Spontaneously Generating Fish

In a previous blogpost I discussed how the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) describes two strange species of fish, which generate spontaneously. Previously I identified these species as the sprat and the Baltic herring. In this blogpost I explore the background of Gessner’s assumptions about the spontaneous generation of fish.

 

The Reproduction of Fish

In his 1558 book on fish Historia Piscium Conrad Gessner describes the membras, which I identified as the Baltic herring in my last blog post:

‘Aristotle writes that the membras comes from the aphya phalerica.’

This is confirmed in his description of the aphya phalerica, which was identified as the sprat:

‘The aphya phalerica is mentioned by Aristotle, and it is confirmed the membras comes from this. I believe that the aphya phalerica generates spontaneously’

This tells us that the author believes these fishes to generate spontaneously, which seems somewhat surprising. The study of fish was a booming topic in Gessner’s day, from around 1550 renowned scholars produced one publication on fish after the other. All of these experts agreed that fish reproduce sexually. In fact, Gessner described this reproduction process in detail. He makes an exception however, for these two as well as a handful of other species. Why does he do this?

sprat

Fig. 1 Gessner’s sprat, or aphya phalerica. Historia Piscium. Zurich, Froschauer, 1558.

 

Spontaneous Generation

A belief in spontaneous generation, the coming into existence of living beings not from parents but through some other means, originates in the classical era and was still widely accepted within the scholarly community in the sixteenth century. Small creatures, such as for example insects, were thought to generate spontaneously. Some base material was needed for this, often dirt, mud, or decaying matter. From this material a living creature would form spontaneously. As Gessner indicates in his descriptions, we can trace such ideas back to Aristotle’s History of Animals. Aristotle combined information obtained from a variety of sources, resulting in an overview of ideas commonly accepted in the classical era. One such idea was spontaneous generation. While, like Gessner, Aristotle acknowledges that most fish reproduce sexually, he believed that some were the result of spontaneous generation.

Discussing fish, in book VI, part 15, of his History of Animals, Aristotle states:

“Such fish as are neither oviparous nor viviparous arise all from one of two sources, from mud, or from sand and from decayed matter that rises thence as scum”

spontaneous-generation

Fig. 2 Spontaneous generation. Clipart Library 

 

Empirical Evidence?

Aristotle’s ideas were absorbed into Mediaeval, and later into Renaissance science. The idea that animals sometimes generated spontaneously remained more or less unchallenged, and often even seemed to be confirmed by experience. For example, a century after Gessner published his work, the Dutch artist Johannes Goedaert (1617-1668) left out a cup of his own urine and watched it over a period of time. Eventually flies emerged from the cup and, not having noticed the fly that must have laid its eggs near this rich source of nutrients, he took this to prove spontaneous generation. Goedaert would later change his mind but for a while found this experiment quite convincing. Similarly, a little before Goedaert conducted his experiment, Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644) felt confident to provide the following recipe for mice: Place a dirty shirt or some rags in an open pot or barrel containing a few grains of wheat or some wheat bran, and in 21 days, mice will appear.

mouse-in-grain

Fig. 3 Where there is grain, there are mice. A Video (17/ 6/ 2016), Little mouse in barrel with wheat. Retrieved from youtube.com.

 

This illustrates perfectly why the concept of spontaneous generation proved so durable, our own observations often seem to confirm it. We can conclude from Aristotle’s History of Animals that the same sort of confusing experience appeared to confirm the concept in antiquity. Aristotle backs up his claim that certain fish can generate spontaneously by citing observations that others have shared with him.

“As a proof that these fish occasionally come out of the ground we have the fact that in cold weather they are not caught, and that they are caught in warm weather, obviously coming up out of the ground to catch the heat; also when the fishermen use dredges and the ground is craped up fairly often, the fishes appear in larger numbers.”

mud-fishing

Fig. 3. Fishing in the mud. Tim Bunn (22/5/2008), Mud Fishing in India. Retrieved from youtube.com.

 

A Chain of Fishes

Aristotle imagined the spontaneous generation of such fish as a sort of chain. According to him, while very small fishes generate from foam that floats on the sea, larger fishes generate from the remains of the deceased smaller fish. A list is provided.

“From the aphya phalerica comes the membras, from the membras the trichis,[and] from the trichis the trichias.”

