The composition of all 6560 identifiable animal remains in the studied stratigraphic sets is shown by animal classes in Fig. 2a. The representation of domesticates did not change between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: the source of significant difference is the increasing relative contribution of fish from 17.6 to 18.4% in the smaller, fifteenth century subset (Fig. 2a). Moreover, the taxonomic composition also differs significantly between the two fish assemblages due to a diachronic increase in carp (43 to 47%) and small cyprinids (19 to 28%) at the expense of other species (Fig. 2b). By the fifteenth century, the relative contributions of acipenserids and pike to NISP shrunk by about a third; the percentage of catfish also declined.
Aside from acipenserids, most of the fish identified are eurytopic, tolerant of wide variations in habitat. Exceptions include percids, barbel (Barbus barbus), and vimba bream (Vimba vimba). These rheophilic species prefer rapid current: the two cyprinids have been observed in streams of the nearby Visegrád hills (Weiperth et al. 2015). Remains of freshwater crayfish (Astacus sp.) also indicate clear waters, rich in dissolved oxygen.
Of the species listed in the account books of Ippolito d’Este, carp, pike, barbel, crucian carp (Carassius carassius), and catfish were identified among the finds. His records also mention asp (Aspius aspius), a maximum 70- to 80-cm-long carnivorous cyprinid and burbot (Lota lota), the only freshwater gadiform. A synonym for 30- to 60-cm-long burbot in Hungary is “winter catfish”, as it is popular in ice fishing.
Two species that can be recognised by size are sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus; TL = 1–1.2 m) and the great sturgeon (TL = 2–3 m), a difference visible in Fig. 3. However, Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), ship sturgeon (Acipenser nudiventris), and stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus) also occurred in the Danube (Bartosiewicz et al. 2008). Non-diagnostic acipenserid bones of transitional sizes form the “large acipenserid” category. Ossified dermal scutes (Fig. 3d), characteristic of some species (Brinkhuizen 1986), are among the best preserved acipenserid bones. Y-shaped pectoral fin rays can be used in estimating the total length of sturgeon (Desse-Berset 1994).
Sterlet, frequently served at the Esztergom archbishopric, can grow larger than the average carp or pike. It prefers riverine habitats with high concentrations of dissolved oxygen (3.0–3.5 mg/l; Pénzes and Tölg 1977). Measurements of 14 pectoral fin rays show that most were shorter than 1 m long prior to the fifteenth century (Fig. 4a). Ten pectoral fin rays yielded a mean length of 58.7 mm (standard deviation = 8.5 mm, range = 48.3–74.5 mm). There are no methods to convert the lengths of fragile fin rays to total body length in acipenserids. The parameters of pectoral fin ray length, however, are consonant with the distribution of estimates based on the greatest width of its articular end as shown in Fig. 4a.
Unlike freshwater sterlet, other acipenserids were migrating upstream from the Black Sea for spawning prior to the construction of the Iron Gates dams across the Danube in AD 1971 and 1984 (Bartosiewicz et al. 2008). The run fell between January and June and they returned to the sea between October and December (Bél 1764). Masses were caught in weirs built at elevations of riverbeds or in shallows. A measurable great sturgeon fin ray came from an almost 3.5-m-long fifteenth century specimen. A non-measurable but even larger proximal fin ray fragment was found at the bottom of the deposit (Fig. 3c). These bones illustrate the rare consumption of this valuable fish. In an AD 1329 account book from Zsolca near the Sajó river in eastern Hungary, the tax for great sturgeon was two denarii, while for other sturgeon species it was only one denarius. Even this smaller sum would have been equal to the tax on a horse, ox, or cow (Tóth and Kubinyi 1996).
Pike, highly appreciated for its dry meat, is an aggressive carnivorous fish, popular in heraldic art. It is active year-round and can be caught during the winter. Robust pike bones are common in hand-collected assemblages. By the first summer, young pikes reach a total length of 0.2 m and prey upon anything smaller than themselves. Fully grown males reach 1 m and females grow to about 1.5 m by the age of between 8 and 9 years (Berinkey 1966). Archaeological assemblages often contain pike bones of various sizes along with small cyprinid remains, especially close to eutrophic rivers with rich vegetation (Heinrich 2012/13).
Young pikes are a common bycatch of potting, trapping, or net fishing. Large individuals can be caught by angles or harpooned. Measurable bones in the Esztergom material mostly originate from 30- to 40-cm-long individuals or shorter. A single bone originated from a pike exceeding 83 cm in total length (Fig. 5b). Of the seven fourteenth century pike, three were small, reflecting the sizes of non-measurable fragments. Bones of such small individuals made up 41.4 and 42.2% of pike bones in the fourteenth and fifteenth century deposits respectively (χ2 = 0.020, df = 1, P = 0.924).
