Friday, September 13, 2019

The Eel Rents of England

In my childhood jellied eels were a reasonably common part of the diet in East London. You can still find a few Pie, Mash and Jellied Eel shops dotted around the East End. However cafes that sell jellied eels are now a much rarer sight in the East End and the consumption of eels has largely gone out of fashion.

The demise of eels as a staple of the English diet is on the face of it very odd. For centuries eels have been a cheap and nutritious food source, readily eaten by the English. In fact for centuries eels were so much a part of the diet that many landlords would accept rent in the form of eels. This isn't as strange as it sounds. In pre-industrial times rents were often paid in livestock, fish, ale or other types of foods. Eels were therefore no less strange a method of receiving or paying rent than any other common goods or produce.

You can learn more about eel rents on the fascinating Eel-Rents Project. This project includes an interactive map which shows where the mention of eel rents can be found in original documents from the late 10th Century through the 15th Century. On the maps the number of eels mentioned in the rent is represented by the size of the marker and the color of these marker indicates the century of the historical record.

The map comes with a note of caution that this isn't a complete record of eel rents but just a map of where they have been revealed by surviving historical records. Therefore the cluster that seems to exist around the Cambridgeshire fens may just be a result of where the historical record has best survived. Or it may reflect the fact that eels were once plentiful in the fens and were a staple part of the local diet for thousands of years. In fact eels are so much a part of the culture of the fens that they even named one of their most important cities 'Ely'.

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