The Catch. An Environmental History of Medieval European Fisheries

Hoffmann, Richard C.
Studies in Environment and History
Anzahl Seiten
XXVI, 556 S.
$ 135.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Wanda Marcussen, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo

“The Catch: An Environmental History of Medieval European Fisheries” by Richard C. Hoffmann is a well-researched and comprehensive exploration of fisheries’ role in Christian medieval Europe. Hoffmann, who identifies himself as an interdisciplinary medievalist and agrarian historian with a keen interest in the fisheries, provides an extensive examination of how fishing activities influenced and were influenced by the environment, economy, and cultural practices of Europe from roughly 500 to 1500 AD. The book explores both oceanic and freshwater aquatic ecosystems, practices of angling, fish farming, coastal fisheries, and oceanic fisheries, and succeeds in its goal of opening the seas and other waterways to medieval historians. As Hoffman explains, the book is a long time coming, after three decades of research and interest in the history of fisheries, where he aims to narrow the gap he has experienced between fisheries scientists, medievalists, and economic historians. Even in the field of environmental history, marine history can be argued to have been overlooked by many, as agrarian history has dominated the field. “The Catch” reads as an important call for including fisheries and human-aquatic relations in our exploration and understanding of past societies and the pressing problems and challenges facing the world today.

The regional and periodical focus of “The Catch” is vast, as it covers most of Europe and beyond, also including the significance of the Newfoundland fisheries and the impact of the spreading of species and technology from other continents, for a full millennium. Hoffman relies on a rich variety of case studies and a highly interdisciplinary approach. He delves into a wide array of sources from the “human archive”, looking at legal records, tax documents, descriptions of natural history, legends and folklore, and contemporary literature, as well as the “natural archive” including zooarchaeological findings, and climate proxy data from palaeoscience reconstructions, to reconstruct the fishing practices of the time. In this way, his narrative intertwines history, ecology, and economics to craft a detailed and holistic depiction of medieval fisheries. The interdisciplinary approach is also crucial for depicting what Hoffman sees as the co-evolution of nature and culture in medieval Europe.

Hoffman’s engaging writing and storytelling ensure that the complex subjects discussed in the book are informative and understandable also to readers less familiar with environmental and/or medieval history. The detailed descriptions of individuals and communities engaging in fisheries or other activities that connect them to various aquatic ecosystems and lifeforms draw the reader into a previously much-overlooked part of life in medieval Europe. Illustrations and figures, visible throughout most of the book, also help the reader envision the world and life of medieval fishermen and their communities.

In the introduction, Hoffman sets the premise for the book and captures the audience with three “fish tales” providing various perspectives on human-fisheries relationships and developments in the millennium of Christian Europe. The first tale, “the long demise of the Atlantic sturgeon” (p. 2), explores how the much-desired sturgeon residing in estuarine ecosystems was gradually depleted due to overconsumption, pollution, and destruction of habitat. The destructive extraction of this luxury good started in the Roman period but was intensified throughout the medieval and into the modern period, and today various wild species of the sturgeon family are extinct. The second tale explores communities and a culture of sustainable management of the fisheries around Lake Constance (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and leaves a more uplifting impression as it details how the human community gradually learned to live with, and responsibly harvest, their aquatic neighbors. Lastly, the third introductory tale investigates the development of the cod fisheries and how cod changed “from fish to commodity” (p. 14). Starting when cod was crucial for local subsistence in coastal regions in northern Europe, the tale traces how cod transformed into standardized commercial products traded over long distances. This commercialization of the cod fisheries played a big part in developing an interregional network of trade in Europe, but also contributed to the development of “aggressive” harvesting methods, leading to depletion and overfishing, still affecting this species and many ecosystems today. Throughout the book, Hoffman explores similar and differentiating fish tales, for example, the introduction of carp and fish farming in European ecosystems. The diverse stories provide insights and perspectives on various species, communities, harvesting, and farming methods, and exploration and masteries of “new” waters.

Hoffmann’s ability to place medieval fisheries in a broader context of environmental history is one of the key strengths of “The Catch”. In this work, Hoffmann skillfully demonstrates how medieval Europeans adapted their fishing techniques and management strategies to keep up with the ever-changing ecological conditions. His fish tales capture the intricate dynamics between these practices and their subsequent impact on both marine and freshwater ecosystems. Further, Hoffmann provides an exploration of the economic importance of fisheries during medieval times. Fish played a crucial role in the medieval diet, particularly during religious fasting periods when meat consumption was restricted. In addition to examining the importance of subsistence fisheries, Hoffman is especially interested in the economic frameworks that sustained the fishing industry, including market systems, trade networks, and regulatory measures. Thus he provides valuable insights into how fish trading connected even the most distant regions and influenced economic development not only within Europe but also beyond its borders.

One of the most compelling aspects of Hoffmann’s work is his discussion of the environmental impact of medieval fishing and various communities’ resilience when faced with ecological change or socio-ecological regime shifts. In the fish tales, he explores occurrences of overfishing and habitat destruction, and how climatic changes affected fish populations and ecosystems, likening the teachings to our time’s crises in global and local aquatic systems. Hoffmann’s examination highlights the extensive duration of human influence on the environment, contesting the idea that environmental deterioration is exclusively a contemporary issue. However, he also presents several instances of “sustainable” fishing practices and marine conservation management, highlighting the example of Lake Constance and other communities that practiced sustainable coexistence with the aquatic ecosystem. He states: “Medieval Europeans, like other Indigenous cultures, were aware of their natural world and could, in pursuit of their own survival values, put that knowledge to protective purposes, whether the literate elite recognized that or not.” (p. xxii)

In conclusion, “The Catch: An Environmental History of Medieval European Fisheries” offers valuable insights into the intersection of human activity, aquatic ecosystems, and environmental change. Through thorough research and engaging writing, Hoffman has written an important read for historians, environmentalists, and all who are fascinated by the intricate relationship between human societies and the natural world. The book not only enriches our understanding of medieval Europe but also provides important perspectives on contemporary environmental issues and our relationship to water systems in all its forms.

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