One of the peculiar aspects of the Domesday register of 1086 are the range of taxes paid in-kind. Domesday records payments in pigs, in fish, in ale, and in many other types of food. Of these in-kind payments, the one that stands out to modern viewers is likely the eel-rents. This is in part because, in Europe and the Americas, we have generally moved away from eating eel on anything like a regular basis, and it consequently appears less normal to us than many of the other food-rents. We still eat pigs and drink ale. But the eels also stand out for the sometimes excessive numbers — the village of Harmston, for example, was recorded as owing the Earl Hugh 75,000 eels per year, and fishermen in Wisbech owed various local monasteries a combined total of almost 35,000 per year.Numbers like these tend to be the ones that get cited in any histories that touch on the question of eel-rents. It is worth noting, though, that these numbers, while high, are not out of the range of normal. Domesday, and subsequent documents, show that rents of multiple thousands of eels a year were common for single fisheries or mills. All told, at the time of the Great Survey in 1086 there were more than 500,000 eels being paid in taxes each year in England.
Eel-rents are commonly understood to have been primarily levied in the Fens of East Anglia, and to have quickly been replaced by rents due in hard currency. The point of this digital project, which is a part of a larger, ongoing work, is to test those presumptions. The map demonstrates that eel-rents, though more common in the Fens, were wide-spread. Further, it shows that eels continued to serve as a rent currency in England into the 17th century, though with decreasing frequency.
What is a stick of eels worth?
- An effort to try to work out the value of eel-rents in modern currency (here)
- English eel-rents, 10th-17th Centuries (here)
How far are eel-rents traveling?
- An estimation of the average distance that Domesday eel-rents traveled (here)
- Spreadsheet of eel-rents from the 9th century onward, including notes and citation (here)
As the larger project develops, I will continue to add maps and data to this page.