When the aphya phalerica dies, the membras generates from its decaying matter, when the membras dies the trichis generates from its remains, followed in due course by the trichias. As we can see, Gessner’s membras and aphya phalerica are mentioned here. This also explains why Gessner describes the former as springing from the latter. The aphya phalerica is the first stage in this chain of spontaneously generating fishes.

chain-of-fishes

Fig. 4 A chain of fishes. Source: Clipartkid 

 

In the Footsteps of Aristotle

In Gessner’s day, Aristotle, as the founding father of natural history, was considered a much esteemed source of information. For this reason, Gessner and his contemporaries heavily relied on the information provided by him. Is this then a full explanation why Gessner believes these two fishes to generate spontaneously? It seems that Gessner was familiar with current catch records and market prices of the sprat, suggesting he had an informant who may have observed these species first hand. Surely someone like this, well-informed and possibly in possession of first-hand information, would know that the sprat springs from sexual generation as all other fishes do?

According to Aristotle this does not matter. He writes:

“the great majority of fish then, as has been stated, proceed from eggs. However, there are some fish that proceed from mud and sand, even of those kinds that proceed also from the pairing and the egg.”

Consequently, just because you have observed that a species sometimes comes from sexual generation, this does not mean they cannot also come from spontaneous generation. It really is quite hard to argue with that.

 

To Be Continued…

Is this all that is to be said on the aphya phalerica and the membras? Not quite. Closer inspection reveals that Gessner and Aristotle are not describing the same species. Where to Gessner an aphya phalerica is a sprat and a membras is a Baltic herring, to Aristotle the aphya phalerica was the anchovies and the membras something undefined, a large anchovies or another small fish. In a future blogpost we will explore this linguistic confusion.

sprats-in-tomato-sauce

Fig. 5 Sprats in tomato sauce. Source: Irina Slutsky 

 

 

Further reading:

Aristotle, History of Animals.

Conrad Gessner, Historia Piscium. Zürich, Froschauer, 1558.

Sophia Hendrikx, Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education. Leiden, Brill, 2014.

 

This post also appeared on the Leiden Arts in Society Blog.

 

© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monstrous rays and fraudulent apothecaries

In 1553 the French naturalist Pierre Belon published, in his book on aquatic animals De Aquatilibus, the here shown depiction of what at first glance appears to be a frightening sea-monster. Belon’s discussion of this animal is serious and detailed. This animal catches it’s prey by leaping up from the water, he writes, and he advises his readers not to eat it. It has a foul taste and smell, he explains, and can upset the stomach.

jenny-haniver-belon

Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus. Paris, Charles Estienne, 1553. Library of the United States Department of Agriculture, Cambridge (Mass.).

 

What Belon fails to mention, and most likely did not know, is that this animal is in fact a European eagle ray which has been cut and twisted before being dried, in order to make it look like a monster. The distorted snout and twisted body are sure sights of human interference, and in fact such distorted rays were created on a large scale across Europe at this time. In the sixteenth century monsters were very much ‘in fashion’, and this widespread interest made it a lucrative business to create objects that could reasonably pass as monstrous creatures.

European eagle ray.jpg

The European eagle ray. Image by Patrik Neckman from Stockholm, Sweden (Majestic ray) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Five years later, in 1558, the less gullible Conrad Gessner included such a creation in his Historiae Animalium and explained to his readers exactly how these were made. “Apothecaries and others”, he writes, “let the body of the ray dry and twist the skeleton, making the animal look like a winged serpent or a dragon. They bend the body and alter the shape of the head and mouth, and cut other parts off. The back and bottom part of the animal is tampered with and turned upright, making the animal look like it has wings”

jenny-haniver-gessner-png

Conrad Gesner. Historiae animalium liber IIII. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1558. SUB Göttingen HSD

 

Gessner admits that he also initially did not know the animal was a fake. The depiction was sent to him by an apothecary, who did not disclose this. Eventually however, he figured it out, and he strongly disapproved of the practice. He explains that he discloses how these creatures are made in order to warn his readers about these fakes, and about the fraudulent people who exhibit them and charge others money to see them. This needs to be explained, he writes, as “ordinary people are very much impressed with these things”.

beschrijving-jenny-haniver-gessner

 Part of Gessner’s description of the dried ray. SUB Göttingen HSD

 

Rays and skates are in fact extremely suitable to make creations such as these. These fish already have a suggestive appearance, their underside looks to us as if we see a semi-human face, the nostrils looking like a pair of eyes. In addition, they can be easily manipulated, by curling the side fins over the back, twisting the tail into strange positions, and using string tied behind the head to create a neck. Finally, rays and skates can be easily dried in the sun, and shrink when this is done, resulting in an even more twisted and monstrous appearance.

onderkant-eagle-ray

Image by Adamantiaf. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 1613 Gessner’s acquaintance and correspondent Ulysse Aldrovandi published a range of depictions of such monstrous dried rays, or jenny hanivers as they are nowadays called, in his De piscibus. The origin of the term jenny haniver may lie in the French phrase jeune d’Anvers, Antwerp  having been a centre of production for these things.

