Medieval English people used to pay their rent in eels

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.


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:

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