, real fishermen around the estuary of the Odra (Oder) River on the south coast of the Baltic were angling for pike with iron and bronze lures, while those working both the Plöner See in Holstein and Lake Bnin in Great Poland almost certainly took this species with nets (Rulewicz 1974; Heinrich 1980; Iwaszkiewicz 1979). Another capture technique is alluded to in the eleventh-century Bavarian tale Ruodlieb, where the hero scatters on the waters an herbal preparation which stuns pike and other fishes native to the sub-Alpine lakes so they may be gathered by hand (Ford 1965; 1966).

High medieval texts of some literary pretension also allude to ways of catching pike. The earliest medieval sport fisher so far known, a late twelfth-century canon of Chalons-sur-Marne named Gui of Bazoches, told friends in a letter how he had wielded hook and line, hand net, and seine during a holiday at his uncle's country estate. Among his catch he mentioned first the fish-eating lucius (Wattenbach 1890; Adolfsson 1969). The same techniques as well as basket traps are briefly listed in an anonymous pseudo-Ovidian poem on rural pastimes from late thirteenth-century Paris (Klopsch 1967; Robathon 1968); though De Vetula mentions no target species, a mid-fourteenth century French adaptation, La veille, by the Parisian Jean Lefèvre, names marine and freshwater varieties including luz and brochez (Lefèvre 1861).

Greatly expanded written administrative records from later medieval centuries give more unintended information about pike fishing. Financial accounts kept by the owners of fisheries are potentially rich sources so far subject to preliminary study only. A register of incomes and expenditures for the fisheries of the church of St Etienne at Troyes gives for several years between 1349 and 1413 the weight and value of pike and other catches from several nearby waters (MS London Add. 22496). An account kept by the Fischmeister of the Teutonic Knights at Marienburg in Prussia records the weekly take by fishers he employed during 1442 and 1443 on the Drausensee (Lake Druzno) in the Vistula delta (MS Berlin OF 181a). This document shows that hauls of large and small trawl nets yielded pike and other species in varying proportions through the year. A decade later, correspondence files of the Teutonic Knights also tell how illegal spearing of pike through the ice by a Prussian peasant set off a violent confrontation between Order officials and the peasant's lord (MS Berlin OBA 11871).

Other late medieval administrators tried to protect valued populations of fishes from overexploitation, thus recording in another way their understanding of how their contemporaries pursued these. In 1289 King Philip IV of France issued for all public waters a fisheries ordinance that established general gear restrictions and closed seasons and specified size limits for various fishes. No pike so small as to be worth 2 denier or less on the market could legally be taken (Grand and Delatouche 1950). Where central governments were less precocious than in France, local and regional authorities took the lead. Fifteenth century communities along the upper Rhine closed fishing for small pike from early spring until dates in late July or August to give the fish a chance to grow (Mone 1853). In 1506 the Emperor Maximilian I, himself an enthusiastic and self-advertised devotee of field sports, decreed in his hereditary capacity as duke of Lower Austria minimum size and season regulations for numerous species in that territory. To invalidate the excuse of misidentification, the copy of the decree used by the city government in Vienna included coloured illustrations of each fish. The pike is unmistakable (Archivalien 1965 MS Vienna Urkunde 5825).

Without intending to communicate knowledge about the use of wild pike populations by their illiterate contemporaries, literate medieval Europeans nevertheless convey much information about the fishery. At various times and places people took pike, occasionally in large numbers, with several kinds of active and passive entrapment devices and, applying knowledge of this species' piscivorous habits, with hooks baited with real or simulated fishes. Regulators and others assumed that at least some fishers consciously recognized and selectively pursued this species. Equally inadvertent sources also affirm that pike were purposely reared in captivity well before the end of the Middle Ages.

No attempt is made here to discuss the creation by medieval Europeans of a fish culture which, in its use of regulated complexes of artificial freshwater ponds to segregate by year classes large numbers of cyprinids (mainly carp) for reproduction, growth, fattening, and subsequent market sale, differed in technology, species mix, and economic orientation from known Roman antecedents (Hoffmann 1985; 1987). A transition from primitive store ponds, holding for future use seasonally large wild catches, to planned rearing of domesticates can probably be assumed but has yet to be demonstrated. By around 1200, however, incidental references in conveyances of property and judicial proceedings imply the presence in northern and central France of characteristically advanced technical features. Thereafter the evidence for fish culture becomes voluminous, first in western, then in east-central Europe, but purposeful, comprehensive, or integrated written treatises are long absent.

