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The original text:

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But in earlier times, when sea fish were eaten only by those who lived on the sea coast, when meat was obtainable only for part of the year, and when fasts were frequent and universally practised, river fish played an important part in the national life.

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Between the owners of the fisheries and the bargemaster who needed an unimpeded passage continuous war was fought, till the importance of fresh-water fish lessened as the practice of fasting ceased to be universal, as meat became available all the year round, and as the transport of sea fish inland became practicable.

How did a fast relate to the consumption of sea fish in the past?

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When a person "fasts" in a specifically Christian and particularly Catholic context, it does not mean that a person does not eat at all, it means that a person abstains from eating (red) meat, and perhaps from particularly luxurious foods. Fish and shellfish could be and often were eaten during fasts, particularly the fast of Lent, before Easter. That is, I feel confident, the kind of "universal fasting" that this author is referring to. I presume that he means "in Europe, during the time when pretty much everyone followed Catholic practices", which is a slightly restricted meaning for "universal". Perhaps the context was made clear earlier in the work.

The ads one sometimes still sees for "Friday fish specials" derive from a formerly common practice among Catholics to "fast" in this sense every Friday, leading to much increased fish consumption on Fridays in areas where observant Catholics were numerous.

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