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

This blogpost previously appeared on the Leiden Arts in Society Blog. The text is an extract from the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Fish & Fiction‘ which is currently on view at the Leiden University Library. The exhibition  is a collaboration between the library and the LUCAS project ‘A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880’. The catalogue: ‘Fish & Fiction. Aquatic Animals between Science and Imagination (1500–1900)’ can be purchased at the reception desk of the Leiden University Library.


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 consequence they helped spread stories about monstrosities from the sea and contributed to a culture in which such monsters were omnipresent. Medieval and Early Modern depictions of strange creatures from the sea can be found as decorative elements on maps and in works recording folklore, man-made monsters were included in Early Modern collections of naturalia, and sea-monsters were described in scholarly works, even up until the Modern period. Many of these creatures and their characteristics were based on descriptions from Antiquity, while at the same time new monsters were introduced.


The Nature of Monsters

In Antiquity nature in general was seen as flexible and capable of producing any variety of creatures. This was believed to be particularly true for aquatic environments. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder stated that monstrosities form most easily in water, due to its liquid nature and the amount of nutrients it contains. Later on, Christian authors presented this plasticity of nature as the consequence of divine omnipotence. As a result, monsters were on the one hand seen as natural phenomena and on the other often interpreted as divine signs. For example, several sixteenth century scholars describe a ‘sea-monk’, a creature with a tonsured head and scaly robes. This was interpreted by the religious author and counter-reformer Aegidius Albertinus (1560–1620) as a divine expression of dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of the clergy, while the scholar Paracelsus (1493–1541) provided a natural explanation for its existence by stating the creature must be the offspring of a fish and a drowned monk.

Monachus marinus, in Conrad Gessner, Historiae animalium liber IIII qui est de piscium et aquatilium animantium natura, Zürich, C. Froschauer, 1558, p. 519. [Leiden University Library, 665 A 7]


Terrestrial Counterparts

Like the sea-monk, many aquatic monsters resembled something or someone we might find on land. Since Antiquity it had been assumed that aquatic creatures often took the form of a, natural or artificial, terrestrial counterpart. As evidence of this principle, classical authors referred to creatures such as the sea-cucumber, the swordfish, and the sawfish. Classical mythology also featured a range of aquatic deities with human upper bodies and the lower body of a fish, such as Nereids, as well as creatures which were part terrestrial animal, such as the hippocampus, with the upper body of a horse and lower body of a fish. Descriptions and depictions of sea-monsters from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era show us similar mixtures of aquatic and terrestrial features. The popular late fifteenth century natural history encyclopedia Hortus Sanitatis for example, presents to us a range of sea-creatures with terrestrial characteristics. The illustration shows a page from a 1536 German edition, Gart der Gesundheit, which bears depictions of a sea-cow with the upper body of a cow and lower body of a fish, a bird with a fishtail, and several Nereids.

Various monsters and mythical creatures, in Gart der Gesundheit zu latein Hortus Sanitatis : Sagt in vier Bücheren von Vierfüszsigen vnd Krichenden, Vöglen vnd den Fliegenden, Vischen vnd Schwimmenden thieren, dem Edlen Gesteyn vnd allem so in den Aderen der erden wachsen ist, Strasbourg, M. Apiarius, 1536, fo. XCII. [Leiden University Library, 1370 B 15]



While there was much continuity in the way sea-monsters were portrayed and perceived, new developments also took place. While mermaids were unknown in Antiquity, sightings of these creatures were reported with some regularity by Medieval and Early Modern authors. A page-wide depiction in a work on monstrosities, Monstrorum historia (1642) by the first professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna and founder of its botanical garden, Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), shows us what such creatures were believed to look like. In appearance these much resemble the Nereids from Antiquity, which were believed to be friendly and keen to help sailors in distress. In this, they resemble the benevolent aquatic fairies native to western European folklore. By contrast, mermaids were believed to be dangerous and seductive creatures that shipwreck vessels and lead sailors to their doom. In this, they resemble another creature from classical mythology, the siren. These birdlike creatures with human faces were believed to enchant sailors with their singing in order to cause them harm. During the Middle Ages, elements of sirens, sea nymphs, and aquatic fairies, were combined in popular imagination to form the mermaid.