By the thirteenth century pike were being intentionally reared as biological control agents in at least some regions of Europe, in and as by-products of advanced cyprinid culture. At what may have been a testing stage in York, N. Yorkshire, during the 1220s, the Royal Foss Pool yielded a steady supply of pike, roach, and bream. More fully artificial ponds under the supervision of one William, "King's Fisherman" to Henry III, produced until 1222 only bream but thereafter also pike and other species (McDonnell 1981). A unique, brief, and factually mistaken treatment of fishponds in Fleta, a late thirteenth-century Anglo-French manual of property management, discouraged the rearing of predators (Richardson and Sayles 1955). Nevertheless, thirteenth- to fifteenth-century records from regions as distant as England, central France, and Bohemia reveal pond operators purposely exploiting the pike's piscivorous habits by placing a few in their finishing ponds to keep down the numbers of small carp and thus encourage growth of the large. In 1258 Count Thibaut V of Champagne stocked six large pike along with 3520 carp and 10,000 bream and roach. A century later ponds of the Duke of Burgundy yielded at harvest one pike for every ten to twenty cyprinids: from Sare, 4638 carp, 650 bream, and 533 pike; from l'Epervire, 5740 carp and 268 pike (Grand and Delatouche 1950; Richard 1983). In England, where the exotic carp remained rare or absent and the elaborated multi-pond technology uncommon, Chaucer's well-to-do franklin of the Canterbury Tales kept "many a breme and luce," (General Prologue, line 350), while a late fifteenth-century manuscript, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, (MS Oxford Ashmole 1444) mentions feeding animal offal to pond-dwelling pike (Keiser 1986). Those in the Pope's storage pond at Avignon in 1375 got to eat a special purchase of 400 small carp. Like the techniques to capture pike, however, those to raise them had developed and diffused entirely without purposeful records or written means of communication. Both were matters of illiterate empiricism until nearly the end of the Middle Ages.

Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries knowledge about catching and rearing fish entered literate European culture. The cause was a long-term expansion of vernacular literacy and its extension into hitherto wholly oral areas of practical everyday life; an effect was creation of a purposeful, growing, and self-conscious body of literate tradition about these subjects, including the capture and culture of E. lucius.

Before the fourteenth century no known European text purports to describe or teach how fish are caught. Thereafter, however, works now extant illuminate a cultural process whereby such information passed from illiterate practice through vague recommendations, lists of prescriptions, and short tracts to coherent consideration in extended didactic treatises, first manuscript and soon printed. There angling methods for the notably piscivorous pike early received special treatment.

The first discussions of fish capture techniques now known to have been written in fourteenth-century Italy, Germany, and England are small passages in manuals of agricultural management or isolated entries, even glosses, in codices devoted to household recipes or home veterinary medicine. None specify target species for the attractants, piscicides, baits, and gear they prescribe. Comparable or larger notes from the fifteenth century do - and suggest for the pike techniques different from those for fishes susceptible to bread pastes, maggots, or live or simulated insects. A fifteenth-century German translator of the section on fishing from the early fourteenth-century agricultural manual by the Bolognese Pietro de Crescenzi interpolated the remark that a single hook baited with a small fish was good for "all predators like pike" and recommended strong hooks and a line covered with wire because of the pike's teeth (Lindner 1957). Several of the more numerous English manuscript tracts offer similar advice. One in a fifteenth-century paper manuscript at the British Library (MS London Harley 2389) goes into more detail, prescribing a double hook mounted two fathoms below a large cork and baited with a small roach, gudgeon, or bleak that has been rubbed with camphor and oil to make it shine and with asafetida to attract by odour. Especially in May, September, and October a frog is the preferred bait and from January through March the pike will bite at a worm, but the small fish properly anointed is otherwise the best (Braekman 1980). Around 1500 AD, a monk at the Bavarian abbey of Tegernsee learned and wrote down methods of the professional fishers employed there, describing techniques like the English ones and use of a hook wrapped with purple silk and a special mix of feathers (MS Munich cgm 8137).

With the so-called "Harley tract", related English texts, and the long Tegernsee manuscript, writings on fishing in both English and German passed from occasional and scattered notes to distinct compilations. These usually took the form of lists of baits or calendrical recommendations, with or without mention of particular species. During the fifteenth century, however, a genuine angling literature which offered to a reading public organized treatment of the subject also began to appear.

A pamphlet printed in Heidelberg in 1493 combined advice on hook and net baits, a fisherman's calendar, and a curious satirical comparison of fish to human society. The pike, known for its diet of other fishes, is recommended as good to catch and eat in all seasons except when it spawns. The publisher of this anonymous tract, Jacob Köbel, added a dedicatory letter to express surprised delight at finding a written discourse on the useful and pleasant activity of fishing (Cockx-Indestege 1969; Grimm 1968; Zaunick 1916). The work was reprinted dozens of times during the next century and, along with the Tegernsee manuscript and the German version of Crescenzi, contributed information to a so-far little-studied group of sixteenth-century German treatments of the subject. A seventy-page booklet from Munich in 1560, for instance, recommends angling for pike at stream mouths during the spring and with a bait prepared from manure worms during the summer (MS Munich cgm 997). Conrad von Heresbach, councillor to the Duke of Cleves, drew on this tradition and on Greco-Roman texts when he discussed fishing at length in his 1570 agricultural manual. In orderly sequence Heresbach treated origins, general techniques and seasonal considerations, and the pursuit of particular species. He reports that pike are taken with nets and with baited hooks, but, if not quickly landed, have strength to escape the latter (von Heresbach 1573).

