The History of Fish Fridays

By Dale Mayo, March 1, 2022

Why People Eat Fish On Fridays

Fish Fridays Sumerian Sign

The evolution of the pictographic Sumerian sign for fish (ku) from around 3000 BC through its Neo-Assyrian (circa 850-650 BC) and Neo-Bablyonian (c. 1000-625 BC) cuneiform iterations.[1], [2]  

Why Fish on Friday? 

Many major world religions have dietary rules which are meant to be followed for a period of time (e.g., Ramadan, Lent) or are prescribed lifestyles (e.g., Kosher, Halal).  The practice of eating fish on Friday – still followed by many Catholics today – was written about in the first century A.D.  According to Christian teaching, Jesus died on a Friday, and people fasted as a sacrifice in his memory. [3]  While fasting is part of many religious traditions, it does not always mean abstention from all food and drink.  In this case, fasting meant that people stopped eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals on Fridays; cold-blooded fish could still be consumed.[4] 

Fish has been an important part of human diet from the time of Stone Age hunter‐gatherers, who ate the meat of warm-blooded animals, plants and fish.[5]  Some of our earliest cookbooks are clay tablets from the 18th century B.C. (housed in Yale University’s Babylonian Collection) that include recipes for preparing fish.[6]  Fish has always been a primary ingredient in Jewish cookery because it was plentiful, easy to prepare, and symbolized fertility and prosperity.[7] 

Additional symbolism has been attached to fish (the Old Testament’s claim that God created fish and marine life on the fifth day (Friday), most of the apostles were fishermen who then became “fishers of men” who gathered converts to Christianity, and the use of the fish symbol in early Christianity).[8]  Fish were also important to the Greeks, Romans, and other pagans who used the fish symbol prior to its adoption by Christians.  This meant that early Christians could use the mark without drawing undesired attention to themselves.[9]    

The 4th century Council of Nicea formalized the tradition of 40 days of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Easter), during which only weekdays are counted as fasting days when it was forbidden to eat meat (including poultry), animal fats, milk, or eggs. The medieval Christian calendar named even more meat-free days:  Fridays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, Advent (the weeks before Christmas) and Lent (the weeks before Easter).[10]  Some suggest that the medieval Catholic Church increased the number of fasting days/fish days to prop up the fishing economy dominant in monasteries, however Brian Fagan (UC Santa Barbara) and Michael Foley (Baylor University) both discredit this theory. [11]

It has also been suggested that the timing of fasting from meat and dairy products in Spring is not coincidental. Rather, it comes at a time when stored provisions might be running low, fields are bare, ewes are not lambing, and hens are laying fewer eggs. Fasting in Spring also pre-dates the Christian era.[12]  In addition, many fish varieties are high in B Vitamins, Niacin, and Folate, which would offer nutritional benefits after a winter of weak sunshine and a declining choice of vegetables.[13]

Medival Netting Needle

Late medieval netting needle, copper alloy. Photo Portable Antiquities Scheme[14]

The fish industry was well-established and vital to the medieval economy.  Descriptions, depictions (including 130 churches with relevant wall paintings[15]), and artifacts of fishing are plentiful from the Middle Ages (5th - 15th century).  The use of fishhooks, spears, nets, traps, and even fish farming was widespread throughout Europe.  Sometime around 1000 AD, there was a shift from the consumption of locally caught freshwater fish to ocean caught fish.[16]  While this might have been a response to overfishing of local fish, dried Scandinavian cod appears as an important traded commodity.[17]  The drying and smoking of herring and cod as a way of preserving them for eating later, in the centuries before refrigeration, made fishing a growth industry. Vikings, who were expert at preserving cod, were sailing first to Iceland and Greenland, and then onto Newfoundland to fish where Atlantic cod were plentiful.[18]

Drying Cod

"Drying cod" by Delphinidaesy is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Vikings were thought to have developed an early sun compass, allowing them during mid summers to measure the declination of the sun to keep them on latitude courses, thus able to steer relatively straight courses to and from these areas across the North Atlantic. In this way, the growing demand for fish spurred advances in Medieval navigation and the discovery of new lands.