Monstra Niliaca, in Ulisse Aldrovandi, Opera omnia. XI Monstrorum historia cum paralipomenis historiae omnium animalium, Bologna, N. Tebaldini, 1642, p. 354. [Leiden University Library, 655 A 13]


Monstrous Whales

While monstrous whales had been described since Antiquity, the sixteenth century generated an unprecedented variety of such creatures. Little knowledge on whales had been gathered during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and often monstrous proportions and strength were attributed to these animals. For unknown reasons, in the second half of the sixteenth century whales beached more frequently than usual on European shores. Around the same time whaling increased. As a result, knowledge expanded, but up until then accurate depictions and descriptions were scarce and the line between whale and monster remained difficult to draw. The Swedish chronicler Olaus Magnus published depictions of monstrous whales based on folklore on his 1539 map of Scandinavia Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarium and in his 1555 chronic of Scandinavia Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, which became instantly popularThe creatures shown on the map of Iceland from the Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius’s atlas Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) are based on Magnus’s monsters. The map shows ten monstrous whales, with claws that resemble those of terrestrial animals.

Islandia, in Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum, Antwerp, s.n., 1570. [Leiden University Library, COLLBN Atlas 43: 1]


Man-Made Monsters

Basilisks were first described in Antiquity as dangerous serpents and acquired new characteristics in later centuries. By the late Middle Ages they had become winged monsters, born as the result of a bizarre sequence of events, which could kill anyone by looking at them. During the Early Modern period basilisk-like monsters were manufactured out of rays. The scholar Ulysse Aldrovandi describes two such creations as basilisks, while others are described as winged snakes or dragons. In 1558 the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) explained, in his encyclopaedia of animals Historia animalium, how these were made, by twisting, cutting and drying a ray. He complains that the man-made monsters were passed off as real to impress the masses and were often exhibited in apothecary shops. However, they were also part of scholarly naturalia collections. Aldrovandi collected several and described no fewer than five in his Serpentum et draconum historiae (1640) and De piscibus et de cetis (1623).

Winged snake, in Conrad Gessner, Nomenclator aquatilium animantium icones animalium aquitilium in mari et dulcibus aquis degentium, Zürich, C. Froschauer, 1560, p. 139. [Leiden University Library, 665 A 9]


Draco ex Raia effictus, in Ulysse Aldrovandi, Opera omnia. X: Serpentum et draconum historiae libri duo, Bologna, N. Tebaldini 1640, p. 315. [Leiden University Library, 655 A 12]


The Sea-Unicorn and the Narwhal

First reports of the unicorn date back to the fourth century BC, when the scholar Ctesias described a one-horned horse which he had heard about. The legend subsequently spread through the work of Aristotle and other scholars. In addition, a mistranslation in the bible gave the impression that the unicorn was mentioned in the Old Testament. Scholars of the Middle Ages and first half of the Early Modern period consequently had good reason to believe in unicorns. The assumption that animals on land have aquatic counterparts, meant that the existence of a sea-unicorn was also widely accepted. Believed to neutralise poison, what was sold as unicorn horn fetched exorbitant prices. In the sixteenth century scholars began to suspect that these ‘horns’ were in fact narwhal teeth. The collector Ole Worm published a treaty on this subject in 1638. The discovery quickly became common knowledge and inspired the depiction from Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, published in 1694, of a sea-unicorn and narwhal side by side. However, rather than diminishing belief in the medical properties of the horns, this led many to belief that the narwhal was in fact the sea-unicorn. The last recorded use of unicorn horn in folk medicine took place in the nineteenth century.

