Over the past week or so I’ve had whales on the brain, and I’ve encountered them in numerous places: at the Smithsonian’s recently-opened Whales: from Bone to Book exhibit, in the pages of an old Salem-published book I picked up at a yard sale last weekend, and searching for examples of wonder in various digital archives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English printed books. For early modern Englishmen and -women, few things were as “wondrous”, or providential, as the appearance of a “monstrous fish”, a “sea-monster”, or a whale. Their Christian worldview and precedents (Jonah and the whale, St. Brendan’s “island”) guaranteed that something big was up when one of these creatures appeared.
Timothy Granger, A Moste true and marveilous Straunge wonder (1568); St. Brendan holding mass on the back of a whale, from Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (1621); Illustration from George Francis Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling: a Pictorial History (1925).
Every maritime culture appears to have its whale lore, but I’m only (vaguely) familiar with the western variety, and still trying to figure out quite a few whale tales. I’m not entirely certain why whales were so wondrous, so monstrous, so shocking, so noteworthy in the early modern era; after all, there were the ancient precedents as well as more recent medieval references, most notably to ambergris. Though there were diverse theories about its exact source, everyone seemed to accept that whales were somehow connected to the exotic substance.
Birthwort, serpent & a sperm whale in a Salerno herbal, British Library MS Egerton 747, c. 1280-1310.
Centuries later, it is apparent that it was not just whales that were wondrous in early modern England but beached or stranded whales, gigantic creatures that were far from their natural surroundings. And I can understand the fascination; I remember discovering the remains of a whale (just a blubbery part really) on a rocky beach in Maine when I was a child and running home to tell my parents, small bone in hand, quite vividly. Another memory I have of a whale comes from much later, when I was researching my dissertation and came across a seventeenth-century pamphlet reporting the foiled attempt of a Jesuit to sneak into England in the body of a whale. Few things were as threatening as Jesuits in post-Gunpowder Plot England, so this secret papal mission of sorts makes sense in the scheme of things, but I lost track of the reference and never found that source again. This past weekend, I found something similar: A True and Wonderfull Relation of a Whale with a “Romish Priest” in its belly, no doubt the tract of my faulty memory.
Two seventeenth-century tracts that look slightly more “scientific” but also contain “prodigious” accounts are A True Report and Exact Description of a mighty Sea-monster, or Whale (1617) and Strange News from the Deep, Being a Full Account of a Large Prodigious Whale (1677). These accounts date from the same century when the English were actively engaging in whaling well off-shore in the North Atlantic, so apparently it was only whales at home that were wondrous. Those in the deep possessed another characteristic–value–which would only increase in the coming centuries.
June 12th, 2013 at 9:02 am
Those pictures look just like a whale….
June 12th, 2013 at 9:48 am
Well that’s because they are whales, Mark–or at least some of them are.
June 12th, 2013 at 12:00 pm
Excellent Post – exquisite material displayed. Bravo!
June 12th, 2013 at 12:51 pm
June 12th, 2013 at 12:03 pm
I already have a degree in History and I want to take a couple if your classes. I love your blog. I always feel like I’m learning new things I didn’t know I wanted to learn.
June 12th, 2013 at 12:24 pm
What a lovely compliment; thank you so much–well, if you’re in the area, I do teach some grad. and continuing ed courses at Salem State, although (sadly) I’m going to be doing a lot less teaching now because I’m going to become Chair of the History Department at the end of this very month.
June 12th, 2013 at 12:59 pm
Good for you…I think. Just take it easy on those poor grad students!
June 13th, 2013 at 9:14 am
Wonderful and inspiring! Congratulations on Chair!!
June 13th, 2013 at 11:31 am
It could be congratulations or condolences, but thank you!
August 26th, 2014 at 4:05 pm
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