Fish Stories: Enlightened Fish Books

By Didi van Trijp

Fig. 1: Paper cut-out of herring caught in 1663, Royal Society, Classified Papers 13/1 @ Royal Society
Fig. 1: Paper cut-out of herring caught in 1663, Royal Society, Classified Papers 13/1 @ Royal Society

As the saying goes, fishermen are prone to tell ‘fish stories’; exaggerations of the size of the fish which they nearly caught but that only just got away. The paper cut-out of this herring (Figure 1) belies that idea: it is the paper proof of an exceptionally large herring specimen which was caught off the coast of Turso, Scotland in May 1663. This tracing was communicated to the Royal Society by Robert Moray FRS, who handled Scottish affairs for the Crown at the time and thus visited Scotland frequently. The accompanying letter does not say much with regard to this particular image, except that the fish totaled 19½ inches in length, and in width (without the fins) 5 inches. Such mathematical precision, according to Matthew Hunter, was much needed to get some grip on “those slippery denizens of the inky depths”.

In this blog post I explore how this cut-out herring may have contributed to the study of the watery part of creation in late seventeenth-century England. The existence of this piece of paper in the archives of the Royal Society offers, to me, a compelling case. From a fisherman’s net, this specimen was traced on paper, before finding its way into the room where fellows of the Royal Society convened in London on July 1, 1663 and discussed the case, as Thomas Birch described. The exact trajectory remains somewhat unclear; which intermediaries (other than Moray) made it possible for this fish’s contours to end up in the archives of the Royal Society? Why did the actors engaged in this circulation consider it pertinent to formalize the size of the fish on paper – was it bragging, a sense of wonder, or a way to advance natural knowledge, or all three?

The Fellows of the Royal Society were certainly interested in fish, as their extensive financial support for publishing the Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686) demonstrates. This groundbreaking book was written by the Cambridge naturalists Francis Willughby (1635–1672, FRS 1663) and John Ray (1627–1705, FRS 1667), and constituted a novel approach to the study of fish. Sachiko Kusukawa has shown that this approach entailed a focus on the description of external features of fish, rather than the compilation of a pandect that included mythical and fantastic descriptions, as sixteenth-century authors were prone to do. The case of the Scottish herring would have been quite interesting for Conrad Gesner, for example, who in his volume on fishes only mentioned the size of a fish when he could report a spectacular sighting.

Fig. 2: Depiction of the herring in Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686). Courtesy of Special Collections at Leiden University Library [667 A 17]
Fig. 2: Depiction of the herring in Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686). Courtesy of Special Collections at Leiden University Library [667 A 17]

Despite being safely stored in the Royal Society’s archive, the impressive Scottish herring did not make an appearance in the Historia piscium. In their description of the harengus species, Willughby and Ray merely state that the size of this very well-known fish is 9 to 12 inches in length, and 2 or 3 inches in width. They do not explicitly state on which particular specimen they have based their indications, but by using the adjective ‘very well-known’, or ‘notissimus’, the authors seem to appeal to previous observations of the reader. Furthermore, they give intricate descriptions of the fish’s inner parts, whereas the visual depiction of the herring renders the fish’s external parts in detail (Figure 2). Both inside and out, fishes’ features offered veritable clues to their place in the large, ordered system that God had created; Ray dubbed these ‘characteristic marks’. Such a mark could be the body shape of a fish of its fins. As a result of this quest for characteristic marks, Ray discarded those cases that did not exemplify average specimens and were ‘monstrous’ varieties.

Even though they often drew on earlier authors, Willughby and Ray attached great value to seeing things with their own eyes, too. During their ‘field trip’ through Europe from 1662 to 1666, they visited fisheries and fish markets to observe specimens, as Sachiko Kusukawa relates. In the Historia piscium, their own observations are marked with a ‘vidi’, ‘vidimus’, meaning ‘I have seen’ or ‘we have seen’. Altogether, the book is an amalgam of existing descriptions that are corrected according to freshly made observations. Specimens that seemed abnormal, however – even when subjected to mathematical precision – were not included. Nonetheless, the paper cut-out attests that those geared to gather and record knowledge of the underwater world formed a varied crowd. Thus, it offers insight into the people and practices involved in the process of knowledge production, but also allows us to reflect on what kind of knowledge was deemed pertinent to whom and why.


Further reading

For an interesting insight into the topics discussed at the meetings of the Royal Society, see Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London (London, 1756).

The epitomic fish book that this blog post discusses is that by Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia Piscium (Oxford, 1686).

The Historia piscium has been extensively researched by Sachiko Kusukawa, most recently in ‘Historia Piscium (1686) and its Sources’ in: Tim Birkhead (ed.) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672) (Leiden, 2016). Earlier work was done for her article ‘The Historia Piscium, (1686)’ in: Notes and Records of the Royal Society 54 (2000). DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2000.0106

To learn more about how early modern people worked with, on, and against paper, see Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago Press, 2013).