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.

 

Mislabeling

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.

 

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Monstrous rays and fraudulent apothecaries

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

jenny-haniver-belon

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

 

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

European eagle ray.jpg

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

 

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

jenny-haniver-gessner-png

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

 

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

beschrijving-jenny-haniver-gessner

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

 

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

onderkant-eagle-ray

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

 

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

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

jenny-haniver-aldrovandi

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

 

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

jenny-haniver-belon-gessner

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

 

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

 

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Extremely Oily Flammable Fish

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

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

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

Image: yetigooseuk, youtube 

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

extremely oily flammable fish 2

Melt in the hand? Image: instagram, adriannehappyhour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Conrad Gessner’s Fischbuch, SUB Göttingen 

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

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

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

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

This post also appeared on the Arts in Society Blog.

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