Monkfish, anyone? The strange story of the Polish sea-bishop

13 Jun

An odd one, this.

Yesterday, I had a fellow early modernist over for lunch. In between weighty disputations on seventeenth-century ecclesiastical history, we fell to talking about Come Dine With Me (as you do). Mid-conversation, I might have mentioned monkfish, at which point my dining companion perked up, asking “have you heard the story about the sea-bishop?” He went on…

The ‘sea-bishop’ (or ‘bishop-fish’) is a creature described in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (vol. IV, Zurich, 1558). Gesner reported two monsters being retrieved from the sea – one, the Wassermünch’ (water- or sea-monk) found in Norway ‘in our time’, which looked like a monk (‘ein Meerwunder einem München geleych’); the other, a ‘sea-bishop’ found in Poland in 1531, ‘episcopi habitu’. Gesner, citing Boethius, also mentioned the story of a similar creature found in the Firth of Forth, centuries before.

The Polish legend surrounding the sea-bishop is great, though I can’t find a contemporary source of it (it’s not in the edition of Gesner I’ve looked at). Supposedly, the creature was brought to the king of Poland, who exhibited it to a group of bishops. It made signs which, to the clergymen, looked like begging to be released. Perhaps in a fit of episcopal solidarity, they obliged and returned it to the sea, whereupon it disappeared beneath the waves – though not before making the sign of the cross.

We’re still not sure what these ecclesiastical sea-monsters might have been, though the 19th-century Danish zoologist and general squid expert Japetus Steenstrup was pretty sure that the sea-monk was a giant squid. He compared it to two 16th-century images and found the evidence compelling. What do you think? It seems plausible enough, but I might hold off on eating monkfish for a while, just to be sure.


Thanks for reading. If you have a moment, you should definitely click through to the Historia Animalium – some amazing images and text in Latin with some German glosses.

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