Licorne de Mer, in Pierre Pomet, Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, et des mineraux, Paris, J.-B. Loyson, etc.,1694, p. 78. [Museum Boerhaave Library, BOERH e 2459 a]


Modern Sea-Monsters

Certain sea-monsters have proved surprisingly durable. The depiction of a giant sea serpent published by the Dutch zoologist Anthonie Oudemans in 1892, is not unlike many depicted in mosaics from Antiquity or in books from the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Towards the end of the nineteenth century sightings of this mythical creature were still reported with such regularity that Oudemans was able to collect nearly two hundred reports over the course of three years. Applying what is known as a crypto-zoological approach, in the absence of empirical evidence, Oudemans used the quantity of sightings as an argument that the giant sea serpent was an existing species. He proposed the scientific name Megophias megophias for the yet to be discovered creatureOudemans received a lukewarm reaction from the academic world, where both cryptozoology and the existence of sea-monsters were considered controversial. Nonetheless, The Great Sea Serpent was published by reputable academic publishers. As Oudemans pointed out, the fact that a sea-monster has not yet been discovered does not prove it does not exist.

The sea-monster, as Mr. C. Renard supposed to have seen it, in Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans, The great sea-serpent: An historical and critical treatise: With the reports of 187 appearances, Leiden, Brill etc. – London, Luzac & Co, 1892, p. 56. [Leiden University Library, 290 B 7]


© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2018. 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.


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 Hanivers. A ray is cut, shaped and dried in order to make it look like a basilisk or a dragon. While it may sound unusual, these creations were produced on a rather large scale during the Early Modern period. The author of the above illustration, Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) tells us how this was done. His instructions inspired me to try this out, and after several failed attempts I now have dragons adorning my home and office. Before getting into the practical side of things though, let’s explore the historical background. What exactly is a Jenny Haniver?


Origin of the name

The name can be traced back to 1928, to a publication of the biologist Gilbert P. Whitley, who described how an acquaintance bought such a dried ray from an antique shop and wrote to him that, although he wasn’t a hundred percent sure, he thought the salesperson had called the object a ‘Jenny Haniver’. In fact, this name can be traced back no further than Whitley’s article, and may well originate there.


Conrad Gessner (image: sciencesourceimages) and his Nomenclator aquatilium animantium, 1560 (image: Leiden University Library).


What is a Jenny Haniver?

In his description of these objects, Gessner tells us that Jenny Hanivers were made to impress people and were passed off as real. Gessner, who lived from 1516 to 1565, was rather well informed himself. He published on a wide range of subjects, from philology and theology to medicine and natural history, and corresponded with scholars across Europe, one of which sent him the above depiction. Gessner reproduced it first in his encyclopaedic work on animals Historiae Animalium (1551-58), and two years later in an abridged version of the volume on fish, the Nomenclator Aquatilium Animantium (1560).

While Gessner was not the first to describe a Jenny Haniver, he was the first to explicitly describe it as a man-made object, and to explain how it was made. His instructions read as follows:

“In order to impress common people, apothecaries and others dry rays and twist their skeletons into all sorts of remarkable poses, making the animal look like a snake or a winged dragon. They twist the body, alter the shape of the head and mouth, and remove other parts or make them smaller. The lower part of the body is cut, and what remains is lifted, to make it look like the creature has wings.”


Image: seavoicenews


Why rays?

It isn’t hard to imagine how this is done. Rays already have a suggestive appearance which is fairly easy to manipulate. If we look at a ray from below, we may get the impression that a friendly face is staring back at us. In fact, this consists of the mouth and nostrils of the animal, the real eyes being located on top of the head. Taking advantage of this, many Jenny’s were made by turning the head upwards towards the observer. This is particularly clear in the here shown depiction from the work of the sixteenth century Italian scholar Ulysse Aldrovandi.


Jenny Haniver from Ulysse Aldovandi’s De piscibus, 1613. Image: Leiden University


Real or not?

Also in the more unusual Jenny Haniver from another sixteenth century work included below, the mouth and nostrils appear to form a face. Gessner refers to this depiction which was first published in 1551 by the French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517-1564) in his L’histoire naturelle des éstranges poissons marins. While this specimen still resembles a ray, a large portion of the wings was cut and the shape of the head radically altered. Although it appears he was well aware the depicted creature had been tampered with, Belon does not mention this in his description of the creature.