Size may be reflected in the AD 1489 account book of Ippolito d’Este. Although pike was highly appreciated and its liver was considered a delicacy (Csánki 1897), it was purchased very cheaply by the archbishopric. While six carps cost 70 denarii, 12 pikes were bought only for 29 denarii: a carp thus costs five times more than a pike! Although this source mentions two “large carps”, the size of the pike is not specified. A possible explanation is that the pikes were small as supported by the bone finds. Hoffmann (2020) notes that this size range parallels the minimum legal size in Bavarian and Austrian fishing regulations from around AD 1500.
The NISP of remains in the carp fish family increased from 62.8 to 75.3%. The proportion of identifiable carp remains also increased by half during this period. The same trend, in part, is visible in the increasing relative abundance of carp (and cyprinids in general) even in hand-collected assemblages from late/postmedieval sites in Hungary. The same tendency is evident in the contribution of cyprinids to medieval diets in the Vienna Basin (Galik et al. 2015).
Morphologically, carp fish species can be distinguished using only a few skeletal elements, especially the toothed lower pharyngeal bone (ceratobranchial). Fully grown carp may exceed 1 m, being longer than adult bream (Abramis brama), crucian carp, tench (Tinca tinca), etc. (Berinkey 1966). Remains of large carp thus could be identified on the basis of size even in the case of less specific skeletal elements. Non-diagnostic bones of young carp, however, cannot be recognised among those of other small cyprinid species.
Two-thirds of the twelfth–sixteenth century fish remains from the castle of Gaiselberg in Lower Austria originated from carp (Spitzenberger 1983, 139). Wild carp, native to the Middle Danube Basin (Balon 1995), crossed the Danube–Rhine watershed by the eleventh–twelfth century through the import of live fish to high-status secular and ecclesiastical centres (Hoffmann 1996). It became part of the ichthyofauna in France by the 1280s, but in Poland only by the 1530s (Hoffmann 1999; Makowiecki 2008a). Several forms of domestic carp evolved in fish ponds (Schmelzl 1547), many of which reentered natural waters.
Carp bones in Esztergom originate from individuals measuring around 40 cm (Fig. 4c). No extremely large carp was identified. A small carp was comparable to an adult bream in size. These length estimates largely correspond to individuals harvested from fish ponds (Galik et al. 2015). Other species in the cyprinid family also vary between 20 and 60 cm in total length.
Fish in natural waters can be landed most successfully during spawning when many move near river banks. The spawning rush varies between species depending on water temperature, i.e. the concentration of dissolved oxygen of which carp and tench have especially low requirements (0.7 mg/l; Pénzes and Tölg 1977). On the basis of specific spawning seasons, the likely time of catch can be estimated (Pike-Tay et al. 2004). Cyprinids in this material represent the entire spring and early summer, interestingly reconfirming a note in the account books of Ippolito d’Este: at the beginning of spawning in April, the archbishopric’s kitchen began buying basket loads of crucian carp together with other non-specified white fish (“karas cum … aliis albis piscibus”; Kuffart 2018).
Only a few bones of perch (Perca fluviatilis) and pikeperch (Sander lucioperca) were identified. These fish prefer slow-moving, voluminous rivers and still waters rich in dissolved oxygen (2.0–3.0 mg/l; Pénzes and Tölg 1977). It may thus be presumed that individuals in the Esztergom assemblage were caught in the Danube. The total length of perch rarely exceeds 50 cm. Adult pikeperch are 50 to 60 cm long, sometimes reaching 1 m (Fig. 5c).
Catfish/wels is a highly adaptable aquatic carnivore (Berinkey 1966). Its late spawning (coinciding with that of tench) shows that it is less sensitive to oxygen content. The popular Hungarian name of catfish, “peasant gobbler” (Gozmány 1979), indicates that it may grow 2.5 m long, weighing 120 kg. The third century AD Roman fort of Iža (Slovakia; 40 km upstream from Esztergom) yielded a vertebra whose mediolateral diameter was 42.2 mm, indicative of an individual exceeding 2.5 m (Hensel 2004). Notably, the village next to Iža is called Harčáš, meaning “rich in catfish” in Hungarian. We are therefore curious that only a few bones of this large species were recovered. Even those originated from small individuals—as was also observed with pike. Two complete cleithra yielded total lengths of 34.1 cm and 39.9 cm. Catfish of this size may also have been bycatch of carp net fishing.
