Dr. John Wyatt Greenlee has his PhD in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, where he specialized in … eels? Which, as I've now learned from his eel-dedicated Twitter account, were a major cultural and financial asset in medieval England.
He even made an interactive map that shows changing property values across England in eel currency. Yes, really. There are records of that.
So may great questions! I'll try to get to them in coming days. But, briefly:— Surprised Eel Historian, PhD (@greenleejw) December 12, 2019
There were LOTS of eels in medieval England. People ate them, traded them, wrote about them, & paid taxes in them. In 1200 there were 500k+ eels being paid in in-kind taxation each year. Here's a map! pic.twitter.com/tHlHqDCDKZ
Folks in early medieval England often paid their rents using eels. Some eel-rents were small (25-50 eels). But some were quite large.— Surprised Eel Historian, PhD (@greenleejw) October 1, 2020
The village of Welles, for example, paid Ramsey Monastery 60,000 eels every year in rent. 60,000!
And you thought your rent was hard to manage! pic.twitter.com/pgKp9VoOR2
Do you want more eel trade in your city? Have you thought about cutting taxes? It's what Richard II did.— Surprised Eel Historian, PhD (@greenleejw) September 25, 2020
In 1392 the king cut tariffs on eels being imported to London to encourage merchants to bring eels "from over sea, where they are abundant, to London where they are dear." pic.twitter.com/bArOY9Xdoh
And I thought our current financial system of paper with no inherent value was strange.
Dr. Greenlee recently spoke to TIME about his eel obsession, too, which includes both personal information on the historian, and more (moray?) eel details:
Scholar Thomas Bradwardine's 14th century book of mnemonics likens eels to England, advising readers to imagine the King of England holding in "his right hand an eel [anguilla ] wriggling about greatly, which will give you 'England' [Anglia ]." Family crests boasted eels. In the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England by William the Conquerer in the 11th century, the image of Anglo-Saxon King Harold shows him above a pile of eels. An Englishman in the bottom border is holding an eel the wrong way—by the tail, rather than the head—perhaps symbolizing Harold's hold on the English throne, represented by eels, slipping away.
In 1086, when the Normans undertook a study to figure out how people lived in the countryside they had conquered and how much it was worth, known as the Domesday Study, they collected more mentions of rents paid in eels than any other in-kind tax. When the survey was conducted, the English likely owed some 500,000 eels in taxes to landlords around that time.
To put history in perspective, Dr. Greenlee calculated that an Amazon Prime subscription would cost between 150 and 300 eels. (More on that map.)
Curiously, the Irish were much less keen on eels:
In Ireland eels were considered harbingers of famine, especially when they started whistling!— Dr Neil Buttery (@neilbuttery) October 8, 2020
When they grew very large they became a creature known as a dorrowhow, a mythical creature that dragged livestock and people to a watery grave#folklorethursday#sweetdreams pic.twitter.com/GW9UU2AK4k
Keeping It Eel: How One Historian Is Using Twitter and Medieval Factoids to Help Endangered Animals [Olivia B. Waxman / Time]
Image: Public Domain via PxHere