Jenny Haniver in Pierre Belon’s De aquatilibus, 1553. Image: Library of the United States Department of Agriculture, Cambridge (Mass.).


This approach is not unusual in descriptions of monstrous creatures of this period. While Gessner explicitly exposes his Jenny Haniver as a fraud, in his descriptions of other non-existent and marvellous creatures we find a similar duality. He writes for example, that so many sources claim these creatures exist, that he cannot deny the possibility. This way of phrasing it, of course suggests that Gessner himself is not entirely convinced. Similarly, Belon describes this Jenny Haniver alongside several descriptions of rays he had studied and dissected, suggesting that he knew what he was dealing with, but without explicitly saying it.



Belon’s depiction of a Jenny Haniver was copied by the earlier mentioned Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). Aldrovandi was professor at the University of Bologna and the founder of its botanical garden. He was also an ardent collector and accumulated over seven thousand naturalia and drawings of naturalia, including Jenny Hanivers. In his works on natural history he depicted five, showing us the great variety of Jenny Hanivers that were in circulation at the time.


Three Jenny Hanivers from Ulysse Aldovandi’s De piscibus, 1613. Image: john-howe


How to make them

So how does this work in practice? While Gessner indicates the ray should be shaped and dried, he does not clarify how this should be done. He does provide some instruction as to how it should be cut, but this takes some skill and practice, neither of which I had when I first tried to do this. Luckily for me, a member of our project group is a biologist turned historian of science, with years of experience dissecting animals. Robbert Striekwold quickly taught me how to cut and shape a fish, and as an amateur taxidermist, he was also able to advise me about taxidermy shops where I could buy the necessary equipment.

That part of the process mastered, now the Jenny’s had to be dried and kept in the desired posture during the process. Since there is no way of knowing how Gessner’s Jenny Haniver was dried, several methods had to be tested. Three seemed the most obvious, drying in the open air, and, in imitation of common methods of food preservation, slow heating and salting (scroll down for pictures and further information). In the end I dried several specimens in a mixture of different salts over the course of six weeks, using bags of salt to prop my ray up. This done, I varnished them and gave them glass eyes.



Image: Sophia Hendrikx


The specimen shown here was presented at the opening of the Fish & Fiction exhibition in Leiden, the Netherlands. Once the exhibition closes it will be added to the collection of the Naturalis Biodversity Centre. The rest of my growing collection of Jenny’s remain with me for now, and will possibly find more suitable homes in the future.



Image: Sophia Hendrikx


Further reading:

Sophia Hendrikx, Monsters, Sea-Monks, and Mermaids. Strange Creatures from the Sea from Antiquity to the Modern Age. In: Marlise Rijks, Paul J. Smith & Florike Egmond (editors), Fish & Fiction. Aquatic Animals between Science and Imagination (1500-1900). Leiden University, 2018.

Sophia Hendrikx, Monstrosities from the Sea. Taxonomy and tradition in Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) discussion of cetaceans and sea-monsters, Anthropozoologica 53 (11): 125-137.

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.

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

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

Conrad Gesner, Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1560.

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

Ulysse Aldrovandi, Opera omnia. X: Serpentum et draconum historiae libri duo, Bologna, N. Tebaldini 1640.



Making a Jenny Haniver:



Image: Sophia Hendrikx

The first attempt, created by myself and Robbert, using a monkfish rather than a ray due to a mix-up at the fish market, and using wooden blocks and some very inauthentic aluminium wire to prop our Jenny up. Despite the beautiful summer weather it wouldn’t dry in the open air and eventually it began to decompose. Flies were also an issue.



Image: Sophia Hendrikx

Attempt # 2 was dried in my oven at a low temperature and with the door ajar. While this is a good way to dry small strips of meat or fish, it turns out it is not a suitable method to dry a large ray. It came out partially dried and partially cooked.