An ardent collector of all sorts of naturalia Aldrovandi may well have seen and handled all the jenny hanivers he included in his book. It is known he owned several of them.  The here shown depictions shows one which resembles a flying dragon which looks like it is mid-flight. Much like Gessner, Aldrovandi clearly indicates that such creatures are not real.

jenny-haniver-aldrovandi

Ulysse Aldrovandi. De piscibus. Bologna, Baptiste Bellagamba, 1613. Université Louis Pasteur from University of Strasbourg.

 

So does this mean that once the word was out naturalists were more sceptical about reports they received about strange creatures from the sea? Perhaps that is an overstatement. In spite of his critical description of the above shown specimen, Gessner also shows Belon’s jenny haniver in his Historiae Animalium and copies Belon’s description of it almost word for word, without any of the criticism voiced in his description of the other jenny haniver. One possible explanation for this is that it mattered to Gessner whether or not information came from what he perceived as a reliable source. An esteemed naturalist such as Pierre Belon was certainly that.

jenny-haniver-belon-gessner

Conrad Gesner. Historiae animalium liber IIII. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1558. SUB Göttingen HSD

 

On top of this, just because something seems unlikely does not necessarily mean it isn’t true. As Gessner writes referring to other monstrous creatures, such as the sea-monk and the sea-satyr: some creatures have been reported either so often or by such reliable sources that he cannot exclude the possibility that they exist.

 

Further reading:

Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus. Paris, Charles Estienne, 1553.

Conrad Gesner. Historiae animalium liber IIII. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1558.

Ulysse Aldrovandi. De piscibus. Bologna, Baptiste Bellagamba, 1613.

Sophia Hendrikx. Het eerste en misschien ook wel het kleinste en mooiste boek over waterdieren. In: Hans Mulder en Erik Zevenhuizen (Red.), De natuur op papier. 175 jaar Artis Bibliotheek. Amsterdam, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2013.

Peter Dance. Animal frauds and fakes. Maidenhead, Berkshire, Sampson Low, 1976.

 

© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This blogpost also appeared on The Leiden Arts and Society Blog.

Extremely Oily Flammable Fish

In his 1563 Fischbuch the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) describes a species of fish so oily that fishermen use it to burn their lamps. A puzzling statement… with the possible exception of whales, which were considered fish, most fish do not make for good fuel.

extremely oily flammable fish 1b
Image: narren-spiegel.de

However, the description gets even stranger. On the next page Gessner describes another species which he claims ‘develops from the first’. At first glance it is unclear what he means by this. From the text it is fairly evident he doesn’t mean the first fish is a young specimen of the second, they really are two different species. And as if all this wasn’t strange enough, Gessner then points out that, like the first species that can be used to burn lamps, this second also has a peculiar use. It can be used to catch wasps.

Image: yetigooseuk, youtube 

Gessner calls the first fish schmelzling, a telling name that suits the anecdote about the fishermen. In German, schmelzling is related to the word schmelzen, melting in English. A schmelzler is a melter, something that melts. Since Gessner describes the fish as extremely oily, I can image what he means. He adds to this that this fish tends to fall apart in your hands.

extremely oily flammable fish 2

Melt in the hand? Image: instagram, adriannehappyhour

The second fish is called membras. Like schmelzling this is not a name that immediately rings a bell. Consequently, it’s unclear which species Gessner was writing about. In my research I often come across descriptions such as these, which are at first glance so strange they present a set of puzzling questions. In these cases it usually helps to first determine which species the author was talking about.

