Friday, 30 May 2008

Links to Europe

Trade with mainland Europe collapsed along with the Roman Empire. Britain, apparently, became an island again.

It was another oyster island that would became culturally and spiritually important in the era. While the barbarian hordes swept across Europe, Ireland became a centre of learning and a haven for Christendom from the 5th century. Here the embers of literacy and academia glowed in the monasteries until the renaissance. Irish is now thought to be one of the oldest languages of Europe. The scribes and scholars built up huge libraries, which they scrupulously copied in Greek and Roman. They sent them out with their monks as missionaries of the faith. The use of the harp and the lyre is another tantalising connection between Celtic cultures and the Egyptians of pre-history too.

In England, the chaos also saw large numbers fleeing Cornwall and taking refuge in Brittany, which for three centuries came to be known as Little Britain, a migration that underlines the close seafaring ties in the west between oyster ports, although very little seems to survive by way of what actually passed except tantalising glimpses of what may have been.

The recorded wealth of middle Saxon England around 700 BC was built largely on the undefended seafaring from three ports, London at Aldwych, Ipswich in Suffolk and Southampton, all of which claim clear lineage to their oyster beds and thence shipbuilding.

By the 8th century, and certainly before the Normans, oysters were being sent up from the coasts. The church insisted on fish days, not just in Lent, but Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes Wednesdays too. Studies of the diets of the time show that oysters were commonly eaten across rural areas. Fish days were strictly enforced for a thousand years and it was only later, possibly as a reaction, that the singularly English tactic of pairing oysters with meats - with mutton, with steak and kidneys in a pie, as a stuffing for chicken, turkey or even duck or made into sausages with pork - came to the fore, around the 17th century.

Much early trade with Europe at this time seems to have been more about informal trading on the waters which might have attracted a judicial interest with hindsight or when a profit was to be gleaned. These secretive links could probably go back in some form or other to pre-Roman times and provided a governance and politic of their own which were only really disturbed in the 1550s when the Dutch started to bring rich cargoes of treasures from the newly discovered colonies up the Channel.