Image: Sophia Hendrikx

Eventually I decided to mummify my Jenny Hanivers using a combination of kitchen salt, cleaning soda, and baking soda. A similar method of mummyfication was tested by the Science Museum of Minnesota. For smaller specimens pure kitchen salt will also do the trick. I used little bags of salt to prop up the wings and open the mouth. This method proved slow but reliable. After six to eight weeks, depending on the size of the ray, the Jenny Hanivers are completely dry and ready to be varnished.

The Jenny Haniver for the exhibition Fish and Fiction was made by myself and Robbert in a lab at Leiden University. A short movie was made of the process.



© Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories Blog, 2018. 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.





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. Our project at Leiden University, A New History of Fishes, is at the moment organising an exhibition at the Leiden University Library which opens on September 20. If by then we have managed to create a dragon that looks like Gessner’s, this will be put on display. The photo below shows our first, somewhat clumsy, attempt. We used the wrong type of fish, and the result is a far cry from Gessner’s dragon. However, we will continue to try, and so this blogpost is the first of a series.




Gessner described how sea-monsters were made out of rays, often by apothecaries who displayed them in their shops. For more information on these monstrosities, nowadays known as Jenny Hanivers, I refer to my previous blogpost. For now, let’s return to Gessner’s text for a moment.

“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 forward part of the wings is cut away, and what is left is turned upright, making the animal look like it has wings”



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


Gessner complained that ordinary people were easily impressed by such things, referring to the fact that such man-made monsters were often exhibited and people would readily pay to see them. Jenny Hanivers were therefore no rare sight. Gessner’s acquaintance, the naturalist Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) depicted no fewer than five of them.



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


To us this suggested that they might not be so difficult to make, and armed with Gessner’s instructions we set out to try this for ourselves. However, we faced several challenges, beginning at the fish market. Rays, I had been told, are at their leanest and therefore not sold during the summer. However, with a few days notice, my fishmonger could get me one. Unfortunately, when I came to collect my ray, it had been chopped up and neatly wrapped up with a lemon and a bunch of parsley. Unable to get another ray at short notice, Robbert and I decided to practice on the scariest looking thing we could find, a monkfish (Lophius piscatorius).



Photo: Kai Henry


Of course monkfish are nothing like rays, and, because they are much more fleshy, much less suitable for our purpose. Nevertheless, we got to work. We knew certain parts of the fish would be impossible to preserve, so our first step was to remove those, beginning with the eyes.




Then we turned our fish over and began to remove as much flesh as possible, leaving the bone and the skin. This would make it easier to twist and shape, and would hopefully leave us with something that would easily dry in the sun. Having chosen a hot day for our experiment, we were hopeful. Monkfish have a thick spinal cord and no small bones, and so, using a standard dissection kit, we were able to easily remove almost all of the flesh from the tail. The head however, contains a lot of cartilage and we couldn’t get to the fleshy parts.




Not wanting to let this discourage us, we began to shape our fish. Because Gessner’s instructions applied to rays, we abandoned them and used our imagination. We decided to spread out the pectoral fins and lift them to make them look like wings, twist the tail and spread out the dorsal fin, and open the mouth wide for a scary finishing touch. Then of course everything had to be kept in position until it dried. We began with the tail, and pinned the tail fin down. All the while, we kept spraying water on our fish to keep it from drying out before we’d shaped it.




The next step was to spread out and lift the dorsal fin. This was easy enough, but then we had to keep it like this until it was dry. Some wooden building blocks my son no longer plays with came in useful. We propped one up against the fin and used a pipe cleaner to provide extra support.




Then we spread out and lifted the pectoral fins, using the same system. We propped them up using blocks, then used aluminium wire for extra support. This accomplished, we added pipe cleaners to hold up the filaments on the head. By now our fish was beginning to somewhat resemble Frankenstein’s monster.





We moved on to the head, again using building blocks and wire. We wrapped the wire around the head and stuffed one of the blocks into the mouth. And just like that we were done, now all we had to do was leave our creation out in the sun and hope for it to dry.




