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 A.D. 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 veal into imitation sturgeon for wealthy lords and ladies. Sturgeon was so rare in England and France that it was reserved for the monarchs, and the Cistercians, a Catholic religious order that used sign language to communicate, referred to it using the sign for fish and then the sign for pride.
People of all social classes, though, ate freshwater fish—trout, whitefish, pike, eel, lamprey, and shads. This taste started to have consequences. Today, fish populations around the world are rapidly declining; a millennium ago, Europeans faced similar challenges. Overfishing resulted in local extinctions, and popular food fish had to be domesticated through aquaculture. The population pressures created by humans may have even changed the size of fish.