Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
When you think of animals that helped change the world, you may think of farm animals or even microorganisms. But what about fish? In his book, Mark Kurlansky shows how one fish did just that.

Mundane History

Chances are when you think of history, you think of great people or great ideas. However, as Mark Kurlansky demonstrates in his book Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World, ordinary items can have a significant impact. In fact, history can be much more mundane, even relating to the foods we eat every day.

In his book, Kurlansky offers a different view of how Western history has progressed over the last thousand years. He argues that the cod made much of the rise of the West possible and shows how it linked the histories of different countries and peoples while still having an effect on us today.

Image of a cod

Plot Summary

Throughout the book, Kurlansky shows how cod has played a surprising role in Western history. He starts early, linking the fish to two of Europe's most distinctive cultures. He shows how cod made it possible for the Vikings to sail west from Norway and on to Iceland and Greenland. In fact, he shows how cod was the major motivation for such voyages, since it would mean more profits. An interesting example from the first pages is that of the Basque region near France and Spain. Kurlanksy describes that the Basque's love of cod not only demonstrates the importance of the fish to several cultures, but he also explains it was heavily traded because there were no large cod fisheries near Spain.

As the book continues, Kurlansky links other great events to the history of cod. We learn that cod was as crucial to colonial trade as tea or sugar, and the armies of the North ate plenty of it during the Civil War. As the book draws to a close, Kurlansky looks at the current state of cod and explains how overfishing and ever-rising demand shape humanity's relationship with the fish.


Humble Fish, Big Impact

Perhaps the biggest theme of Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World is that a seemingly humble good can still have such a great impact. It causes the reader to think about the impacts of other mundane items. While it may be too early to tell if sliced bread or hamburgers have changed the world as much as cod did, there could be a case for either in a few centuries' time.

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