And here comes the sad part. After a long and well deserved lemonade break during which we named our monster Oscar, we returned to find the fins fairly dry but everything else more or less like we left it. By now it was late afternoon, Robbert had to go home and we left Oscar on my roof terrace, hoping he would magically dry while my family and I had dinner.




That evening, once the kids were in bed, my husband and I went to check on Oscar. He had begun to dry out but still had a long way to go, and the sun was going down. Not wanting to give up, and not wanting to leave Oscar unprotected in case the neighbourhood cats would feast on him, we put him on salt and in a box.




The next morning I went to check on him. The salt had little to no effect, Oscar was still wet. And so, once again I left him out in the sun and hoped for the best.




It was not to be. By evening, Oscar had begun to decompose and smell. He was also attracting flies.




It was time to make a decision. And so Oscar went into the bin…




Nevertheless, Oscar taught us a few valuable lessons. Making a dragon like Gessner’s is fairly easy, however drying it proves difficult. In this case, we did not manage to remove quite enough flesh, but this may be easier working with rays, as Gessner prescribes. And while we hoped that leaving Oscar out in the sun and putting him on salt would do the trick, we should keep in mind that Gessner does not explain how to dry the fish, therefore we may have to consider other methods.

This weekend we will try again. This time using a ray and following Gessner’s instructions to the letter. To be continued..



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, 2018. 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.

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 of them appeared to be mammals, as they gave birth to live young and fed these with milk. One could be trained like a dog. And to top it all off, two have not one, but two full sets of genitals. Which animals were these? Where did Rondelet obtain his information? And what on earth is going on with those double sets of genitals?

Fig. 1 Woodcut portrait of Guillaume Rondelet, from his work Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554).

Woodcut portrait of Guillaume Rondelet, from his work Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554). Bibliothèque National de France: Gallica.


Out of character

It was unusual for Rondelet to describe animals he knew very little about. As professor of comparative anatomy at the university of Montpellier, he was convinced that the body parts of animals had been created as perfectly adapted for their specific environment. Consequently, he felt they should be studied in this environment, and he often joined fisherman’s crews to do just that. Following such trips, he took specimens home, kept them in tanks, studied them and experimented on them. Usually, this did not end well for the fish. For example, Rondelet successfully proved, by sealing a tank, that even fish need a supply of fresh air to survive.

Although the fish that helped him prove this gave its life for science, in the end it didn’t matter much, as Rondelet had a habit of eventually dissecting the fish he studied. In short, he considered personal observation part of the foundation of his study of nature, and included in his book only a handful of species he had never seen. An exception was made however, for these species, which he could not successfully identify and of which no depiction could be obtained.  Rondelet provides no further information that that these are species from “the Indies”, by which he means the America’s, without further narrowing down the region, and does not indicate who his source of information was. It is likely he was intrigued by the spectacular descriptions.

Fig. 2 Rondelet_s description of New World ‘whales_ in his Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554).

Rondelet’s description of New World ‘whales’ in his Libri de Piscibus Marinis (1554). Bibliothèque National de France: Gallica.



He called these three mysterious species, the manatus, tiburus, and maraxus. Only the first is easy to identify. The female manatus, the description reads “has two teats, and produces milk to feed her offspring”. In addition, she is “docile as a dog”, as reported “by those who have seen it”. All and all, we can quite easily conclude that this is a manatee, or sea cow.  These species are cetaceans and mammals and do not often display aggressive behaviour. Most likely this is a West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus).

Fig. 3 West Indian Manatee. Keith Ramos

West Indian Manatee. Keith Ramos.


This leaves us with the two species that are described as having two sets of genitals. The description states that the tiburus “has a uterus which is divided into two chambers, and several teats” and “gives birth to live young, and feeds them with milk”. The name tiburus may be based on the Spanish tiburón, meaning shark. The remark that the uterus has two chambers could refer to the fact that many shark species are ovo-viviparous. While they produce eggs, these hatch internally, and the offspring are transferred to another part of the reproductive system. This could then be any live-bearing shark species. Since sharks are not mammals, they don’t feed their young with milk, but since they are live-bearing, this assumption is easily made.

