Lent: a fishy time.
For Catholics, at least: and for those countries which were catholic by default for centuries.
Fish were big business in mediaeval times. During Lent meat was forbidden at table, but fish was permitted: and so the monasteries which thrived at the time made ample provision.
They built huge fish ponds to farm the creatures.
Stick a pin in a map and you will find traces of them: try Clairveaux Abbey in North Eastern France. It is a ruined abbey incorporating, to the east, the clear shapes of fish ponds, which have long drained and run dry.
Far more startling is Meare Fish House in Somerset. Here the Abbot of Glastonbury had a fish pond to end all fish ponds: the River Brue was used to fill a lake 5 miles in circumference, and taking up 200 acres. It had its own Water Bailiff to watch over it, with a tall stone house at the lake’s edge.
The Abbey was dissolved, along with so many others, in 1539. Its lake has been drained this 200 years.
Yet for centuries it was stocked with the choicest fish: carp, of course; and pike.
Pike. The Russians believed evil spirits inhabited them; and having watched a pike devour whole broods of ducklings from the glassy surface of a pond, I can see why. TH White chose it as the wily,evil, arrogant seducer of small fish in the moat of Arthur’s childhood castle.
But sometimes it was a benign enchanter. In one Russian tale, it transforms the life of a ne’er do well; with no strings attached.
The lazy third son in the story never gets his come-uppance for questionable morals. Rather, he is celebrated for them. Is this the Russian sense of humour?
You must judge for yourself.
Emelya was the third of three brothers. The first two were success stories; merchants who made it large and married beautiful wives.
But somehow, Emelya got the shallow end of the gene pool. He was pot-bellied and ugly, and his personality did not redeem him. He spent much of his time sleeping on the warm stove.
One day, the story goes, the brothers were called away on business. Well, they reflected, looking at each other aghast; this is awkward. For we must leave our wives in the hands of a fool who sleeps on the stove.
They lectured Emelya for hours on the importance of looking after the two women. Yes, yes, he acquiesced: anything to shut them up so that he could go back to the stove and sleep.
Next morning, bright and early, those pretty shrill voices were demanding help from the slothful Emelya. “Please Emelya,” they asked, “we need water for our day. Would you go and get some?”
“Go and get it yourself,” mumbled Emelya, and turned over to find a more comfortable position.
The woman looked at each other: they were prepared for this. Emelya loved red clothes: and they bribed him with a sumptuous scarlet outfit.
He got up. He scratched his belly. He shambled off towards the river.
The third son filled the pails, and then he spotted a pike in an ice-hole. Mmmm, rumbled Emelya’s tummy. That pike would be a delicious meal: and he caught it.
Whereupon the pike began talking to him in a human voice.
“Don’t eat me, Emelya,” he pleaded. “If you spare me I will bring you fortune. Just ask for anything by saying ‘By the pike’s wish, at my command,’ and it shall be done.”
The pike was as good as its fishy word.
At first Emelya used his enchantment to send the pails of water home by themselves, and collect firewood for the demanding wives; but he soon saw the wider applications of such spells.
His sleigh, on its way to collect firewood, had knocked down several innocent passers-by. When the police came he summoned a large cudgel to beat them back to the station.
His behaviour reaching the Tsar’s ears he was enticed to the palace for further examination. But he would not move from his warm stove: no, he commanded it to convey him to the palace.
When he saw the princess it was but a few pike-invoking syllables to ensure she fell in love with him; and when the Tsar tried to solve the whole sorry mess by casting the lovers out to sea in a barrel the pike’s magic found them a safe island and built them a palace.
And it transformed Emelya into a tall handsome prince stereotype.
So that, by the time the Tsar arrived to visit, the pike had taken care of so many little inconveniences that the Tsar burst into tears and begged his forgiveness.
Pikes: grumpy monster-toothed tyrants of the murk: tasty Lenten feasts; or enchanted spirits?
Maybe they are a little of all three.