Fish fasting continued to stimulate growth in seafood right up into modern times, and played quite a role here in the development of North America’s cod and other fishing industries. Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, when an early McDonald’s franchise owner wrestled with the challenge of selling burgers on Friday, he developed the solution in the ever-popular Filet-O-Fish sandwich. Indeed, when the Pope scaled back Fish Fridays in the 1960s to just the 40-day period of Lent, cod prices dropped dramatically as demand fell for a period of time.

Today, many people continue to eat fish on Friday -- whether or not they are religious. We know the health benefits of eating fish and seafood make it an important dietary choice for any day of the week. And by ordering from Sizzlefish.com, you can keep a variety of premium, natural seafood in stock for preparing delicious home meals in minutes anytime you want.

[1]  Labat, R., Malbran-Labat, F.  (1976). Manuel D' Epigraphie Akkadienne, 5 Ed., P. Geuthner, Paris, France.

[2]  Walker, C.B.F. (1987). Cuneiform, Reading from the Past. British Museum Press, London, England.

[3]  Godoy, M. (2012). Lust, lies and empire:  the fishy tale behind eating fish on Friday.  National Public Radio, April 6, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/04/05/150061991/lust-lies-and-empire-the-fishy-tale-behind-eating-fish-on-friday

[4]  Foley, M.P. (2005). Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just about Everything. St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY.

[5]  Sahrhage D. (2008). Fishing in the Stone Age. In: Selin H. (eds) Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4425-0_8594

[6]  King, C. (2001). Corn bread stuffing gives way to Kippu.  The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2001.  https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/18/nyregion/corn-bread-stuffing-gives-way-to-kippu.html

[7]  https://reformjudaism.org/reform-jewish-life/food-recipes/iconic-jewish-fish-dish

[8]  Trynoski, D. (2017). Fish on Friday I:  Economic blessing or dietary sacrifice?  https://www.medievalists.net/2017/03/fish-friday-economic-blessing-dietary-sacrifice/

[9]  Coffman, E. (2008).  What is the origin of the Christian fish symbol?  Christianity Today.  https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/what-is-origin-of-christian-fish-symbol.html

[10]  Godoy, M. (2012). Lust, lies and empire:  the fishy tale behind eating fish on Friday.  National Public Radio, April 6, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/04/05/150061991/lust-lies-and-empire-the-fishy-tale-behind-eating-fish-on-friday

[11]  Trynoski, D. (2017). Fish on Friday I:  Economic blessing or dietary sacrifice?  https://www.medievalists.net/2017/03/fish-friday-economic-blessing-dietary-sacrifice/

[12]   McGowan, K. (2010). Medieval Lent: Real seasonal eating. Comestibles. February 17, 2010.  https://blog.kathrynmcgowan.com/2010/02/17/medieval-lent-real-seasonal-eating/

[13]   Trynoski, D. (2017). Fish on Friday I:  Economic blessing or dietary sacrifice?  https://www.medievalists.net/2017/03/fish-friday-economic-blessing-dietary-sacrifice/

[14]  Trynoski, D. (2017).  Fish on Friday III: From fish weir to table.  https://www.medievalists.net/2017/04/fish-on-friday-fish-weir-to-table/

[15]   Buller, F. (2009).  Fish and Fishermen in English Medieval Church Wall Paintings.  Medlar Press, England.

[16]  Trynoski, D. (2017).  Fish on Friday III: From fish weir to table.  https://www.medievalists.net/2017/04/fish-on-friday-fish-weir-to-table/

[17]   Pitcher, T.J., Lam, M.E. (2015). Fish commoditization and the historical origins of catching fish for profit. Maritime Studies, 14:2(2015).  https://www.medievalists.net/2015/07/fish-commoditization-and-the-historical-origins-of-catching-fish-for-profit/

[18]   Godoy, M. (2012). Lust, lies and empire:  the fishy tale behind eating fish on Friday.  National Public Radio, April 6, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/04/05/150061991/lust-lies-and-empire-the-fishy-tale-behind-eating-fish-on-friday