Possibly, this is a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), or the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus). The fact that the males are described as having double genitalia, “genitale esse aiunt duplex”, may well refer to a shark’s claspers, an extension of the male pelvic fins used in mating. A shark has two claspers, simply because it also has two pelvic fins.


A shark’s claspers. By Jean-Lou Justine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


Fig. 5 Short fin mako shark. Jidanchaomian

Short fin mako shark. Jidanchaomian.


Sources and etymology

That the names would come from Spanish is not altogether surprising. Since the late fifteenth century, Spanish explorers of the new world had encountered aquatic species in the Caribbean. In turn, the name maraxus appears to be based on the Spanish marrajos, a term which can apply to several shark species, but predominantly refers to the shortfin mako shark. However, the marrajos is described in Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Apologetica Historia Sumaria (1527-), where it is said to inhabit shallow waters near the coast. This could indicate that rather than the mako, this could be the great white shark.

Since de Las Casas did not appear in print until 1958, Rondelet would not have been familiar with this text. The earliest work describing aquatic species from the new world, appears to be Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias (1526). This discusses turtles, sharks, and the manatee. While he does not indicate this, most likely, this was Rondelet’s source of information.

Fig. 6 Great white shark. George Probst

Great white shark. George Probst.


This still leaves us with one question. Rondelet would have been unfamiliar with the Spanish words tiburón and marrajos. Since the species Spanish explorers encountered in the New World were very different from these they were familiar with, and they consequently lacked words to describe them, they tended to turn to local knowledge and used bastardised Indian names to describe them. According to the lexicographer Fernando Ortiz, tibur´on comes from the Carib language. Possibly ti means ground and bur´on means fish. Similarly towards the end of the sixteenth century, English explorers would adopt the word xoc from the Mayans, which is the root of the word shark.



This being as it may, the double genitals of the tiburus and maraxus should have made Rondelet realise that these were shark species. European shark species, although very different in size to American shark species, also have claspers. In addition, it had been known since antiquity that sharks were live-bearing fishes rather than mammals, as they described as such in Aristotle’s History of Animals. The fact that Rondelet describes these species as producing milk indicates he had not realised they were sharks, but how is this possible? The way in which the description is phrased, “genitale esse aiunt duplex”- they say it has double genitals, could indicate that the author was not convinced this was true. The verb aiunt, meaning ‘they say’, could imply a certain scepticism, which is understandable in relation to this description of a completely unknown animal. Most likely then, Rondelet felt these descriptions were too spectacular to be completely true, and therefore decided not to draw conclusions.




Further reading:

Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinis. Mathieu Bonhomme, Paris, 1554, p. 1-112 (introduction) & 489-490 (manatus, tiburus & maraxus).

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias. Remon de Petras, Toledo, 1526. 

Bartolomé de Las Casas,  Apologetica historia sumaria. Bibliotheca de Autores Españoles 105. Obras Escogidas de Bartolome de las Casas III. Ediciones Atlas, Madrid, 1958.

José I. Castro, Historical Knowledge of Sharks: Ancient Science, Earliest American Encounters, and American Science, Fisheries, and Utilisation. Marine Fisheries Review, 75 (4). 

Ortiz, Fernando. Nuevo catauro de cubanismos. Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1974.



This post also appeared on the 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.

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 very similar Baltic herring. The second post explained how Gessner drew on classical sources, in particular Aristotle, in assuming that the sprat generates from mud and the Baltic herring from a deceased sprat. This final post in the series explores how linguistic confusion caused him to connect these classical descriptions of Mediterranean fishes to the sprat and the Baltic herring, which occur in the Baltic Sea, and neither of which Aristotle had ever seen.


