‘I have seen a portrait of another sea-monster at Rome, whither it had been sent with letters that affirmed for certain that in 1531 one had seen this monster in a bishop’s garb, as here portrayed, in Poland. Carried to the king of that country, it made certain signs that it had a great desire to return to the sea. Being taken thither it threw itself instantly into the water.’
Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), p. 494.
Image of a Sea Bishop from Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), p. 494.
Pierre Belon (1517-1564) may have been the first to describe the mysterious ‘Sea Monk’, reported to have been found off the Øresund in 1546, but his rival Guillaume Rondelet (1507-1566), managed to be the first to break the news that a ‘Sea Bishop’ (also known as a Bishop Fish), had been caught fifteen years earlier in the Baltic Sea. Rondelet recounts that the source for both his information and image was another doctor, Gilbertus Germanus, who stated that it had been brought to the king of Poland, Sigismund I (1467-1548), in 1531. According to Germanus, it somehow indicated that it wished to return to the sea and, once there, threw itself into the water. Rondelet labels it as a fish in a bishop’s habit (‘De pisce Episcopi habitu’), an equivocal title which indicates that he may have had his doubts. Certainly he gave far less concrete information about the creature than the sea monk which he discussed in the preceding pages of his text, and he finished his short comment by saying that he had omitted many things he had been told about the monster because he considered them to be false. Rondelet concluded that he could neither ‘affirm, nor refute’ whether the creature was real or not.
Image of a Sea Bishop from Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 439.
Gessner quotes Rondelet’s text verbatim in his 1558 edition of his Historiae Animalium, which Worth bought in a 1620 Frankfurt edition, but he too was evidently nonplussed and added little comment, except to say that the creature had been huge. Paré, writing in 1573, was even more laconic, simply referring the reader to Rondelet and Gessner on the subject. The reason for this reticence was not just a lack of information from contemporaries, but also a dearth of references in the acknowledged authorities. Natural historians such as Rondelet and Gessner simply did not want to appear too credulous when the information was so scanty.
Later writers had no such scruples! Exactly when and where the myth originated that the creature gestured to Roman Catholic bishops in the audience who prevailed on the king to release him, and that, in turn, the creature offered them a benediction, is unclear. The linkage in theme between the Sea Monk and the Sea Bishop also meant that the latter gained more prominence – Giacomo Gastaldi (d. 1566), included both images just to the south of Japan in his section on South–East Asia in Cosmographia Universalis et Exactissima iuxta prostremam neotericorum traditionem (Venice, c. 1561). His positioning of them just north of the Philippines and south of Japan indicates that though he had heard of them as ‘sea monsters’ he had not paid too much attention to the reports of their sighting (which had been in the Baltic).
On the left is an image of a Sea Bishop in Ambroise Paré, Les Œuvers D’Ambroise Paré (Lyon, 1685), p. 646; and on the right is an image from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia: cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642), p. 358.
What was the creature? It was certainly far less humanoid that the sea monk whose face was clearly shown in each of the depictions in the sixteenth century. Writers such as Richard Carrington have suggested that the shape of the creature offers some clues: it may have been a skate or a ray which had formed the basis of a ‘jenny haniver’, an elaborate hoax. If so, it would not have been the first time a ray had been used to fabricate a ‘jenny haniver’ as we know from Aldrovandi that rays had been used to fabricate fake dragons.
Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640).
Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Monstrorum historia: cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642).
Ault, Alicia, ‘Renaissance Europe was horrified by reports of a Sea Monster that looked like a Monk wearing Scales’, Smithsonianmag.com. 2016.
Carrington, Richard, Mermaids and Mastodons: A Book of Natural and Un-Natural History (London, 1957).
Gessner, Conrad, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620).
Jordan, David Starr, Fishes (New York, 1907).
Mackenzie, Louisa, ‘French Early Modern Sea-Monsters and Modern Identities, via Bruno Latour’ in Pia F. Cuneo (ed.), Animals and Early Modern Identity (Farnham, 2014), pp 329-50.
Paré, Ambroise, Les Œuvers D’Ambroise Paré (Lyon, 1685).
Rondelet, Guillaume, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554).
Russell, W.M.S. and F.S. Russell, ‘The Origin of the Sea Bishop’, Folklore, 86, no. 2 (1975), 94-8.
Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2014).
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 English translation from David Starr Jordan, Fishes (New York, 1907), p. 151.
 Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), p. 494.
 This book is not in Worth’s collection.
 An image of this is in Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2014), p. 100.
 Richard Carrington, Mermaids and Mastodons: A Book of Natural and Un-Natural History (London, 1957), pp 60-63. Ulisse Aldrovandi draws attention to a false dragon in his Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 316.