Juveniles and geriatrics
Since I know Gessner claims the membras develops from the schmelzling, I could ask myself if perhaps the latter is a young and the former an adult specimen of the same species. It was not unusual around this time to call a fish by different names at different stages in its life. Juvenile fish can look quite different from their adult counterparts. However, Gessner makes it clear to his readers when he is talking about young specimens. For example, when describing young salmon, he describes this as junge Salm (young salmon). He does not do this here.

extremely oily flammable fish 3
Young and old specimens of the same species. Image: Northern Research Unit NE-4251 US Forest Service 

Looking at fins
In cases like this I look at the illustrations for confirmation. In this particular case these immediately show that these species may be similar but they are not the same. Fish are quite easy to tell apart by looking at certain physical characteristics, such as the position of the fins and the length-width ratio of the body. In this case, the fins provide sufficient information. The dorsal fin of the membras is implanted further forward than the beginning of the pelvic fin, while the dorsal fin of the schmelzling is implanted further back than the pelvic fin. In addition the membras has a very distinctively shaped snout.

extremely oily flammable fish 4
Image: Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen

So, what is a schmelzling?
So which two species are these? It is now time to look more closely at Gessner’s description of these fish. He writes that the schmelzling is a small species, with a row of sharp scales on its belly. The latter remark suggests this is a member of the herring family, as this is a very distinct characteristic of this group of fishes. As mentioned Gessner remarks that this fish is so oily it falls apart in your hands. He writes that when they encounter fishing fleets a layer of oil forms on the water surface. This oil, he states, is collected by fishermen, who use it for their lamps:

extremely oily flammable fish 5.jpg
Image: Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen

Although this seems a bit far-fetched, I can now figure out which species he is talking about. The schmelzling may be the sprat (Sprattus sprattus), which belongs to the herring family and is one of the oiliest fishes in existence. If I now look at the illustration again, I can confirm this. The position of the pelvic fin and overall appearance of the fish corresponds with what a sprat looks like.
extremely oily flammable fish 6
Image: ifremer.fr (top) & Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen (bottom)

And how about the membras?
About the membras Gessner writes that this is a small herring-like fish. The fact that he places it in the herring family provides a clue. In his description of the herring Gessner refers to two small species that are common in the Baltic Sea. The sprat is extremely common in the Baltic Sea, as is a bigger ‘herring-like’ species, the Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras). Could the membras then be the Baltic herring?
extremely oily flammable fish 7.jpg

Image: Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen 

Again I can turn to the illustration for confirmation. The depiction of the membras displays features that are typical of the Baltic herring, such as a long, angular snout, and pelvic fins that are positioned further back on the body than the origin of the dorsal fin.
extremely oily flammable fish 8

Image: sharkseafoods.com (top) & Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen (bottom)

What about the wasps?
Now that I know which fishes Gessner was talking about I can begin to answer further questions. You can read about this in a later blogpost, which will explore Gessner’s sources.

Further reading:
Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium pt. 4. Zürich, Froschauer, 1558.
Conrad Gessner, Nomenclator Aquatilium Animantium. Zürich, Froschauer, 1560.
Conrad Gessner, Fischbuch. Zürich, Froschauer, 1575 edition.
Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinis. Paris, Bonhomme, 1554.
Sophia Hendrikx, Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education. Leiden, Brill, 2014.

This post also appeared on the Arts in Society Blog.

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Eat What You Are: 16th century medical advice

The poem reads:

All sorts of fish, big and small, young and old,

Are all moist and in addition also cold,

River trout and bullheads are best to eat,

In January when the farmers thresh their wheat.

Image: Bayerische StaatsBibliothek 

This is a page from a 1557 book on fishes from Lake Constance by fish fanatic Gregor Mangolt. A former priest turned protestant, Mangolt had to flee his native Germany and ended up in Switzerland, where he met and befriended the scholar Conrad Gessner, who like Mangolt happened to be fascinated with fish. This turned out to be fruitful encounter.

A few years earlier Gessner had published a calendar together with the local physician and all round celebrated literary, political and medical writer Jakob Ruf. Gessner supplied the images while Ruf supplied the text. Each month of the year was illustrated with a depiction of two local fishes and a short poem. The poems dispense advice on eating fish, reasoning from a medical perspective.

At the time the dominant medical theory was humouralism. This states that people’s personalities and their physical condition depend on the presence of four different fluids in their body: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.  If one of these is present in excess, body and mind are out of balance. The balance can be restored (or disturbed even more!) by the consumption of certain foods.

Since fish live in water they are, as the poem states, cold and wet. These are qualities that increase the amount of phlegm in the body. The eating of fish was consequently tricky business.

