17th Century Beavers: Not Just Great for Hats

Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce de Lahontan traveled in northern North America from 1683-1992.  Upon his return to Europe, he wrote popular travel writings that praised native american customs and criticized Christianity.  Source: screenshot of image posted by the Virtual Museum of New France

Louis-Armand de Lahontan traveled in northern North America from 1683-1692. Upon his return to Europe, he published popular travel writings that provide a glimpse of seventeenth century New France, including this drawing of a beaver.  Source: screenshot of image posted by the Virtual Museum of New France

Fish on Fridays is a tradition that some modern Catholics families still observe.  But they have it easy.  Seventeenth century Catholics also had to abstain from eating meat on Saturdays, the day before certain religious ceremonies, and during the forty days of Lent.  These restrictions tallied up to around 150 meatless days per year.  French Canadians were lucky because they had greater access to all sorts of game and fish in the new world.  And when it came time to fill their fasting plates, the earliest habitants had a generous supply of eel, cod, salmon, and beaver to choose from.

Yes, beaver.

In the beginning, the habitants of Canada didn’t know what to make of the beaver.  They wondered if it was fish (ok on restricted days) or game (not ok on restricted days).  While beavers did exist in France, access to forests and hunting had become highly restricted to all but the nobility in the seventeenth century.   French peasants usually dined on cereal and vegetable stew and only occasionally supplemented their diet with small portions of meat.  Since hunting was vigorously restricted, their meat came mostly from domesticated animals.

Early habitants also lacked our modern understanding which tells us that beavers are mammals. Contemporary scientists were still called natural philosophers– and drawing detailed pictures of animals and plants in their various stages was considered a crucial scientific undertaking.  It wouldn’t be until the eighteenth century that Carl Linnaeus would organize all that assembled knowledge and create the taxonomic system that we use to classify flora and fauna today.  In the seventeenth century, the concept of mammals hadn’t been invented yet.

As early French settlements began to take hold, the beavers’ status was an issue that could not be left unsettled.  The clergy charged with bringing order to New France needed to know if beaver was fish or game so that the rules could be enforced.  But local Catholic administrators couldn’t rely on themselves to make that determination either.  Instead, they sent their question to the esteemed theologians of the Sorbonne who deliberated and answered: fish!


Thanks to the Virtual Museum of New France for its information on early foodways, and to Shirley Roe for teaching me about the history of science.

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