Bishop Wilfrid and the Sussex Famine

When I was working on my Kalamazoo presentation last spring, I was looking for references to famines or malnutrition. Bede’s History is pretty pitiful in this regard. He only records two famines, one before the arrival of the English and the second when Bishop Wilfrid first came to Sussex. As we will see below, this famine is more than suspect.

“For three years before his coming to the kingdom no rain had fallen in those parts, so that a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them. For example it was said that forty or fifty men, wasted with hunger, would go together to some precipice or to the sea shore where in their misery they would join hands and leap into the sea, perishing wretchedly either by the fall or drowning. But on the very day on which the people received the baptism of the faith, a gentle but ample rain fell; the earth revived, the fields once more became green, and happy and fruitful season followed. So, casting off their ancient superstitions and renouncing idolatry, ‘the heart and flesh of all rejoiced in the living God’; for they realized the He who was the true God had, by His heavenly grace, endowed them with both outward and inward blessings.

The hagiographical tools are hard to miss. A drought induced famine that is only relieved by a gentle ample rain that began on the day of the first baptisms. A three-year drought without a single drop of rain, in coastal Sussex? I find a three-year drought hard to believe anywhere in England. Then there are the very strange ‘suicides’. According to Bede its desperation that drove 40-50 men who hold hands and jump off a cliff into the sea. A single person might be driven to suicide but a whole group of only men? I have to wonder if these were not pagan sacrifices to the sea, perhaps of slaves or prisoners of war who were tied together. The suicide story could have come up when Bishop Wilfrid’s party inquired about bones scattered on the shore.

Wilfrid, Apostle to South Saxons , holding a net of fish.

When the bishop first came to the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds. There were divided into three parts: a hundred were given to the poor, a hundred to those who supplied the nets, while they kept a hundred for their own use. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all and they had the greater hope of heavenly blessings from the preaching of one by whose aid they gained temporal blessings.” (Bede IV.13, McClure and Collins, p. 193-194)

More fishiness in Wilfrid’s net casting. Apparently people in Sussex are happy to believe that Wilfrid taught them to fish (as seen in this church window).  So let me get this straight, the rivers are full of fish but all they can catch in nets are these slippery, snake-like eels?

Eels from Sussex

Wilfrid doesn’t bring any new technology or reported techniques. He teaches them how to catch fish with their own eel nets?

Wilfrid’s party may have brought more modern administrative skills and organizing the community into a church owned collective would have improved production. Yet, Wilfrid’s fishing skills appear to be as hagiographic as the drought. It mimics the large fish catches of Jesus in the gospels.

There is good reason why the people of the South Saxons venerated Bishop Wilfrid. For all his abrasive actions with other parts of England, it is very likely that Bishop Wilfrid made lives better in Sussex. At least for some Wilfrid may have been a protector during the worst ravages of King Caedwalla of Wessex in both Sussex and the Isle of Wight. After Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, the West Saxon overlords of Sussex annexed Sussex to the territory of the Bishop of Wessex. After he was gone, the South Saxons could romanticize Wilfrid for bringing them the faith under their last independent kings.


10 thoughts on “Bishop Wilfrid and the Sussex Famine

  1. The eel story is odd. Is it possible that eel nets were highly specialized and only caught eels (long narrow traps)? Then Wilfred showed them how to open them up to catch larger fish. That still begs the question why they could develop nets for eels but never noticed the fish or tried to catch them. It is more logical to have developed nets of a general type first then create a specialized eel net.
    I notice also that the nets Wilfrid cast to catch that load of fish went in the sea, while the eels are presumably from the river (although the text says from both river and sea). So if a drought or something else caused a drop in the rivers, then they might be learning here to fish from the sea. The account may have confused the two issues.

  2. If I may intrude, I’m interested in reports of early mediaeval weather and also even more in those of the Dark Ages so I’m interested in this three year drought. This may have been during a shift in climatic conditions and should not be discounted, in my humble opinion, because it must have been very unusual for it to be remembered so long. Climate is variable and always has been if you use proxy data to study it. As to eel nets I always thought eels were collected in wicker eel traps (which caught only eels) as they had been since the Mesolithic ! I think some prehistoric ones have been found in swampy conditions.

    1. You are not intruding! Yes, I did think of eel traps but Bede refers to nets. Its just hard to imagine that they could catch eels but not the ‘abundant fish’. Spear fishing alone would have been good enough if the river was full of fish.

  3. Sorry If I have intruded! I am a graduate of Edinburgh University Prehistoric Archaeology and my lecturer was Charles Thomas who wrote on late Roman Church in England. In archaeology we don’t just dismiss the reports of the famine though I’m sure you have historical reasons for doing so.I really am interested in climate changes in this part of the Holocene.
    Christianity in Roman Britain by Charles Thomas is in Google Books and is worth a read.I’m Northumbrian by birth so I was attracted to your blog.

  4. Hello, enjoyed reading this post..

    Very interesting thoughts on the mass suicide aspect of this story .. I’ve no problem believing that a community would select members to discard in the event that there was insufficient food to keep everyone alive, but whether members of the community (maybe elders?) would manfully step up to make the ultimate sacrifice is an interesting question. I think, in general, we forget the extent to which slavery figured in the lives of the early Anglo-Saxons. Good point.

    Eels were quite a big deal for the Anglo-Saxons and could have constituted a major food source in the area? In the event of some kind of blight, famine, freak weather conditions or similar perhaps the eel supply in particular was affected .. I guess its possible that Wilfrid (or someone in his retinue) introduced them to an alternative, maybe going further out to sea/catching different types of fish. Seems hardly likely that he or anyone in his party would have had better knowledge of the local tides and flora/fauna, though, I would agree! And definitely the tale is designed to echo the biblical fishing episode, Bede always having his agenda.

    The bit I love best about this story, though, is the business-like way in which Wilfrid sets about the enterprise.. he only gives a third of his miraculous catch to the needy poor, you notice! Its not all philanthropy .. there’s some cold hard economic reality in here, too. We know that he travelled with a large retinue of people, including armed men as well as priests, and they would all have needed feeding. This practical need to establish supplies, working with (and, as you say, organising or leading) the local community suggests to me a little seed of real life buried away deep within this hagiographical tale?

  5. This idea that the people weren’t eating fish, perhaps through some ‘superstition’, repeats what other earlier Roman commentators also suggest – so the question is, was it true, or was Bede copying an earlier commentator? “Restrained by some principle of superstition, or by their ignorance of the arts of catching them, they made no use of that great variety, and almost infinite multitude of fishes, with which their rivers, lakes and seas abounded.” This idea is repeated in the third century about the Maetae and Caledonians: “They never eat fish, although they have great plenty of them.”
    This next site suggests that in archaeological terms this was correct: Meat from sheep, cattle, pigs, horses and dogs were eaten in the Iron Age. Wild animals and fish were rarely eaten in southern Britain. Cereals such as wheat and barley were probably the main source of food and were consumed in the form of bread, porridge and beer. Beans, some vegetables and wild plants were also eaten.
    It does sound odd to our modern ears doesn’t it. But in myth we do have the salmon being eaten – as the source of druidic wisdom. So its just possible that the salmon in particular was a sacred animal, only to be eaten for a particular sacred purpose.
    So maybe Wilfrid didn’t just show them how to catch fish, maybe he showed them that the new god considered it to be alright to catch and eat them? In other words, he broke whatever taboo surrounded the catching and eating of fish for the general population.
    Interesting though that we’re talking about a post-Roman AS-ruled region.

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