Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meare, Somerset

Phone for the fish knives, Dunstan

At Meare, a few miles from Glastonbury, this plain but striking medieval building stands in the middle of a field. It was the fish house of the great abbey at Glastonbury, and, as well as accommodating the abbey’s water bailiff, provided somewhere where the salting and drying of the monastery’s fish could take place. When it was built, in the 14th century, it stood right next to the fish-filled lake that gave Meare its name.

Medieval domestic and industrial buildings are rare enough, but this is the only surviving building relating to the fishery activities of an English monastery. Fishing and monasticism might seem odd bedfellows, but in fact fish formed an important part of the monastic diet, and the earthworks of many former abbey fishponds survive all over the country. A lot of them are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, which are invaluable tools for anyone looking for interesting lumps and bumps in the landscape, and monasteries often had several pons, to help in management of the supply of fish.

Fish were eaten widely in medieval monasteries, but it’s not known for sure how much fish the monks ate or when. Studies of monastic accounts suggest that when monks could get them, sea fish such as cod were eaten on feast days. But because freshwater fish (such as carp, tench, and bream) were farmed by the monks themselves, they don’t necessarily appear in the records which mostly account for foods brought in from outside.

Amounts consumed would also have varied according to the wealth of the monastery. While the inhabitants of smaller, poorer abbeys might have put up with a mainly vegetarian diet, those of larger, richer monastic houses probably ate meat and fish regularly. There's also evidence that, while meat was often looked upon as a luxury food, fit for worldly lay people but not for monks, fish was sometimes seen as lower-status food. So more than one reforming abbot weaned his well fed carnivorous monks off meat by increasing their fish intake.

Another issue was the size of the available ponds. According to one estimate, to produce a regular supply of fish, a monastery needed some 2 acres of pond per monk. So not every monastic house could provide all the necessary fish on site – some had to come in from local rivers, and monasteries guarded their river-fishing rights jealously.

Glastonbury was a large monastery and at Meare they had a huge pond – a mile and half across, apparently. A medieval account says that the Meare pond contained 'an abundance of pike, tench, roach and ells and of divers other kinds of fishes'. It sounds as if the monks of Glastonbury were very well provided with fish for the table.


Hels said...

I can't remember where I saw it but one small medieval monastery was built over the top of a swiftly flowing stream. When the monks/laymen on cooking duty wanted fish for dinner, they sent the youngest brothers to the basement to net or spear fish as they swam past.

How did the Meare lake constantly restock its fish supplies?

Philip Wilkinson said...

The monastery over a stream sounds amazing. Ket us know if you remember where it is.

The monks must have 'managed' the fish stock in the lake in some way, probably using smaller adjacent ponds, some of which could contain fish for harvest, some of which could be reserved for fish left to breed. I don't whether they went in for the large-scale draining of lakes to harvest fish, an activity which still goes on with carp ponds in the Czech Republic and which can be quite spectacular to watch.

Thud said...

Fascinating stuff and certainly worth looking into further, I'm sure somewhere somebody has looked into this in depth.

potok said...

I may be wrong but isn't Hailes Abbey built on a stream? I think the name even means stream.

Anonymous said...

Certainly if you look at the Kip engraving of St John's College, Cambridge, the fish ponds (now the site of New Court) on the far side of the Cam seem to consist of many small rectangular ponds, which would seem to support the idea of managed breeding and growing of the stock.

Anonymous said...

From the detailed English Heritage record of Hailes Abbey (which records four fishponds):

"The fish pond at SP 05082988 has been partially filled. The ditch leading to it from the NE is probably part of the garden shown in Kip's view (a) (See DOE guide). The pond itself may also have been altered at this time, although as it feeds the stone drain which runs beneath the Abbey, it was probably an original feature. Two other fish ponds are at SP 05012991. Published survey (25") revised. (3)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for all these comments.

By the way, most monasteries were built near streams, which the monks often diverted and channelled to provide both a fresh water supply and drainage. Many monasteries also had multiple fish ponds of the kind the EH record of Hailes describes.

Since originally writing this post I've found out more about Meare, so have altered the text slightly.

Matt Wardman said...

>I don't whether they went in for the large-scale draining of lakes to harvest fish, an activity which still goes on with carp ponds in the Czech Republic and which can be quite spectacular to watch.

I can't help wondering whether someone would make that illegal here.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Matt: Very probably. Especially as the fish can sometimes be handled in a rather robust fashion.

Peter Ashley said...

Thanks for this. I didn't know of its remarkable existence, but I'm getting the bicycle out now.