The Evolution of the Fishing Village: Landscape and Society Along the SouthDevon Coast, 1086-1550
The popular understanding of the history of the English fishing industry is
heavily coloured by developments in the centuries since the medieval period.
It is thought of as a sea fishery. Inshore, the ups and downs of the south
west pilchard fishery come to mind; middle water takes us perhaps to trawling
on the Dogger Bank; for distant water, fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland,
or the seas around Iceland, will spring to mind. Here we have a study which
takes us into the heart of medieval living and corrects the inaccuracy of those
assumptions. This is work of meticulous scholarship, which draws on a vast
range of sources, in providing us with a better understanding of fishing communities,
fisheries and other shoreline activity (coastal and estuarine) in the centuries
following the Norman conquest. As might be expected in a work of historical
geography, we are treated first to a study which defines and classifies human
interaction with the coastline: port towns, cellar settlements, fishing villages,
quays. Then, aided by maps, the coastline is examined in three sections: the
Exe estuary, Dawlish to Dartmouth, and Dartmouth to the Tamar. Already the
important place of the coastal manor in this study is becoming apparent, as
is the role of place name analysis. Indeed the relationship of a fishery to
a manor is expounded in some detail in the following chapter, where we learn
of detached parts of manors and of the ways in which lords of the manor exacted
taxes on fisheries. Disputes over these financial relationships, are amongst
the variety of evidence which allows the author to draw out information on
species of fish and methods of catching, and of other shoreline activities
such as sand gathering, wreck, and salt production. Turning to consumption
and distribution, we learn that fish was a significant if seasonal part of
the diet, a "crop" which had its place in the annual cycle along
with the crops and animals more normally associated with rural living. Fish
surplus to local needs travelled surprising distances, sometimes appearing
in markets upwards of 50 miles away. Examining the lives of fishing farmers
and cellar settlements Fox goes into great detail with three of his sources:
the Woodbury tithe payments, the Kenton cellar rents and the Stokenham custumals.
His sixth chapter is devoted to discussing the transition made by some cellar
settlements into fishing villages. Factors included population growth, climatic
change and coastal security. While the core of this work is concerned with
the examples offered by the south Devon coast, it does not ignore other parts
of the country. Certainly, some of the evidence comes from further afield.
The author shows that similar patterns were likely along other coastlines.
Further, the emergence of fishing villages, in Devon at about 1500, was earlier
on some locations.
While some of his sources are medieval, not least the Doomsday Book, inevitably
material from more recent times makes a contribution through retrospective
analysis. Although there is no bibliography, extensive endnotes demonstrate
the wide range of documents and published works necessary for this kind of
study. Fox has filled an important gap in the history for fisheries. The book
needs reading with care as the points are closely argued, but the provision
of maps, and the block of monochrome illustrations, is a great help. This study
is a "must" for any one interested in the subject, for maritime historian
specialising in the South West, and for residents of the areas discussed in
detail wanting to know a little more about their local history.
Oxford, Leopard's Head Press, 1-5 Broad Street, OX1 3AW, 2001
(Leicester Explorations in Local History 1). xviii + 208 pp.,
15 monochrome illustrations, 11 maps and diagrams, 6 tables, 3 indices of place
names, subject index.
Price £13.50, paperback.
ISBN 0904920 43 7.
Reviewed by Alston Kennerley
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Dr G Stevens Cox
An excellent review. Fox has produced a first class study.