As Clear As Mud: Understanding Small-Scale Fishing in Late Medieval England Through the Landscape

A reconstruction drawing of a medieval fishing weir by Simon Dick. Commissioned by Dr. Aidan O'Sullivan, University College Dublin.

Going on a research stay entailed long days in the archives, poring over medieval accounts written in hard-to-decipher script until my eyes were dry and my fingertips dirty with centuries-old dust. I needed a break, so I went on a run. Drawn to what Google Maps alluringly displayed as the “Chichester Harbour Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” I decided to run towards Bosham, the coastal village whose medieval accounts I had only just returned to their box.

They often say running clears the mind. That your best ideas come when you take a break. But this run turned out to offer me even more than that. I had been trying to explain why late medieval Bosham allowed for the small-scale fishing activities, often practised in addition to agriculture, as it had. But instead of finding the answer in the archives, I found it out there in the mud.

A view of the tidal channel between Chichester and Bosham. Picture by the author.
[*Image description: a landscape with marshy green grass in the foreground and shallow water in the background. To the left, two small boats rest on the bottom of this shallow water. The sky is overcast.]

Relying solely on books and other texts, it is easy to picture the coast as a borderline. Much research exists on the medieval use of land, on farming, inheritance structures, and its social implications. According to the traditional view, peasants making their living here would be afraid of the sea, building their houses far away from the coast to protect them from wind and water. Conversely, there is plenty of research on medieval uses of the sea: topics such as trade, naval warfare, and long distance fishing expeditions in the North Sea are well represented. The image emerging from earlier research does not convey that the sea was underexploited, yet it depicts the groups of people responsible for the exploitation of land and sea respectively as separate, specialized groups. Living in different places, in different ways, a border dividing both ways of life.

But as I was running towards Chichester harbour, I saw no borderline. Instead, it was hard to distinguish where the land even ended and where the sea began. Most of the landscape was made up of shallow pools of water and mud left behind by the retreating tide. Only a couple of paces in, on what was decidedly supposed to still be “land,” my feet were soaked.

I knew from my time in the library that although much of the South English coast changed significantly over the years, the geography of the Chichester harbour area remained remarkably stable. The landscape I was looking at was not significantly different from that which my medieval research subjects experienced. The Chichester harbour area, in which my research case Bosham is located, is one of many tidal estuaries on the South English coast. Here, a couple of streams create a network of channels that are filled with sea water twice a day, the majority of the seabed lying dry in between.[1] This particular geography did not only visually blur the boundaries between land and sea. It also lent itself perfectly to small-scale fishing activities, practiced in addition to agriculture in otherwise typical manorial villages.

As I was passing through, it was easy to imagine the small boats I saw lying on the mudflats, that would float as soon as the tides came in, as medieval “batellas.” These small wooden boats would have been manned by a crew of two to five fishermen, using lines and especially nets to haul in fish.[2] Noticing the large difference between high and low tide also made it easy to understand the benefit of tidal nets or fishing weirs. These structures would trap fish swimming in during high tide as the water retreated. As such, it was a relatively low-effort hands-off technique that would have been combined with other activities such as farming. The technique shows up frequently in the accounts and courts of Bosham now held in the archive, which mention different structures of this type, like fixed tidal nets, weirs and kiddles. Both the people who paid to use the weirs, as those who owned them, held land for agriculture concurrently. The fifteenth century saw the construction of multiple new weirs, often held and used by different members of one family including daughters, wives and widows.[3]

Harder to imagine in a landscape like this would be larger trading ships passing through the shallow channels to sell wares at the markets of Bosham and especially Chichester. The accounts of Bosham at the end of the thirteenth century mention some, albeit small, profit from toll and lastage of trading ships. By the fifteenth century, however, they disappear.[4] This aligns with the evolution of Chichester harbour: while there was some trade initially, it never grew out to be an important port centre. A major explanation for this decline is the ever-increasing sediment in the tidal channels, making them hard, if not impossible, to navigate for larger vessels.[5]

Local fishing farmers would have profited from this decline of the port, as it meant decreased competition from the trade of herring and cod caught in large-scale fishing ventures. Yet, it also explains the coinciding surge in the construction of fishing weirs mentioned before. Weirs could often be a source of conflict with trading centres and merchants, as it blocked access to important estuaries. The Magna Carta of 1215 (and some subsequent regulations) famously forbid building fixed fish traps in most estuary waters, precisely for this reason.[6] With Chichester harbour in decline, however, there seemed to be little opposition to the newly built weirs. It makes sense therefore that the demise of one industry gave rise to the increased exploitation of another.

In the end, many aspects determine the circumstances in which fishing and farming could be combined on late medieval coastlines; a major question my research tries to answer. The most important factors are existing regulations, social relations between lords and peasants, and the proximity of infrastructure and trade networks. Yet there is one that often gets unfairly overlooked: the (im)possibilities of the landscape. It would be possible to understand the many ways in which the landscape influenced the processes taking place within it based on texts from libraries and archives alone. But its importance becomes much more self-evident if you simply go take a look. Because once you are in the middle of the landscape, there is no way around it. 

[1] Rodney Castleden, The Sussex Coast: Land, Sea and the Geography of Hope (Blatchington Press, 2013), 11-14.

[2] Mark Bailey, “Coastal Fishing off South-East Suffolk in the Century after the Black Death,” Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History 37 (1992), 104. 

[3] West Sussex Record Office, Iveagh Manuscripts, Iveagh MSS/Bosham Manor/1/1, Court Rolls.

[4] National Archives, SC 6/1021/11-24, Ministers and receivers accounts: Bosham; West Sussex Record Office, Iveagh Manuscripts, Iveagh MSS/Bosham Manor/II/A/1-16, Chamberlain accounts.

[5] Castleden, The Sussex Coast, 11-14.

[6] Anthony Scott, “Rights over Fisheries and Fish,” in The Evolution of Resource Property Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 133.

*Cover image: reconstruction drawing of a medieval fishing weir by Simon Dick. Commissioned by Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan, University College Dublin.

[*Cover image description: A hand-drawn image of a wooden structure in a v-shape lying exposed during low tide. The structure is made up of flexible branches woven through stakes, held up by additional diagonal stakes. Four people in medieval clothing are shown working on the weir. In the foreground lies a small woven boat attended by another figure. In the background, the sea and land ahead are visible.]

Edited by Lívia Regina Batista, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.