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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. http://sciencepress.mnhn.fr/en/periodiques/anthropozoologica/53/11

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.