An excess of phlegm made a person phlegmatic, a condition that was best avoided. On the other hand, if a person had an excess of certain other fluids but a lack of phlegm, eating fish could restore balance. It could change aggressive personalities and people who tended to drink and eat to excess into more moderate people. In order to decide what you should eat, you should therefore first consider who you were. In order to make sure the right people ate fish, and others did not, the calendar provides playful instructions through the included poems.

When Gessner read Mangolt’s book of fish, which provides descriptions of a range of local species, he felt this would go well with his fish calendar. Mangolt did not provide illustrations and his text is rather dry, the addition of Gessner’s calendar certainly made it more lively. On the other hand, Gessner’s calendar provided little serious information and Mangolt’s text could provide a welcome balance.

There was only one problem, Mangolt did not want his fish book published.

This however did not deter Gessner. He asked to borrow the manuscript and took it to his cousin, Andreas Gessner, who was a printer. The Gessner cousins then proceeded to mix the calendar and Mangolt’s text to create a joint publication. The above image is one of the first pages of the end result. When the book was printed the Gessners listed Mangolt as the sole author on the title page.

We can only guess how Mangolt felt about this. However we do know that the book was reprinted at least twice, it appears therefore that he put his reservations about publishing his work aside.

That being said, the calendar was removed from the later two editions…

 

Further reading:

  • Keller, Hildegard Elisabeth: Edition, Einleitung und Kommentar der Fischsprüche. In: Keller, Hildegard Elisabeth (Hg.): Jakob Ruf. Leben, Werk und Studien, Zürich 2008 (Jakob Ruf, Leben, Werk Studien Vierter Band), S. 967-993.

Also see: Conrad Gessner Historiae Piscium – Rare Fish Books

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

 

 

A tale of two fishes, identifying species in the 16th century

The illustration below, included on one of the final pages of the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner’s 1558 Historia Piscium, is remarkable for two reasons: The species depicted had never been described in a scholarly publication before, and it is the only one in over 750 aquatic species discussed by Gessner to be described as an addition[1] to another species. The story behind this[2] shows us a scientific discovery that highlights how species were identified and depicted.

plaatje1

                                               “Additio ad alausam” Conrad Gessner, Historia Piscium, 1558, p. 1259

 

So similar they can be called by the same name

Gessner describes this addition to the “alausa clupea, included in the appendix to his work, as so similar to this that either they are both the same species or they are so similar they can be called by the same name. This notwithstanding, the illustrations do not look much alike at all. The two depicted species clearly differ in body shape, type of scales, and judging by the row of vague black dots on the addition’s back, even in colouration. Why then does Gessner describe these as similar?

plaatje2

“Alausa clupea” Conrad Gessner, Historia Piscium, 1558, p. 21

Close relations

Gessner’s descriptions of these species can shed light on this. He describes the Alausa clupea as similar to a herring but bigger and broader, about a cubit in size, roughly 45 cm. Based on this description and the depiction it seems likely this is an Allis shad[3], a close relative to the herring.

plaatje3b

 An Alosa alosa or Allis shad

As for the addition, Gessner provides the local names “Meienfische”,  and “Alfe” for this species. Like the Allis shad it is described as similar to the herring but much bigger, with a body as wide as a wide carp, a high back, a length five times its width, and four black spots on either side of its back. Based on the description, the depiction, and the provided names, we can assume this second species is a Twaite shad[4], a very close relative of the Allis shad.

 plaatje 4b

An Alosa fallax or Twaite shad

These species really do look a lot alike apart from a few small, barely noticeable differences. Gessner was well aware of this. He described how both species could be found in his native Basel and this provided him with ample opportunity to study and compare these. In fact the Allis and Twaite shad are so closely related they can interbreed. This explains why Gessner thought these so similar he describes one of these as an addition to the other. But if this is the case, why do Gessner’s illustrations look nothing alike?

Animal identification and depiction

Gessner’s descriptions of these species can shed light on this, here he emphasises a short list of physical characteristics these fishes do not share. The Allis shad has smaller scales than the Twaite shad, it has a wider body, and the Twaite shad has more profound black dots on its side.

This emphasis is what determined the style of Gessner’s woodcuts. Gessner began to study the Allis shad and the Twaite shad after he had received a drawing and description of the latter from his acquaintance Johan Kentmann who was studying fish in the River Elbe. Gessner based the woodcut illustration of the Twaite shad that would be printed in his publications on this drawing, but emphasised the little differences with the Allis shad. To this he added an emphasised woodcut of the Allis shad.

