How the carp came to Britain

MonksIf you enjoy long, rambling tales that never really reach a conclusion, you are going to enjoy this one. If you don’t enjoy shaggy dog stories, the short answer is that we aren’t sure how and when carp made it over the Channel, but you can’t possibly be satisfied with a reply like that, can you?

No, I didn’t think so. Make sure you are settled comfortably, because some hard thinking is going to be needed. This piece is largely derived from John Langridge's excellent Aphrodite's Carp, published by the Medlar Press.

First, what we do know:

  1. Carp are warm water fish, so it is highly unlikely that they have ever been native to Northern Europe, which pretty much kicks the “they have always been here” case into touch.
  2. They probably weren’t imported by the Romans either, because there is virtually no evidence for the import of carp to continental Northern Europe prior to the 12th century. The Romans knew all about carp, but it appears that they weren’t bothered about bringing them to Britain. After all, there were plenty of other freshwater fish, not to mention the sea. Why should they go to the trouble?
  3. The first references to carp breeding in ponds in Northern Europe occur in the 13th century, but there are no mentions of carp in Britain at that date.
  4. Carp were definitely established in Britain by the 15th century, because the fish has a place in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, but the author specifically writes as if the species was a new arrival.

The logical conclusion is that carp were imported some time during the 14th century, because after the Treatyse, references to the fish multiply, presumably reflecting what the carp were doing, thanks to the new craze for fish ponds.

Just to keep you up to speed, this is what the Treatyse has to say on the subject:

The carp is a dainty fish, but there are only a few in England, and therefore I will write the less of him. He is an evil fish to take. For he is so strongly armoured in the mouth that no light tackle may hold him. And as regards his baits, I have but little knowledge of it, and I am reluctant to write more than I know and have tried. But well I know that the red worm and the minnow are good baits for him at all times as I have heard reliable persons tell and also found written in books of credence.

So carp were definitely here and proving hard to get by 1496, the date the Treatyse was published, which leaves the problem of when the manuscript was written and we don’t know the answer to that – worse still, we don’t even know who wrote it. The kicker here is the mention of "books of credence", which implies that there were other books that mentioned the carp in existence at the time the manuscript of the Treatyse was written. The snag is that we don't know what these other books were - or even if they were written in Britain - there is simply no evidence of their existence, so they may have been lost.

The manuscript of the Treatyse almost certainly dates to later than the 12th century, because the intro is borrowed almost word for word from a 12th century work, but the rest of the text appears to be much younger than that. There are loads of ifs and buts, but an early 15th century date for the manuscript makes a lot of sense – which backs up the message that carp were almost certainly unknown in Britain prior to at least the early 1300s and probably didn't arrive until later than that.

There is just one earlier mention of carp in Britain, which by chance or destiny dates to only 30 years before the Treatyse was printed, in the worthy tome, Manners and Household Expenses of England, and Chaucer doesn’t mention carp at all, so we have a pretty open and shut case for a 14th century arrival here.

I’ll reword that - we have an open and shut case until some more evidence turns up and upsets the apple cart – but that’s history for you.