The Atlantic

The Medieval Practices That Reshaped Europe’s Fish

More than 700 years ago, demand for sturgeon, salmon, and other fish was so high that kings had to start regulating fishing.
Source: Culture Club / Getty

In the year 1289, King Philip IV of France was worried about fish. “Each and every watershed of our realm,” he proclaimed, “large and small, yields nothing due to the evil of fishers.” Environmental change, expanding cities, and overfishing had sent aquatic populations into a tailspin. Because they were scarce, the fish, King Philip noted, “are much more costly than they used to be, which results in no moderate loss to the rich and poor of our realm.” This state of affairs could not stand. The king promulgated the country’s first fisheries ordinance.

In medieval Europe, an era stretching from about 500 to 1500, fish was a prestigious food. Chefs experimented with ways to disguise beef as fish: At least half a dozen cookbooks of the era include recipes for turning

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