Constantinople was a hub of activity with markets and stalls and among these markets was fish produce caught by fishermen. With such a ready-made meal a stone throw away in the Bosphorus and Black Sea, Byzantine cuisine was all about the catch of the day. Seafood was a staple diet for most around the Meditterrranean and it was no different in the Imperial city. Even the Imperial court in the 12th century wined and dined on upmarket caviar. It was arguably one of the city’s population most important sources of iron and protein.
Can you imagine fishing Byzantine style during the Middle Ages in one of their crude fishing boats? It is documented that Byzantine fisherman most often used the tried and tested method of net fishing, but there is also evidence that suggests that they used pole-fishing boats and practiced for instance an ancient form of fire fishing. A fire basket was mounted onto the end of the boat at night. The light would attract the fish closer to the surface of the water allowing the fisherman to see their catch more easily. It is believed that a 7th century shipwreck off the coast of For near Israel provides us with evidence of this practice. Amongst its fishing gear was a fire basket.
And so If you could stomach the effects of sea sickness, a blistering sun and you were not worried about the fact that you could drown or couldn’t swim, you just might make it as an able fishermen. Life as a fishermen or merchant was a tough life. Early morning or late evening fishing was a way of life. Winds, strong currents, storms and general bad weather were elements these Byzantine fishermen worried about too. Many a livelihoods of fishermen have been ruined, evidence of this is strewed along the bottom of the floor of the Mediterranean sea and around Constantinople. But the rewards of the sea it seems were far too great to simply ignore. Sure wages were regulated and likely poor in comparison to other guilds but at least you got to earn some money, pay your fishing taxes and feed your family. Selling fresh fish directly off the boat was not allowed. The eparch of the city tightly regulated this practice to stamp out underselling. Though fishermen were allowed to set up stalls on piers and ‘points of sale’ for cooked fish. Fishermen of antiquity, especially the Byzantines were also known to have developed various ways of drying and salting fish to give them a longer shelf
Amongst the fisherman’s catch were always large amounts of tuna, mackerel, mullet and anchovies and other seafood like lobsters, shrimp, oysters and scallops of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. Seasonally, of course, other different fish were also catch like shoals of bonito that descended down the Bosphorus once a year.
Photo Credit Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. The header image of Byzantine fishermen ‘firefishing’ is from the Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, National Library of Madrid, Vitr. 26-2. The image of fishermen using a net is a miniature from a Lectionary, 13th century. © Instituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini di Venezia. The anglers using a fishing-like pole besides a fishing boats presumably a 12th century miniature from the Monastery of Panteleimon, on Mount Athos. I believe my inclusion of all these images may constitute fair use in illustrating ancient Byzantine fishing techniques.