Wondrous Whales

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.

Whale Granger_Timothy-A_moste_true_and_marueilous_straunge-STC-12186-385_01-p1

Whale St Brendan 1621

Whale Dow 1925

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.

Whale Medieval

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.

Whale 1645

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.

Whale 1617

Whale 1677


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