Earlier than the German booklets so far found was the first major monument of English angling literature, the anonymous Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle, probably composed about 1420 and surviving in its initial form only as a fragmentary mid-century manuscript. This articulated a sporting perception of angling, described the necessary tackle, and detailed its use in general and for specific species. The extant portion, however, recommends for pike only to dye a chalk line brown (i.e. the kind of string carpenters use with chalk dust on it to mark a straight line) and protect it with wire. When the complete Treatyse appeared in print in the second Boke of St Albans in 1496, some revision had occurred and larger coverage was given to pike fishing. The pike's predatory habits are the basis for prescribed baits and tactics: thread a roach or herring on a hook and float it in likely pike habitat; hook a frog through the skin of the neck and cast it into those places; soak a small fish in asafetida before using it as bait (McDonald 1963). A variant manuscript version of about the same date emphasizes the use of wire-protected line and recommends moving the bait in the water to deceive the pike. On a less sporting note it suggests stuffing sheep entrails with tar and soap and throwing small pieces to the pike. Fish that eat these will float belly-up for easy gathering (MS Oxford Ashmole 1444; Keiser 1986).

With the printing in the 1490s of the German booklet and the English Treatyse, fishing as the practical application of observed data from nature entered the world of public literary culture. On the European continent a tradition of angling literature subsequently faltered, but in England it grew and with it a cumulative angling perspective on the pike. At least some fishers read and some writers fished. In The Arte of Angling published anonymously in 1577, William Samuel, a Huntingdonshire clergyman (Harrison 1960) noted that pike differed from other fishes in lacking a fear of man. He advised familiar capture techniques suited to the pike's size and predatory nature: the wire-protected and heavy line, the roach, dace, frog, or large worm as bait, a drifting, still, or actively moving presentation. A new suggestion from Samuel was to wait while the pike took, carried, released, retook, and swallowed the bait and then to set the hook (Anon 1577). The conceptions of pike and pike fishing given in both the Treatyse and the Arte became commonplace in English angling books written about 1600 and later in the Compleat Angler of Izaak Walton -- in part because these authors lifted whole passages from the earlier works.

That by the mid-sixteenth century literate Europeans possessed a systematic written tradition about pike fishing is evident from the treatment of capture techniques in the Historia animalium published in 1558 by the well-read Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner. In describing the fish's habits he cites the German tract of 1493. He reports legal size limits from his home Zürchersee and Bavaria and laws against snagging pike with unbaited hooks or netting them between mid-April and mid-May. Both fixed and moveable gear is employed for pike in the Alpine lakes. Gesner advises the river goby as a bait for pike angling and, in a passage clearly reminiscent of the English Treatyse, notes the preference in England for a frog or bleak. He adds that pike, like carp, were less susceptible than other fishes to the several piscicides he knew (Gesner 1558).

Presently available sources make the development of a technical literature on artificial fish culture more obscure than that on capture, but some of the same phases are visible. Crescenzi devoted a short chapter of his early fourteenth-century agricultural manual to fishponds, but while encouraging the use of fish native to the locality, named none (Crescenzi 1548). Isolated practical notes analogous to those known for pike capture are lacking.

Thus it seems that extended written treatment of fish culture developed only with the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century proliferation of carp rearing in east-central Europe, notably Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and parts of southern Poland. In 1525 a Moravian prelate, Jan Skaly z Dubravka (Dubravius), compiled information from local experts into a private handbook, De piscinis ("On fishponds"), for the rich merchant Anton Fugger. It was publicly printed at Wroclaw (Breslau) in 1547. A second book On the operation, excavation, surveying, and stocking of ponds by the veteran pond master Olbrycht Strumienski appeared in Polish at Cracow in 1573. Other comparable works are known only in manuscript or were written slightly later (Nyrek 1966). These well-organized manuals make explicit few facts about the rearing of pike which cannot now be inferred as known earlier to late medieval operators of piscicultural enterprises. The authors advise keeping the predator out of the spawning ponds but stocking it in the third pond to eat the superfluous offspring of precocious three-year-old carp, lest the fry inhibit growth of the market-destined parents. They stress that pike from well-managed and clean waters will be delicious for the pond-owner's dining or remunerative for sale. These writers also affirm more clearly than any before that pike spawn in weeds and shallows like the other fishes of their ponds and earlier in the season than the carp.

Western contemporaries integrated pisciculture into more general works on farm management. The French writer Charles Estienne knew pike as a pond fish, while Conrad von Heresbach's experience in the lower Rhineland advised for them a three-year growth cycle (Estienne 1570; von Heresbach 1573).

In the present context, however, the intellectual role of the writers on fish culture has greater importance than the particular data they offered. They gathered, integrated, and systematized in ways hitherto unknown observational knowledge of pike. The whole empirical technology of rearing fish, which had developed outside the ambit of literate social groups, was drawn by these authors into that cultural setting, organized for communication through the written word, and disseminated by its new means of handling information, the printed book. A clear sign of this new cultural context for the rearing of pike was the appearance in English translation by 1600 of the works written by Dubravius in Latin, Estienne in French, and Heresbach in German. Pike culture, like pike capture, now pertained to written knowledge.


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Last updated: Thu Aug 14 1997