The eighth-century monk Bede gives us some of the first evidence of eels as a part of English life in post-Roman Britain. Scattered archeological evidence, like a 7th-century cemetery in Cambridge that yielded a copper bowl containing three complete eel skeletons, hint at the fish’s importance in England at this time. But it is in Bede’s writing that we can begin to get a broad sense for the place of eels in English cultural life.
The fish make three separate appearances in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and at each instance they connect to issues of English identity and territory. The first comes within the history’s opening section, as Bede describes Britain and sets the geographic stage for his history. And the third famously connects the name of the town of Ely to the eels that swim in the surrounding fens. But it is Bede’s second mention of eels that is perhaps most interesting.
In the fourth book of his text, Bede relates the story of Bishop Wilfrid, who spent several years in exile in the kingdom of the South Saxons. Bede tells us that the kingdom had been suffering from a devastating three-year drought. Conditions were so bad that the region’s people had taken to mass suicide, throwing themselves into the sea in groups of 40 or 50. During his time among them, Wilfrid worked to convert the pagan South Saxons. But before he could convince them to change faiths Wilfrid had to first gain their trust, which he accomplished by teaching them how to fish for their food.
Bede writes that “although the sea and the rivers of that land were rich in fish, the people only had skill in fishing for eels.” So Wilfrid had his men collect the eel snares from all over the land, and then repurposed them as fish nets. Casting the snares and nets into the sea, they pulled in a catch of nearly 300 fish of various species. Wilfrid’s gave the greater part of these fish to the local people, and they, in turn, became more receptive to his teachings. Bede tells us that their eventual conversion brought a return of the rains, and an end to the famine.
There are several ways to read this story, including for its value as a historical narrative. Bede appears not to have been accurate in his description of the Saxons’ bewilderment at marine fishing – as Ann Hagen has noted, archeological evidence from the period shows that the people of the region were eating both eel and other fish at the time. So they were perhaps not as helpless as Bede wants us to believe.
But radiocarbon analysis of human skeletal remains from the 6th and 7th centuries indicates that eels likely made up a greater part of the protein in the early English diet than either all other freshwater fish together, or all marine fish. Eels formed an important enough part of the Saxon’s diet and economy that the law code governing the South Saxon’s next-door neighbors in Wessex during Wilifrid’s life makes specific mention of eel as one of the expected and taxable products of land (King Ine of Wessex expected 100 eels, along with other things, for every ten units of land). So even if they were catching other fish, the South Saxons were still heavily reliant on eels.
And Bede’s account provides a realistic description of the problems that a severe drought would impose on a culture that relied largely on eels for sustenance. Eels are highly susceptible to drought; they live in rivers and wetlands, and when those habitats begin to dry up, regional eel populations experience both migration and die-off. A severe, multiple-year drought in the south of England would have drastically reduced the eel catch and put the Saxon population in dire straits. Clearly, Bede viewed the situation as plausible enough to use as the basis for his history; he found it credible that the pagans would have relied heavily enough on eels that the fish’s disappearance would have had severe destabilizing effects on South Saxon society.
There is also a strong allegorical element to the story. Wilfrid teaching the pagans to fish as a gateway to conversion closely echoes the twinned Biblical stories of Peter and the miraculous draughts of fishes, with Wilfrid standing in as Christ and the South Saxons as Peter. Read only as an allegory, the account might appear to condemn the South Saxons’ traditional reliance on eels as specifically un-English, and mark their shift away from eels as an important moment of cultural change.
But the story does not condemn eel eating – indeed, the pagans’ heavy reliance on a diet of eels gives Wilfrid both an opening to prove himself, and a solution to the drought’s devastating effects. There is no indication in the story that the Wilfrid expected the South Saxons to cease eating eels. Teaching them to fish with their eel nets was simply a mechanism of conversion. Bede leaves unspoken what happened to the eels after the South Saxons converted. But he does note that the rains returned in good measure, and the earth revived (descendit pluuia serena sed copiosa, terra refloruit). And the eels would have returned with the rain.
This part of the story matters. The South Saxons’ conversion would have returned their eels to them, rewarding their faith. For Bede, being English meant being Christian, and so his story ends up not being one in which a diet of eels equates to paganism, but one in which proper faith and proper cultural identity connect positively to the fish.
 Natasha Dodwell, Sam Lucy, and Jess Tipper, “Anglo-Saxons on the Cambridge Backs: The Criminology Site Settlement and King’s Garden Hostel Cemetery,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 93 (2004): 98, 109.
 Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, 231.
 Namque mare et flumina eorum piscibus abundabant sed piscandi peritia genti nulla nisi ad anguillas tantum inerat. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, 231.
 The word retibus is often translated as “nets”, which makes sense in terms of the use to which Wilfrid puts them, but less sense in terms of their initial purpose. Eels can be caught in nets, but these tend to be funneled fyke or weir nets which need to be finely woven. They can also be caught by the use of shore seines, but any culture using shore seines would not need instruction on using their nets to catch other fish. As often as not, eels were caught in reed traps. “Snare”, rather than “net” captures better the probable range of instruments that Wilfrid collected.
 “Collectis ergo undecumque retibus anguillaribus homines antistitis miserunt in mare et diuina se iuuante gratia mox cepere pisces diuersi generis CCC.” Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, 231.
 Ann Hagen, A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink: Production & Distribution (Ely: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995), 167.
 Alex Bayliss et al., Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, ed. John Hines and Alex Bayliss, vol. 33, The Society for Medieval Archeology (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 118–30. Bayliss et al calculate the percentage of protein from eels at 10±7% for women and 8±5.8% for men, the protein from all other freshwater fish together at 8.5±6.3% and 7±5.3%, and from all marine fish together at 5.9±4.1% and 7.5±4.9%.
 F. L. Attenborough, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 58–59.
 For a recent case study of drought affecting eel catches, see: Jellyman and Arai, “Juvenile Eels: Upstream Migration and Habitat Use,” 278–79.
 Luke 5: 1-11; John 21: 1-14.
 Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, 231.