Terrestrial meat sources
Aside from livestock of greatest importance, the high diversity of birds and the marked presence of hare are noteworthy. The quantitative contribution by these taxa was small, but they represent high-quality tender meat. Some were exempt from fasting regulations. The proportions between various categories (boldface in Table 2) show no difference between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (χ2 = 2.311, df = 3, P = 0.510).
Domestic hen (Gallus domesticus) and pigeon (Columbidae) were likely kept at or near the site. The meat and eggs of chicken could be consumed during Lent (Serjeantson 2001). The anatomical and age distributions of pigeon bones (Gál 2020) support the hypothesis that the domestic form was kept at rural, urban, and high-status settlements alike (Bökönyi 1974; Biller 2014; Lyublyanovics 2018). The bones of domestic goose and duck (Anatidae) cannot be distinguished from those of their wild forms (Gál 2020).
Partridge (Perdix perdix) was the most common wild fowl consumed in medieval Hungary (Bartosiewicz et al. 2018). The extinct black-necked pheasant subspecies (Phasianus colchicus colchicus) is considered to have been autochthonous to southeastern Bulgaria (Boev 1997) as it seems to have had a continuous range in Turkey from the Sea of Marmara to the edge of the Balkans (Gürler et al. 2012). In the Carpathian Basin, however, prehistoric evidence for pheasant is missing (Kordos 2006). Although several references (e.g. Kleiner 1940; Kordos 2006) indicate that this bird was first introduced to Europe by the Romans, osteological evidence for this species is so far absent from Roman period Pannonia (present-day western Hungary). The oldest pheasant find (a tarsometatarsus) was identified in the eighth–ninth century layers of Zalavár Castle (Jánossy 1985, p. 76). It is hard to decide whether this specimen is attributable to import before the second introduction of pheasant in the Middle Ages (as the continuous evidence from the thirteenth century onwards would suggest; Matolcsi 1981), or it may have belonged to the wild avifauna after the collapse of the Roman Empire. By the fourteenth–fifteenth century, remains of pheasant were found at several settlements (Bökönyi 1974; Matolcsi 1982). Pheasants may have equally been hunted or farmed as luxury birds (Kordos 2006).
The question arises whether the leporine bones originated from domestic rabbit rather than brown hare: bones of the two are difficult to distinguish (Callou 1997). However, the few diagnostic elements and relatively large size of remains point to hare; thus, they have been listed as such in Table 2.
Skeletal elements of fish grouped by major body regions showed no significant difference between the two main periods (Fig. 6; χ2 = 3.848, df = 5, P = 0.572). The number of vertebrae ranges between 61 and 64 in pike (Kiss 2000), two-thirds of which represent the meat-rich thoracic region. Cyprinids have only 36–37 vertebrae, but the number of thoracic and caudal vertebrae is roughly the same (Kiss 2000). Comparing these differences between the two species (Table 3), it is clear that the number of vertebrae found reflects the natural ratio in a single individual only in the group of small cyprinids. In the case of (small) pike, meaty parts dominated by the fifteenth century, while carp was represented by the meat-rich thoracic region in both periods. Cut marks on small fish bones tend to be relatively rare.
Unfortunately, due to age-related osteoporosis, acipenserid vertebrae are rarely found and dermal scutes cannot be used in accurately assessing the quantity of meat. Meaty parts (without the head and offal) of fully grown sturgeons reach 70% of live weight (Bartosiewicz and Bonsall 2008). The eggs (caviar) harvested from females were highly appreciated in medieval Hungary (Kubinyi 2002) adding to the value of these fish.
A compact first pectoral fin ray of great sturgeon found at the bottom of the deposit was hacked, showing how the head had been separated from the trunk (Fig. 7). It is a sign of primary butchery (prior to cooking), suggesting that fresh rather than salted sturgeon was consumed. The clear hacking mark is a reminder that Sigismund von Luxemburg, King of Hungary, gave permission to urban butchers to sell large fish at their stands in AD 1405: their partitioning required tools and skills identical to those used in partitioning livestock (Kenyeres et al. 2008).
The relative absence of the remains of large sturgeon or catfish in Esztergom does not necessarily mean that these large fish were rarely eaten. It cannot be ruled out that the large carcasses of such individuals were not delivered whole to the archbishop’s kitchen. For example, on the 24th of February AD 1520, “the tender meat of a great sturgeon and a pike” was served (in addition to 100 small fish) to him in Buda (Zolnay 1977); although the archbishop died in September that year in Ferrara, there are accounts regarding his expenses in Hungary in the “Libro di spese durante un suo viaggio in Ungheria” (Kuffart 2018).