As we have seen, this resulted in two very different illustrations depicting very similar fish. Rather than provide us with realistic portraits of species, Gessner is telling us what to look out for when we try to identify them. The taxonomical depictions used by biologists today, are based on the same principle.

 

A discovery unacknowledged

Convinced by these physical differences, in his later publications Gessner described these fish as species within the same family. For the following century and a half however Gessner would remain the only one to believe so, the Twaite shad was not again described as a distinct species until Lacépède did so in 1803.

plaatje 5plaatje 6

La Cepède, B. G. E. de 1803. Histoire naturelle des poissons. Tome cinquième. – Paris. (Plassan)

It took a long time for people to realise that Gessner’s “addition” really did exist. Generally the two species do not share a habitat and only one or the other can be found in the same place. As a result authors described only one, and not both of these species and assumed Gessner had made a mistake. Today Lacépède is acknowledged as the researcher who first identified the Twaite shad, while Gessner’s discovery has been forgotten.

 

This blogpost is based on a part of my article: Sophia Hendrikx, Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education. Leiden, Brill, 2014.

 

[1] “additio ad alausam”

[2] Also see: Sophia Hendrikx. Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education, Leiden: Brill, 2014.

[3] Alosa alosa

[4] Alosa fallax

 

Also see:

Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium – Rare Fish Books

Bernard Germain Lacépède, Histoire naturelle des Poissons Rare Fish Books

 

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Spontaneously generating, extremely oily fish

“These herring-like fish develop from other fish, which we have previously described as Schmelzling. They stay in the same place and were used by the Ancients to catch wasps and other pests.[1]

Thus a fish called membras is described in Conrad Gessner’s 1563 Fischbuch. As will be clear from the above statement, Gessner’s description of this species, in relation to the above mentioned Schmelzling which is described on the previous page, presents us with a few puzzling questions with potentially intriguing answers. In particular, this shows us how various sources of information could contribute to a sixteenth century naturalist’s research.

membras

 

The membras

 

In order to work out the relationship between the membras and the Schmelzling, we should first of all consider the possibility that the former is a juvenile form of the latter. It was not unusual around this time to call a fish by different names at different stages in its life-cycle[2]. However Gessner consistently applies the same terminology when describing juvenile states of various species, and his description of the Schmelzling lacks this terminology. In addition, the accompanying illustrations, particularly the shape of the snout and the position of the fins[3], strongly suggest that even though these species are similar, they cannot be the same.

What, then, is the relationship between these two species?

Schmelzling

The Schmelzling

 

The Schmelzling

Identification may bring us further information. The Schmelzling is described as a small species, with sharp scales on the keel. The latter characteristic suggests to a near certainty that we are dealing with a member of the herring family. In addition, the following is remarked on this fish:

 “This fish is so oily that it falls apart in your hands, and when they encounter fishing fleets a layer of oil forms on the water surface. Fishermen collect this oil and use it for their lamps[4]

All of this strongly suggests that the Schmelzling may be the sprat[5], which belongs to the herring family and is one of the oiliest fishes in existence. The illustration also appears to confirm this[6]. However this straightforward identification makes Gessner’s description of this species all the more puzzling.

spratSprat?

 

Aristotle’s spontaneous generation

Gessner does not identify the Schmelzling as belonging to the herring family, but as a type of apua, specifically an apua phalerica. This term goes back to Aristotle who used it to describe various small fish which were said to generate spontaneously from the foam that forms on the surface of the sea near the coast[7]. Later these fishes develop into larger fish. Aristotle names the membras as one of these larger states, which develops from the apua phalerica.

As Gessner was thoroughly familiar with Aristotle’s work, it seems likely his description of the Schmelzling and membras is based on this. However elsewhere in his work, Gessner describes into detail and accurately how fishes procreate, and does not quote the spontaneous generation of fish as playing any part in this. Why is he doing so here? In order to solve the mystery of the Schmelzling and membras we should consider how Gessner dealt with his sources, and how he gathered information.

 

Aims and consequences

As a Renaissance naturalist Gessner operated in a tradition which sought to connect ancient nomenclature with the current by researching nature to identify the species described in the works of the ancients. However, in Gessner’s day the study of nature in this humanist tradition had spread from Italy to the rest of Europe. Based in Switzerland, as many fellow naturalists who were also based outside of the Mediterranean, Gessner encountered a range of species which had not been described by the classics. The description of such species, with the particular goal of explaining how these were different from those described by the ancients, became a crucial goal.