Calling fish by their name

In a blogpost which appeared on the Leiden Arts in Society blog in April 2016, Didi van Trijp discusses the linguistic confusion which is often involved in naming fishes. She refers here, to an article by food journalist Joël Broekaert in the Dutch journal Vrij Nederland, who describes how fishes are sometimes subject to fraudulent relabeling. They are renamed for commercial reasons, and sold as different types of fish which are more expensive. In addition he points out that fish names can be subject to a Babylonian confusion. Not only do they tend to be called by different names in different countries, but in different languages the same name can refer to a different type of fish. Broekaert is absolutely correct. The term red mullet for example, can refer to both Mullus barbatus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus in British English, but only to Mullus surmuletus in American English. In Australian English meanwhile, the term refers to neither of these but to no fewer than seven species, none of which are related to the genus Mullus. Consequently, an Englishman going out to dinner in Australia, a country where he can speak his native language, will suffer from Babylonian confusion to the point where he’ll have no idea which fish is on his plate. Something similar is going on with Gessner’s sprat and Baltic herring.

what's on your plate

What’s on your plate? Source: Roland Tanglao


Shifting meanings

In his Latin text, Gessner calls the sprat ‘aphya’ and the Baltic herring ‘membras’. These names are based on the Greek terms ἀφύη and μεμβράς. Both terms refer to the anchovy or a similar small fish, in which context they are also mentioned by Aristotle, who describes the membras as slightly larger than the aphya. In the previous blogpost I have argued that the fact that the Baltic herring looks very similar to the slightly smaller sprat, as well as the fact that both species are found in close proximity, led Gessner to assume that if the sprat was Aristotle’s aphya, the Baltic herring must be his slightly bigger membras. In his descriptions, he copies what Aristotle said about these species. This is somewhat strange because, since the Baltic herring and the sprat do not occur in the Mediterranean, Aristotle must without a doubt have written about fishes which are completely different from these Scandinavian species. By the time Gessner produced his work, the terms aphya and membras were commonly used to refer to the sprat and the Baltic herring, but he failed to take into account that the names had shifted from one species to another over the centuries.

sprat and baltic herring

Baltic herring. Source: 16:9clue.  Sprat. Source: Beck.



So what caused this shift? In part perhaps the simple fact that to the casual observer these species look somewhat similar. This has resulted in both a fraudulent and a Babylonian confusion of the type Broekaert writes about. The sprat resembles the anchovies in its small size, and like the anchovies it isn’t often eaten on its own but is used to add flavour to a dish. Throughout the centuries this has led to considerable confusion, to the extent that the sprat is currently still sold under the name ‘ansjovis’ in Sweden. While the Swedish name for sprat is ‘skarpsill’, tins of salted sprats are labelled ‘ansjovis’, most often without offering further clarification. While little is known about the historical background of this Babylonian confusion, it is not hard to imagine how this came about. In their culinary application, these species are more or less interchangeable, inviting fraudulent labelling which is facilitated by the fact that anchovies do not occur near Scandinavia.

spot the difference

Spot the difference, anchovies and sprats. Sources: Leon Brocard and claire rowland.

tinned sprats

Tinned sprats. Source: Scandinavian specialties


Then and now

How come Gessner to describe the sprat as aphya and the Baltic herring as membras? In his description of the sprat Gessner states that ‘these are sometimes caught in such great quantities, that fishermen can catch 50 Crowns worth of it in a single day’. This shows he had information on both catch and the market value of the sprat, suggesting that he had a local informant. Such a Scandinavian local would have been influenced by local colloquialism. Gessner’s use of the term aphya in this context may therefore be a mislabelled tin, an indication that a linguistic confusion substituting the term anchovies for sprat was already rampant in the sixteenth century. And what about the Baltic herring? By the time Gessner published his work the term membras had come to refer to the Baltic herring within the scholarly community. Since the Baltic herring is so similar to the sprat, perhaps it is possible, that the mislabelling of the sprat also had an effect on the Baltic herring. The resulting confusion may even be reflected in the current taxonomical name for the species, which is Clupea harengus membras.


And so we mislabel on…

the right labels

The right labels? Source: Sandra Fauconnier



This post also appeared on the 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.


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?


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”


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.


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


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.”


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


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.


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.


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.


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 (, 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”


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”.


 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.


Image by Adamantiaf. (, 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.


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.


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

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: (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: (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