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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? Source: Roland Tanglao
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.
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.
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? 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.
“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.”
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.
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. 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, strongly suggest that even though these species are similar, they cannot be the same.
What, then, is the relationship between these two species?
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”
All of this strongly suggests that the Schmelzling may be the sprat, which belongs to the herring family and is one of the oiliest fishes in existence. The illustration also appears to confirm this. However this straightforward identification makes Gessner’s description of this species all the more puzzling.
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. 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. This may help us, since Gessner provides a rough outline of the herring family in his description of the herring. 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.
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. 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 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.
 “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.”
 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.
 In particular the position of the pelvic fin in relation to the dorsal fin.
 “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.”
 Sprattus sprattus.
 In particular the position of the pelvic fin, which is implanted further forward on the body than the dorsal fin.
 Aristotle, History of Animals, vol. VI, part 15, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1910)
 Conrad Gessner, Fischbuch, 1563, f. 2 verso: “Membras. Ein kleine häring Art.”
 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.
 “Solche werden zur zeit deß Herbst in grosser menge gefangen, sind doch von etlichen Fischern auss einem Tag für 50. Kronen wehrt gefangen worden.”
 Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinis, 1554, part 1, p. 112 and 220.
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.