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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

By Brian Fagan
Basic Books, 338 pages, $26.95
How fish on Friday changed the world


Did the church’s rules against eating meat on Fridays fuel a demand for fish that spurred European voyages to North America? Anthropologist Brian Fagan doesn’t provide a conclusive answer to the question he poses in his new book, Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World. But he does offer a wide-ranging collection of material on church history, climate change, shipbuilding and other esoterica, including historic and modern fish recipes that were personally tested by his colleague Daphne Derven.

Dr. Fagan, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, traces the significance of fish in Christianity to the faith’s early days, including the work of several of Jesus’ disciples, his invitation to them to become “fishers of men,” and the IXTHEUS acrostic and symbol used to represent Christ. He notes that a growing belief that consumption of meat created what St. Jerome called the “seed plot of lust” because of the semen-producing quality of flesh led to an emphasis on fasting and fish-heavy diets.

According to Dr. Fagan, another factor that led the church to promote consumption of fish during meatless fasts was a sixth-century adaptation of the practices of worshipers of Venus, who ate fish on Fridays. He also cites military needs for light, easily transported food, climate changes and population growth as factors in the growing market for fish.

Although the anthropologist declares that the European finding of North America was “a thousand-year journey fueled by Christian doctrine and a search for hardtack,” he admits that it’s hard to conclusively document this because of a lack of records. For example, he cites John Balsall, an English ship’s purser who arranged for Franciscan friars in Huelva, Spain, to say prayers for his ship during a stopover in 1481. Noting that the same Franciscan community supported Christopher Columbus’ plans for his westward voyage a few years later, Dr. Fagan asks whether the friars might have learned of western lands from Balsall and passed the information on to Columbus. “We shall never know,” he writes, “but the possibility is intriguing.”

As intriguing as Dr. Fagan’s speculations about the relationship of Christian fasting to voyages of discovery is his documentation of how medieval monastic communities contributed to the development of pisciculture, including artificial fish ponds. At the same time, he laments what he sees as history’s failure to credit the “morally flawed cod fishers” of New England for helping to sustain the 17th-century Puritan settlers. Noting that the cod fishers spent months of hard labor in savage weather conditions, he opines, “One can hardly blame the fishers for taking to drink and carousing, or for the violence that broke out in disputes over stages and prime drying spots.”

Dr. Fagan’s propensity for repeating points throughout his book and for mixing different kinds of subject matter may bemuse readers who expect a more traditional, scholarly approach. His free-wheeling style includes an appeal to consumers to promote sustainable ocean fisheries -- in the middle of a recipe for a sauce of vegetables and poached cod. However, he offers a good, multidisciplinary read that will give every reader more knowledge about a wealth of subjects. Brain food, indeed!

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Brittanica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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