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A Fishy Tale of Easter
in the Middle Ages


By the time of the Lenten fast in Spring, it was the fish that was still cheap and plentiful when meat was forbidden for the 40 long days that led up to Easter.

Native to the cold North Atlantic, herring held a layer of fat that was a natural for preservation, and either smoked or salted, they were packed by the thousands in barrels and shipped inland to markets all over medieval Europe.

Although gleaming silver when caught in trawlers' nets in September, they had all been but reduced to the color of gray cardboard by the time Lent had rolled around. Not surprisingly, the barrels of preserved herring would come to symbolize steely Lenten sacrifice - coupled with a cast iron stomach.

Despite its fishy reputation, however, the lowly herring came into its own in the Hundred Years War when, on February 12, 1429, the French attacked an English supply train in the siege of Orléans.

Under fierce attack, the English army barricaded themselves behind their barrels laden with herring intended for Lenten consumption. The skirmish was forever afterward dubbed The Battle of Herrings. The English won.

If smoked* rather than salted, the 'red' herring quickly took on the appearance of fish jerky, and it often needed copious helpings of mustard to make it palatable. At Queen’s College, Oxford, on Easter Sunday the first dish served was a red herring made to look like a man on horseback riding away - a symbol that all the fasting and penance of Lent was finally over.

*It was the smoking process that gave the red herring its distinctive brownish red color. Hunters would leave red herrings along their trail because the strong smell would confuse the wolves. This is the origin of red herring, or "to leave a false trail."

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