Fishing, along with hunting and gathering, is one of the oldest human crafts. There used to be lots of tools and methods, but for the hero of «Alone in the Past» I chose those which fit the epoch and site. I used articles of archeologists who research the history of fishing in the North-West Russia (A. Kuza, E. Salmina, I. Tarasov). Besides I used illuminations of XII–XIV century european manuscripts. It’s well known that in the Middle Ages there was very slow evolution of tools and crafts, so these are adequate sourses for our «Novgorod guy». Information from medieval guides to fishing I used only to fill «gaps», because the first extant guides were written in the XV century in France and England. Any practicing fisherman understands that one can’t simply use ancient Anglo-French recipes for a pond in Moscow Region.
The second stage was development of practical recommendations for Pavel. The author of this article deals with the historical recenactment of this period. Since 2005 me and my club «The Manor» have made lots of experiments in medieval fishing. We’ve fished with authentic gear during all seasons in rivers and lakes of Pskov, Novgorod and Leningrad regions. When we started our experiments we thorougly studied advice of British colleagues from the «Regia Anglorum», who specialize in reenactment of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings of the early Middle Ages.
The final stage in the creation of this guide was connected with specifics of the site, where the project is taking place, and the level of Pavel’s qualification.
Near the farm there is a «stocked» pond. That’s good, because there is potential prey. But Pavel knows nothing about the depth, bottom contour, species of fish, taste preferences of local fish and so on.
There are specific features of inventory in each region. For example, in Ancient Russia there were very popular iron spoonbaits for ice fishing. But more than half of spoonbaits found in Pskov region were made of nonferrous metal. Why so? Due to optical features of Pskov water basins there was low catchability of spoonbaits with a light metallic sheen (this is confirmed by the current data). But we failed to catch something with such spoonbaits in forest lakes of Leningrad region. Unfortunately, we know nothing about features of the pond near Pavel’s farm, so we need to experiment.
Pavel has no boat, this fact significantly decreases his options in fishing. On the other hand, there is going to be freezing-up since December, it allows not to worry so much because of the lack of this important vehicle.
Pavel has no experience in early medieval fishing. Moreover, he has very little experience in modern fishing. Pavel can’t devote himself to fishing entirely, because he alone runs a large farm. In Ancient Russia one could go fishing just for fun. In the «Chronicle and deeds of Polish princes and rulers», dating back to the end of the XII century, there is a famous description of a fishing. The Polish king Boleslav invaded Russia in 1018 and moved to Kiev. Kievan pince Yaroslav the Wise got the news of it while he was fishing. He became terrified, then spit at his fishing rod according to fishermen custom and said: «Since Boleslav deals not with this art, but used to wear knightly weapons, so the God destined to give him this city, and the Russian kingdom, and all the wealth» (Book I, Chapter 7). Of course, it’s a mythical scene. What is important for us — Pavel is not a Kievan Prince. And fishing for him, as for many ordinary people in X century, is an important way to achieve some food.
So what are the tools and methods of fishing, that can help our hero to survive at the project?
Nets are the most common findings among fishing equipment (up to 80% of the total number of findings). Pavel has a simple net. It’s not big: 5 m X 1.5 m. This net is without sinkers and floats, it could be converted into a gill net. In such net fish meshes with gills.
Inhabitans of Ancient Novgorod, Pskov and Ladoga used to equip these nets with stone sinkers. The majority of sinkers were made of local limestone. Usually they are flat bars of round, oval or triangular shape with thickness from 0.7 to 3–4 cm. In the upper part there is an opening for hunging to the net.
Is Pavel able to manufacture such sinkers? It’s easy to make openings with a spoon-shaped borer or even a knife. But is there limestone around the farm?
Sinkers were also ceramic. But one needs to spent lot of time to make them. Here’s how they look like.
But it’s not enough for Pavel to equip the net with sinkers and floats. We remember that he has no boat. So he will have to get into icy water to set the net. Besides, such a small gillnet should be set in small rivers, blocking the flow and «filtering» it. There’s little chance to catch a lot of fish using a small gillnet in the lake.
More problem the hermit will meet in winter. To set a net from ice is a realy hard work, it requires good qualification and help of an assistant.
