One of the peculiar aspects of the Domesday register of 1086 are the range of taxes that the English 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 most 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. Consequently, the idea of eels having any type of social or economic value appears less normal to us the thought of other animals or commodities having negotiable value. We still eat pigs and drink ale. But the eel-rents also stand out for the sometimes excessive numbers of animals at play — the village of Harmston, for example, owed the Earl Hugh 75,000 eels per year, and fishermen in Wisbech needed to pay various local monasteries a combined total of almost 35,000 per year.
Eel-rents usually only find passing mention in history books, and when they do it is these types of rents, with their eye-popping numbers, that dominate. 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 people living in England owed more than 500,000 eels in taxes each year to their landlords.
The purpose of this project is to map and present the role of eel-rents in the medieval and early modern English economy. From at least the tenth century onward, the English all across the island paid some taxes in eel (live and dead). English eel-rents have long been understudies and misunderstood, and this project demonstrates both the breadth, and the depth, of the rents in English history.
Most studies that discuss eel-rents tend to focus on their role only the economy of the Fens in East Anglia, but in truth renters all across the island paid their taxes in the fish. And while eel-rents did slowly vanish as coins became more common, they did not wholly vanish. Rather, eel-rents remained a wide-spread and viable part of the English economy into the fifteenth century, with scattered rents remaining active for another two hundred years after that.
A map of England showing all known eel-rents from the 10th through the 17th centuries. Sortable by century, and including all relevant information including citations.
Dried eels were often counted in sticks, with each stick being 25 eels. But what is the actual value of a stick of eels? This is an effort to find a rough equivalence in modern monetary terms. So what does a stick of eels get you these days? You might be surprised!
So how far were eel-rents traveling around England? Here is a (highly caveated) attempted to work out just how many miles a stick of eels was likely to go between its point of capture and its destination.
It you’re really enjoying learning about eels and history, and you want even more, you can visit my site dedicated to the English history with the fish beyond eel-rents and maps.
For daily tidbits of eel history, complete with fun memes and bad eel puns, you can follow me at The Surprised Eel Historian (@greenleejw) on Twitter.