Such description demands a focus on the physical characteristics of different species as a means to tell them apart, which in turn brings a focus on observation and on depiction as a means of communicating information. Since observation of foreign species could be tricky due to both the financial cost of and the time needed for travel, whenever researchers were unable to study a species themselves they chose to rely on the testimony of others who had seen it. Crucial to this was the authority of the source, authors who were perceived as reliable were much more readily quoted. This explains Gessner’s decision to follow Aristotle.

However, since Aristotle did not provide illustrations, nor in fact described the sprat, Gessner must also have relied on another source of information to supply the depictions.

 

What is a membras?

Having identified the Schmelzling, let’s turn our attention to the membras. Taking into consideration that  observation tends to trump other sources in Gessner’s descriptions of species he had personally seen, we can safely assume that both the membras and the Schmelzling are species that could not be found in Switzerland. In addition, Gessner’s description of the membras states this is, like the sprat, a fish that belongs to the herring family[8]. This may help us, since Gessner provides a rough outline of the herring family in his description of the herring[9]. Here Gessner refers to two small ‘herring-like’ species that are common in the Baltic Sea; is it possible these are the two species discussed here? The sprat is extremely common in the Baltic Sea, as is a bigger ‘herring-like’ species, the Baltic herring.

The description of the physical characteristics of the Membras and the nomenclature seem to confirm this identification. In addition, the depiction of the Membras displays features that are typical of the Baltic herring, such as a long, angular snout, and pelvic fins that are positioned further back on the body than the origin of the dorsal fin.

If this identification is correct, we are indeed dealing with species which Gessner would have rarely seen himself. In addition, this identification could explain why Gessner found Aristotle’s theory of species developing out of smaller species appropriate here. The sprat and the Baltic herring are very similar-looking fish, and since the sprat is much smaller, someone who did not pay attention to the position of the fins might easily mistake it for a young Baltic herring.

Baltic herring

Baltic herring?

 

A Scandinavian informant?

However this still does not tell us how Gessner obtained the illustrations. The description of the Schmelzling may hold some clues. This states that on a good day a fisherman can catch 50 Kroner worth of it[10]. It seems therefore that Gessner was familiar with both current catch records and market prices for this fish.

As Gessner corresponded widely with acquaintances across Europe, he may have obtained this information from a correspondent who was more familiar with these species. Possibly this person provided him with nomenclature which seemed to correspond with Aristotle’s description, and very likely he remarked on the close similarity between the species. As these are Baltic sea fishes, it seems likely this person was based in Scandinavia. The reference to the currency Kronen is consistent with this assumption.

This trail ends here, but a search through sixteenth century books on fish reveals that both depictions previously appeared in Guillaume Rondelet’s 1554 Libri de piscibus marinis[11] and were made especially for this publication. Much like Aristotle, Rondelet was one of Gessner’s most esteemed sources of information. So much so in fact, that Gessner devoted a part of the introduction to the volume on aquatic animals of his Historiae Animalium to praising Rondelet’s systematic method in describing fishes.

In this case it turns out that Gessner’s description of both the membras and the Schmelzling are almost word for word based on Rondelet’s, who in turn follows Aristotle, but adds remarks on the physical characteristics of both species. The term Schmelzling cannot be found in the description by Rondelet, but the Latin nomenclature Gessner supplies, apua phalerica, is. Two further new elements were added by Gessner, the references to the current market value and the oiliness of the sprat, which must have come from Gessner’s mysterious Scandinavian source.

 

The old and the new

What we see here then, is a mix of contemporary information mixed with an ancient scholarly description. The information provided by Gessner’s Scandinavian source is effortlessly matched with Aristotle’s description and Rondelet’s rendition of this, providing us with a glimpse into how sources were often combined in order to cobble together a description of a species an author had not seen himself.

Notwithstanding the authority of Aristotle’s text, the contemporary sources were crucial to this. Not only did Aristotle did not provide illustrations, but his work also shows no great focus on the physical characteristics of species, both of which were vital ingredients to Gessner’s descriptions, since his focus lied on communicating the differences between species. This need was for the larger part met by the textual information and depictions provided by Rondelet, who shared Gessner’s approach to description and depiction. For interesting details such as the value and the extreme oiliness of the sprat, Gessner turned to his Scandinavian source.