There used to be special tools for ice fishing — for setting nets, pulling them through ice holes, correction, unleashing of a purse. These were special poles, hooks and forks.
There were lots of them in the Middle Ages. What can Pavel use? Look at this German miniature.
To make such fish trap one needs several hoops. Such traps could be net-like or purse-like, i. e. made of twisted bark or thin twigs. The main problem for Pavel is that it takes at least a dozen traps to catch some fish for sure. And in winter you need to pierce big ice holes.
A sack trap is easily manufactured. This requires a forked stick, a piece of netting and a rope. But this fishing method is almost inapplicable in winter and it is most effective in shallow water during the spawning season.
Another kind of simple trap — a lift net. It requires a long pole, a piece of netting, one sinker and several meters of rope. Very important is lifting speed. One can use this method in any season. To lure the fish one can use remnants of cereal or a piece of cloth soaked in oil. Here is a German engraving of 1568, which depicts a fisherman using a lift net.
For IX–XI centuries there are many findings of hooks varying in size and material.
Floats of pine bark and wood were usually made of random scraps (Fig. 1). There were also oval floats with a hole in the center, drop-shaped with a hole in the widest part (Fig. 3, 2). There are also interesting floats made of sticks with a place for attachment (Fig. 4). This is the most sensitive kind of floats — due to its almost vertical position, it reacts to the lightest touch of a fish. It is well visible in the water even while there are ripples. Birch bark floats have the same shape as that of networks, but they were made in a slipshod style (Fig. 5).
There are very few limestone sinkers which could fit tackles. They are elongated, with a hole at the top. The smallest ceramic sinkers are either balls or pieces of shapeless clay (Fig. 6). In addition they used lead sinkers, either a small segment of a rolled lead plate, or simply perforated lead plate (Fig. 7, 8).
Rods for summer fishing were flexible, 1.2–2 meters at length. As fishing lines they used linen threads. They started to use silk threads actively in the later Middle Ages.
Our experiments proved high efiiciency of fishing with such rod using worms.
They used rods with floats in winter as well. Winter rods had short handles. Through our experiments we’ve learned that there is a serious shortcoming — linen threads freeze rapidly in the wind and tackle for a while becomes too rough. However, it is still possible to catch fish. Here are pictures of a fishing in February, 2010 on Obdekh River (Pskov region).
Only a quarter of hooks was made for «active» fishing i. e. requiring constant human presence. In the early Middle Ages they prefered snares. It is suitable for Pavel. In open water the easiest way is to set weighted lines. A thread, sinker, leash (of thread or wire), a big hook — that’s all you need. For the bait you can use worms, pieces of fish, meat etc. In the picture there is a bottom tackle.
For ice fishing our hero can use a fishing tackle «fork» with figure of eight coiled fishing line or «postavushki» — circles with diameter of not less than 15 cm and thickness of not less than 4 cm.
Old Russian spoonbaits for ice fishing were made of iron or non-ferrous metal, sometimes of twigs, plates. This allows Pavel to make a variety of spoonbaits. By the way, predatory fish can easily bite through linen thread. In February 2009 a young pike made so while I was trying to catch perches on the Pskov lake using a copper spoonbait made of a plate. Here is a finding of a spoonbait from Pskov (XII–XIII centuries) with a metal leash.
This was the most rare way of fishing in Ancient Russia. Most experts believe that fishing with bows and arrows, tied with a cord, began to spread only from the end of the XI century. Our hero has a bow and arrows. Before the freeze-up he can try himself in the role of a fisher-bowman. More often they used harpoons. There are findings of not only iron but also wooden and bone harpoons. This tool requires high qualification and one needs do go into water. It’s efficient in shallow waters where there is a lot of fish. The best results in fishing with harpoon are in pre-winter time, at night, using a torch.
For making ice holes Pavel will have to spoil one of his six axes or manufacture an ice pick. In Staraya Ladoga a very effective iron tip of an ice pick was found. It’s a chisel-like tip with sharp cutting edge (In the picture below).
P. S. I thank I. Tarasov for his site «Pages of fishing history» and E. Salmina for consultations.
P. P. S. Some of the described fishing tools and methods are prohibited by Russian law.