13th century origin of London's international fish trade

28 May 2014

Cod skeleton indicating anatomical categories used in the study (Base image copyright ArcheoZoo.org)

Research by David Orton and collaborative partners has traced London's global fish trade back to the medieval period.

The growth of medieval cities in Northern Europe placed new demands on food supply, and led to the import of fish from increasingly distant fishing grounds. This new research, led by archaeologists from UCL, Cambridge and UCLan and published today in the journal Antiquity, provides new insight into the medieval fish trade and the globalisation of London’s food supply.

Data analysed from nearly 3,000 cod bones found in 95 different excavations in and around London identified a sudden change in the origin of the fish during the early 13th century, indicative of the onset of a large-scale import trade.

As lead author of the study, David Orton, explains:

  • It's a truly remarkable shift. We had expected a gradual increase in imports as demand grew along with the city's medieval population – thought to have quadrupled between AD 1100 and AD 1300 – but this is something else: evidence for locally caught cod drops off suddenly when the imports come in."

The research also shows a temporary drop in imports in the late 14th century that might reflect the Black Death's impact on European trade, plus a further surge in imports from around AD1500 - coinciding with the beginnings of trans-Atlantic trade and the arrival of cod from Newfoundland on European markets.

The research was funded by The Leverhulme Trust and the Fishmongers' Company (London) and was made possible by London's archaeological contractors – particularly Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who each year excavate dozens of sites threatened by development and who opened their database to the researchers – and by the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre that curates the resulting finds and data.

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Image: Cod skeleton indicating anatomical categories used in the study (Base image copyright ArcheoZoo.org)