Gessner’s focus on the physical characteristics of species and Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation reinforce rather than undermine one another, the differences between the sprat and the Baltic herring warranting careful description, and their similarity supporting the theory that one of these developed from the other.

 

This blogpost is based on a part of my article: Sophia Hendrikx, Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education. Leiden, Brill, 2014.

 

[1] “Ein kleine haring Art. Diese sollen von denen erwachsen, so wir zuvor schmelzling genennt haben, diese wpflegen allezeit an einem ort zubleiben, werden von etlichen alten gebraucht Wespen und ander dergleichen schädliche Thier zufahen.”

[2] In Gessner’s work (see Liber IV of his 1558 Historiae Animalium, his 1560 Nomenclator aquatilium animantium, and his 1562 Fischbuch) much attention is paid to different stages in the life-cycle of fish. Occasionally Gessner provides separate descriptions for the juvenile form of species which use a different nomenclature. Juvenile salmon for example, is described separately under the name Selmling.

[3] In particular the position of the pelvic fin in relation to the dorsal fin.

[4] “Dieses ist auch ein sehr kleiner Fisch, under am Bauch rauch, nach der haring Art, ist lind und so feißt, daß er einem under den händen zerschmilßt, so er hart angegriffen wirt. Dergleichen so veil zumal in einem Schifflin geführt werden, so geben sie Feißt von ihnen, so uber sich schwimt, von den Fischern auffgesamlet wirdt, unnd zu den Liechtern gebraucht.”

[5] Sprattus sprattus.

[6] In particular the position of the pelvic fin, which is implanted further forward on the body than the dorsal fin.

[7] Aristotle, History of Animals, vol. VI, part 15, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1910)

[8] Conrad Gessner, Fischbuch, 1563, f. 2 verso: “Membras. Ein kleine häring Art.”

[9] See: Sophia Hendrikx, Identification of herring species in Conrad Gessner’s ichthyological works, a case study on taxonomy, nomenclature, and animal depiction in the sixteenth century. In: Paul J. Smith and Karl A.E. Enenkel (Eds.), Zoology in Early Modern Culture. Intersections of Science, Theology, Philology and Political and Religious Education. Leiden, Brill, 2014.

[10] “Solche werden zur zeit deß Herbst in grosser menge gefangen, sind doch von etlichen Fischern auss einem Tag für 50. Kronen wehrt gefangen worden.”

[11] Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinis, 1554, part 1, p. 112 and 220.

 

Also see:

Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium – Rare Fish Books

 

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Culinary fish-poetry: Francois Boussuet, De Natura Aquatilium Carmen, 1558.

 

Boussuet Mackerel

The left hand page reads:

On mackerel:

As mackerels begin to grow fat in the early spring,

When the spring comes, they will be suitable for the gullet.

Because they do not hurt the mouth, nor hit throat with sharp bones,

This dish is free from harmful bones.

And they are praised for their sweet and pleasant taste in the month of April,

Only a fool rejects them.

So if the cook serves them to me around that time, moderately roasted with butter,

I will prefer them to all others.

To everyone his own judgement, and may everyone decide for himself,

But mackerel will always be a friend to me.

In his 1558 De natura aquatilium carmen Bousuet reproduced all the excellent woodcuts from Guillaume Rondelet’s Libri de Piscibus Marinis, including the sea monk and the sea bishop. Rather than Rondelet’s descriptions of the various species, elegant poems on the culinary, and in some cases medicinal, value of fish were added to the depictions.

 

More information available from Rare Fish Books: Rare Fish Books – Francois Boussuet, De Natura Aquatilium Carmen

 

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

Parrot fish as a symbol of friendship: Joachim Camerarius the Younger’s Symbolorum et Emblematum (1604)

 

untitled

 

The above image is taken from the fourth volume of Joachim Camerarius the Younger’s emblem book Symbolorum et Emblematum, published in 1604. The story behind the depicted scene goes back to Pliny’s Natural History, which states that parrot fishes help their friends escape from wicker-basket traps by pulling them out by their tails. As a result, parrot fish came to be known as a symbol of friendship. In fact, this is a gross misinterpretation. In regions where wicker-basket traps are still used to catch these fish, the species is known for violently attacking specimens of their kind who have gotten stuck between the twigs of the traps.

Digital version available at: Bayerische StaatsBibliothek
This post is based on a conference paper I presented at the Emblems and the Natural World conference, Münster (Germany), December 17-18, 2015.

 

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content