From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London: William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 71-77.




Fish and Fasting.


IN the very heart of the romantically picturesque and historically interesting region of Hexhamshire, stands the little church of St. Helen’s, commonly called Whitley Chapel. From the summit of the grave-covered eminence, which it crowns, it looks eastward and westward upon one of the finest vales of all England, the Dale of Devilswater, one of the finest fishing streams in the North Country.

A pretty little dell on its banks, within twenty minutes’ walk of the chapel, contains the Holy Well, a strong sulphur spa to which, in mediæval times, the monks of Hexham Abbey made periodical visits, and where we may, in fancy, picture them with tonsured head and girdled gown, half concealed amongst the hazel bushes, trying to catch a dish of trout from the stream for Friday’s meal.

Over the little tower, within which swings the bell of St. Helen’s, telling the dalesmen of the 72 service for the day, or tolling their parting knell, is perched, not a weather-cock as is so usual in church symbolism, but the figure of a fish.

How old this particular fish is the inhabitants cannot tell, it was on the old church before this one was built, and this is very old. That is all they know. Why it is there they cannot say, but one old man, a weather-beaten angler, thinks it must be because the Devilswater is so fine a fishing stream, and the “Chapel” overlooks it all; and no doubt often by it he has judged which way the wind was blowing, and thereby gauged what sort of sport his would be, as he went out in the early morning. That is what the old fisherman knows of the fish.

But that does not satisfy us. The fish is an ecclesiastical symbol, and we would fain know its history. Again, it is the food always used in “Fasts,” as though it were a more spirtualised food; and that it is not such solid food as flesh meat, is not to us sufficient reason for fish having been the food for fast days for so many ages, and through such a diversity of countries.

Let us look briefly into the history of the fish in relation to religion. In the New Testament, it is fish which, with bread, forms the miraculously 73 multiplied food of fasting multitudes. Other mention of fish in the New Testament we need not refer to. But this use of the fish in the feeding of the four and the five thousands, especially in connection with the discourse of our Lord on the Bread of life, furnished special reason for its use in early Christian art.

In the crude but instructive frescoes of the catacombs at Rome, we learn much in relation to such primitive art. Much knowledge may be gained through the devotional energy, if not the æsthetic taste, of the early Christians.

Among these early specimens, we come upon illustrations of the Lord’s Supper, very different indeed from the later fresco of Leonardo da Vinci, yet in reality possessed of greater truth than his. In these pictures we see, not alone the Cup and the Bread, but on a dish beside them, fish, sometimes one, at other times more. This was drawing a much closer relation between Jesus and the fish. In later times, other legends gathered round this relationship, as the alleged thumb and finger marks of Jesus on the haddock. However that may be, the gradual greater reverence paid to the fish as a favoured creature of the Creator takes a sudden startling step further forward. It 74 is found that the initials of the Saviour’s principal titles form the very name of Fish in Greek: — ἰχθύς :

ι        ἰησοῦς           =        Jesus

χ        χριστὸς        =        Christ

θ        θεοῦ              =        of God

υ        υἱὸς                =        Son

ς        σωτήρ           =        Saviour

So that the word ἰχθύς, i.e. fish, becomes simply a shorthand expression of the titles “Jesus Christ the Son of God and Saviour.”

We need not linger to see how much of the nature and qualities of the second Person of the Trinity is summed up in these brief titles; how the first brings out the thought of His manhood, the second His threefold office, regal, sacerdotal, and prophetical, how the third shows His divinity, and the last His redemptive work. It is an exceptionally instructive symbol, but it is with its history rather than its meaning that we are dealing.

At what time the word was first used with this significance we cannot exactly say, but at Vienne, in southern France, an inscription of about the tenth persecution is found so using the word. Two parents have lost their little one. It almost breaks their heart, but their pathetic epitaph over 75 their child ends with hopefulness. Their child has gone “to be with the great χθύς.”

Later still, and in place of the word, we find the figure of the fish used in architecture. On some old fonts, figures of fish are found sculptured. Ignorance has made some imagine that these are simply ornamental designs, or at most betoken the water in the font. But the meaning is, that through the font the baptised infant becomes a member of χθύς.

Sometimes, in place of being on the font, it takes the form of a little fish-shaped window in the wall behind the font, called the “Fish Window.” At the quaint, little, fourteenth century church of Whitburn, on the Durham coast, a mile or two north of Sunderland — a church whose antiquity is further vouched by the fact that it possesses a low-sided window and a weeping chancel — there is such a window in the west wall.

From this we see what reverent significance was attached to the fish as a symbol. The fact that so early as the catacombs, possibly about the second century, the fish is depicted as used for sacred food, and was probably so used continuously in the agapæ, shows that it is distinctively regarded as a religious food, a food to be eaten when other 76 food is less allowable. This alone would stamp it as the fitting food for days of fast.

Now we find that throughout the middle ages the monastic system required abstinence from flesh meat, especially on Fridays and in Lent, but at such times fish is used instead. It is a divine food. And while the Church still enjoins the observance of these solemn fasts, she still allows the use of fish upon all but the most rigorous of them.

Even to-day the fishmongers of our towns find it difficult to supply all the demand for fish for Good Friday, but in the North Country in the days when monastic institutions were very plentiful in every large valley, Holy Week would necessarily be occupied by all the neighbouring anglers in catching fish for the Fast. The old custom is still retained, though its origin is forgotten, for in Northumberland it is still the custom for anglers to make a special effort in that week to catch fish. On Good Friday itself, the Vale of Coquet is filled with anglers. It is the greatest fishing day of all the year. The fact that the unecclesiastical mind regards the day as a general holiday, does not account for it, because on Easter Monday and Tuesday there is not one-tenth 77 the number of fishers. No, not even though there be a better “curl upon the water.”

“It is Good Friday, we must go a-fishing to-day. We have always done so, and our fathers did before us.”

Good Friday is somehow connected with fish. They know not why, and so, from rosy morn to dewy eve, they whip the streams that flow by the remains of Holy-stone Nunnery, the old church of Rothbury with its Saxon relics, the Augustinian Priory of Brinkburn, the fourteenth century church of Warkworth and its hermit’s cell.