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Monsters, Sea-Monks, and Mermaids: Strange Creatures from the Sea from Antiquity to the Modern Age

Throughout the centuries, sea-monsters have featured not only in stories, legend and art, but also in the study of nature. In Antiquity, scholars theorised that water generated more monstrosities than any other environment. Medieval and Early Modern scholars did not exclude the possibility that sea-monsters exist, and collected rather than contradicted reported sightings. As a … Continue reading


Fantastic Beasts and How to Make Them (according to 16th-century instructions)

    A Jenny Haniver made for the exhibtion ‘Fish and Fiction’. Image: Sophia Hendrikx   A Jenny Haniver in Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) Nomenclator aquatilium animantium, 1560. Image: Leiden University Library   TThis rather spectacular depiction dating from the sixteenth century, and the modern imitation based on it, are creations which are nowadays called Jenny … Continue reading

Fish and Fiction exhibition at the Leiden University Library

On September 20 2018 the exhibition Fish and Fiction, highlighting fish in books, science and culture from 1500 to 1900, will open at the Leiden University Library (Leiden, the Netherlands). This exhibition is a collaboration between the Leiden University Library and the LUCAS project A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, … Continue reading

LUCAS 2019 Graduate Conference – Animals: Theory, Practice, Representation

On April 4th and 5th, 2019, Leiden University Centre for Arts in Society (LUCAS) will be hosting a conference called Animals: Theory, Practice, and Representation. This graduate conference is an international and interdisciplinary platform where PhD and master students can present, exchange, and discuss research results and innovative theoretical insights with participants from diverse backgrounds. This conference … Continue reading

Fantastic Beast and How to Make Them. Part I

A year and a half ago in a blogpost on sixteenth century Monstreous Rays and Fraudulent Apothecaries, I referred to a description of a sea-creature resembling a winged snake or a dragon from Conrad Gessner’s 1558 Historia Piscium. Last weekend my colleague Robbert Striekwold and I made an attempt at making such a dragon ourselves. We will continue to try, consequently this blogpost is the first of a series. Continue reading

Lactating creatures with double genitals and the head of a cow. Describing New World ‘whales’ in the sixteenth century.

In his 1554 book on fishes and other aquatic creatures the, at that time, widely renowned French naturalist Guillaume Rondelet described three mysterious species he classified as ‘whales’ from the new world. Although he had very little information on these animals, he was able to report several intriguing and exciting facts about them. All three … Continue reading

What’s in a name? Mislabeling fish since the 16th century.

This blogpost is the third in a series in which we explore a sixteenth century description of two fishes by the scholar Conrad Gessner (1516-1565). Gessner described these fishes as extremely oily, flammable, and spontaneously generating. The first post from this series identified these species as the extremely oily and possibly flammable sprat, and the … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

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. Image: narren-spiegel.de However, the description gets even stranger. On … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

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

    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 … Continue reading

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