by Christopher Nicholson
Few ingredients are as significant to the Czechs as carp. This fresh-water fish is so important that it has become the key ingredient in the now traditional Czech Christmas meal.
The centrality of carp to Czech cooking and culture has been understood for centuries. Janus Dubravius (or Jan Skála z Doubravsky, 1486 – 1553), a Czech humanist and the sometime bishop of Olomouc (1541 -1553), wrote a little book so that one could breed the best possible carp.
Dubravius’s book, De piscinis et piscium, qui in eis aluntur natura, was published in Wrocław in 1547 and dedicated to members of the German Fugger and Hungarian Thurzó families. The text gained popularity and was reprinted in 1596 (Nuremberg) and 1671 (Helmstadt). An English translation was published in 1599 as A New Booke of good Husbandry, very pleasant, and of great profite both for Gentlemen and Yeomen: Conteining, The Order and maner of making Fish-pondes, with the breeding, preserving, and multiplying of the Carpe, Tench, Pike, and Troute and diverse kindes of other Fresh-fish.
De piscinis offers readers more or less everything one might want or need to know to establish ponds and breed fish. Dubravius explains in great detail how to locate, construct and fill a pond. He also makes recommendations about the hiring of labour for the project. If a noble has to leave his estate during the building work then he should employ ‘a cunning, expert, and skilfull man to overlooke their work.’ Elsewhere Dubravius covers the breeding and harvesting of fish, while he also considers the crucial subject of what it is exactly that different fish eat. He even suggests that being a good builder of ponds might make a man more attractive to the opposite sex, but seems not to make any fantastic or medicinal claims about the fish.
This manly display will lead to the best-fed carp with which to woo the ladies, but first one must begin by finding the right location for your pond. The first thing to think about when considering a fishpond is where one should put it. Dubravius thinks this is critical for the nourishment of the pond’s potential occupants. The quality of the land is particularly important because carp require no supplementary feeding. The fish would be expected to find their food in their surroundings. Dubravius warns against building ponds in rocky areas or in places where nothing will grow because these areas will not provide carp with the nutrients they need. As he explains: ‘barren and miserable ground’ is ‘most unfortunate for Carpe, because it wanteth the iuce and meysture of the earth, wherewith the Carpe is nourished and made fatte.’
Later, and referring to Aristotle, Dubravius describes the diets of a range of fish. He notes that conger, lamprey and wolf eels are carnivores that eat exclusively other fish, while ‘Mullets feedes on Fish and Sea weedes, Goldins feedes only of Sea weedes, Stockfish on Sea weedes and doung, Codfishes on slyme’.
In its desire for ‘slyme’, the cod shares something with the carp. The conditions that Dubravius says allow the carp to be ‘made fatte’ let it indulge in its preferred diet of ‘slyme and sande’. However, the carp is not a fussy fish. The carp will not eat other fish but it will take worms that live in the banks of the pond. It might also make attempts to catch gnats and flies that amble close to the surface of the water. Those who disbelieve Dubravius are invited to see for themselves: ‘if you walke quietly by the bankes and harken attentively, you shall heere him snatch after them.’
Dubravius, like many other contemporary authors, thinks not all foods are equal. The The carp eats ‘slyme and sande’ because it lies at the bottom of the pond, but it is more quickly fattened up if it consumes the worms, gnats and flies. Carp on noble estates might be left to fend for themselves, but Dubravius explains that common folk do things differently. They enclose the fish in weirs and feed to them grain. Another, slightly bizarre, option is thus: ‘Potters clay also dryed a little by the fyer, and annoynted over with the lees of oyle, maketh fatte Carpes, and is much better than corne.’
The point here, then, is not so much about what one should feed the carp. Rather it is where one should put them. In the right environment the carp will look after themselves. If the food is there they will find it. Nevertheless, if one does, through incompetence or bad luck, end up with a pond devoid of ‘slyme and sande’ for the carp to feast upon then one should not panic. Simply find some potters clay, oil and a fire.
Christopher Nicholson completed a PhD in History at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He is co-editor of Perpetual Motion? Transformation and Transition in Central and Eastern Europe & Russia (2011) and Between Worlds: The Age of the Jagiellonians (2013). He is currently involved with a project on the medieval laws of Croatia based at the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and is co-editing a volume of essays on Emperor Sigismund.
 Richard C. Hoffmann and Verena Winiwarter, ‘Making Land and Water Meet: The Cycling of Nutrients between Fields and Ponds in Pre-Modern Europe’, Agricultural History, 84, 3 (2010), pp. 352-80 (p.368).