16

Starting from a comment on this ELL question, it appears to be a fairly common internet fact.

The most famous case involving beavers began when Francois de Laval, the first Bishop of Quebec, wrote to theologians at the Sorbonne (not the Vatican!), asking whether his flock could eat beaver during Lent. The theologians wrote back that yes, beavers could be considered fish.

Apparently, red meat is forbidden on Fridays in Lent. In order to circumvent this, a Canadian bishop François de Laval requested that beavers be considered fish and be eaten during Lent.

To me, this sounds like an urban myth to make the church (or Canadians) look silly. The pattern I've noticed is that websites discussing the beaver story mention de Laval, but sites about de Laval make no mention of the beaver story. Snopes forum cites Wikipedia, who cites the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, but the article makes no mention of eating beaver other than it allegedly tastes like pork.

Did this ever happen? Is there a first-hand account my googling missed? Any Canadian Catholics have direct experience with this?

  • There are also many claims attributing this decision to the Council of Constance (1414-1418) a few hundred years before the appointment of François de Laval. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Jan 8 '16 at 17:12
  • 2
    Sounds similar to the legends about the Barnacle Goose (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnacle_goose#Folklore) and how both Jewish and Catholic leaders had to clarify that yes, it was a bird due to confusion over its reproduction. – Sean Duggan Jan 8 '16 at 17:41
  • I've also heard that Japanese Buddhists regarded rabbits as birds. – Andrew Grimm Jan 8 '16 at 21:40
20

Yes, according to the 1760 book The natural and civil history of the French dominions in North and South America, vol.1 , page 27

In respect of his [the beaver's] tail, he is a perfect fish, and has been judicially declared such by the College of Physicians at Paris, and the faculty of divinity have, in consequence of this declaration, pronounced it lawful to be eaten on days of fasting

This was reported earlier in the Literary Journey, April to September 1746, page 107:

the Beaver is able to walk but slowly, and can swim with as much Ease as any aquatile Animal ; but it is chiefly on account of his tail the he must be ranked among the Fish Kind, and he was accordingly declared such by a legal Verdict from the College of Physicians at Paris

Also, from the 1850 The Dublin university magazine

The observance of Lent had led to many nice distinctions as to what was fish, what flesh. The beaver, especially its hairless and fish like tail, was usually eaten in Lent by the strict churchmen of Northern Germany.

See also Early Notices of the Beaver, in Europe and America The Canadian Journal of Industry, Science and Art, 1859:

Streso, a Dutch writer, states that the animal was used as food in Holland, in the time of the Crusades ; and he repeats the common notice, that its tail and paws were eaten as fish, with a safe conscience, during the religious fasts but the monks of a convent of Chartreux, at Villeneuve-les- Avignon, seem to have carried this indulgent notion farther and to have accounted their entire carcass among the “mets maigres”

This article also has further discussion specific to Canada and Lent.

5

There is actually a statement in the Jewish Talmud seen here maintaining that Beavers are considered sea animals and not land animals. This was the more popular medieval understanding of Rashi there, see notes 16 & 17.

(This discussion had to do with laws of purity and had begun with a list of theoretical classifications of mythical creatures.)

This thought process may have been cross pollinated into Christianity at some point afterwards, or, if this is the correct ancient understanding, brought along from before the split.

  • I'm not sure how many beavers there are in the middle east ... – fredsbend Jan 11 '16 at 0:30
  • 3
    From that page: According to theEncyclopaedia Iranica, early Iranian Avestanand Pahlavi, and later Islamic literature, all reveal different words for otter and beaver, and castoreum was highly valued – user6591 Jan 11 '16 at 1:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .