‘In Norway, near the city of Den Elepoch in the region of Diezunt, was found another monster or ocean fish, bearing the face of a monk, the illustration of which you can see here. This monster, according to many who saw it, did not live more than three days, did not speak nor emitted any sound but great, plaintive signs’.
Pierre Belon, De Aquatilibus (Paris, 1553), p. 38.
Image of a Sea Monk from Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), p. 492.
Worth’s collection includes some of the most famous depictions of the Sea Monk (also known as the Monk Fish). The creature had initially been described by Pierre Belon in his 1553 treatise and his depiction formed the basis for those found in Worth’s copies of Guillaume Rondelet’s Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620; initially published in 1558), Ambroise Paré’s Les Œuvers D’Ambroise Paré (Lyon, 1685; initially published in 1573), and Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia: cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642). Belon (1517-1564), Rondelet (1507-1566) and Paré (c. 1510-1590) were all French and though they had not seen the creature, they were intrigued by the reports that reached the French court of a strange fish which had been spotted in the Øresund, off the coast of modern-day Malmö, in 1546. The decision of the Danish king, Christian III (1503-1559), to send news of this strange catch to the courts of Europe is not hard to understand – just as it had captured royal interest so too did it seize hold of the scholarly imagination.
As Barthe points out, the publication dates of 1553 for Belon and 1554 for Rondelet indicate not only a scholarly fervour but also a scholarly rivalry. In the case of the Sea Monk Belon managed to publish first, both in Latin (1553) and French (1555), and though Worth did not buy the French translations of either Belon or Rondelet (1558), his edition of the complete works of Paré would have included the latter’s Des Monstres et prodigies (1573). The plethora of French translations ensured that news of the Sea Monk moved beyond the learned circles of the French court and into public discourse. It was soon picked up by other scholars of natural history and a version duly appeared in Gessner’s Historiae Animalium (1558), which Worth purchased in a 1620 Frankfurt edition.
But if Belon was the first to produce an image of the Sea Monk, Rondelet made sure he was the first to discuss it in detail. As Mackenzie notes, Rondelet’s text demonstrates that the inclusion of the Sea Monk in these scholarly volumes did not necessarily indicate outright acceptance of it as a factual entity. However, as she points out, though Rondelet clearly entertained some doubts concerning its existence, he was loath to discount it entirely because it appeared to have scholarly support among classical authors who had noted similar creatures. In addition to this, Rondelet reported that no less a figure than Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), had provided him with the image which had been sent to her by Christian III via a messenger who had been, in fact, an eyewitness.
On the left is an image of a Sea Monk from Conrad Gessner, Historiae Animalium (Frankfurt, 1620), iv, p. 439 and on the right the Sea Monk in Ambroise Paré, Les Œuvers D’Ambroise Paré (Lyon, 1685), p. 645.
In the nineteenth century a Danish scholar, Japetus Steenstrup (1813-1897), carefully drew together as many accounts of the creature as possible and analysed their findings. His sources included Danish chronicles such as Anders Sorensøn Vedel’s Den Danske Krønicke [The Danish Chronicle], which spoke of ‘a curious fish in monk-like shape caught in the Øresund, [that] was 4 ells long’. Naturally Japetus also included both Belon’s short text and Rondelet’s extra information, and he added Gessner’s 1558 relation that not only mentioned that the Sea Monk had a black face but also, and more importantly, detailed a further corroboration of the story. According to Gessner’s corollarium, colleagues such as the German humanist Georg Fabricius (1516-1571), and Hector Mythobius had sent him illustrations of the Sea Monk which agreed with those of Rondelet.
Although Vedel dated the event to 1545, most early modern commentators agreed that the first sighting had been in 1546. The 1546 sighting is undoubtedly the most famous but as Paxton and Holland remind us, there had been medieval sightings also – Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), writing in his De Animalibus, had noted that a ‘monachus maris’ had been seen in the waters close to Britain and that the creature was considered malevolent:
MONACHUS MARIS: Certain people say the sea monk is a fish occasionally seen in the British sea. It is a fish with white skin on the top of its head, around which is a dark circle, like the head of a monk who has been recently tonsured. It has however, the mouth and jaws of a fish. The animal entices those travelling on the sea until it lures them in. It then seeks to the bottom and takes its fill of their flesh.
Image of a Sea Monk in 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. 28.
What was the Sea Monk?
Steenstrup argued that it was a type of giant squid and gave it the name Architeuthis monachus. He pointed to the fact that the descriptions of the Sea Monk matched many of the characteristics of a giant squid: the creature was said to have red and black spots – just like a squid; Rondelet reported that it was scaleless, again like many squids; the overall body shape was not unlike a squid; even the aforementioned ‘black face’, might be explained by ink sacs underneath the skin.
More recently Paxton and Holland have challenged Steenstrup’s claim and concluded that his squid solution has some flaws – for example, though Rondelet mentioned that the creature was scaleless other sources referred to scales. Paxton and Holland suggest a more likely contender: Squatina squatina, an angelshark. The Squatina would fit in with Albertus Magnus’ Sea Monk for they were generally found to the west of the Skagerrak (which might explain why they weren’t recognised as Squatina in Malmö). However, as Paxton and Holland acknowledge, even this identification is not without problems since Belon, Rondelet and Gessner were already aware of this type of fish. Paxton and Holland suggest other possibilities: a genus of seals called Monachus monachus (which sounds promising but is somewhat undermined by the fact that they are local to the Mediterranean and north-west Africa); or a walrus. They conclude that it is likely that the mystery of the Sea Monk may never be solved.
Images of the ‘Papal Ass’ on the left and the ‘Monk Calf’ on the right from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (Lavingen, 1600), i, pp 939 and 941.
Or, as George Eberhart suggests, it might have been what is known as a ‘Jenny Haniver’, a manufactured entity made out of various body parts. Jenny Hanivers could have many uses – unusual specimens such as the Sea Monk could prove very lucrative – but we should also remember that such prodigies could also have a political function. The famous ‘Papal Ass’ and ‘Monk Calf’ (seen here in Worth’s copy of Johann Wolf’s Lectionum memorabilium (Lavingen, 1600)), had been used to maximum polemical effect by reformers in the early sixteenth century and it is possible that the appearance of the Sea Monk off the coast of Denmark should be viewed in the context of Christian III’s religious policies. A professed Lutheran, he had declared Lutheranism as the official state religion of Denmark just ten years before, in 1536.
Whatever the creature was, Christian III’s decision to raise the profile of Denmark by sending out reports of it to the courts of Europe, paid off. As Paxton and Holland recount, a contemporary chronicler noted that ‘as a result … King Christian was included in an alliance formed in the year 1550 between the Emperor and the Scots’. Christian III’s Sea Monk diplomacy had worked!
Ault, Alicia, ‘Renaissance Europe was horrified by reports of a Sea Monster that looked like a Monk wearing Scales’, Smithsonianmag.com. 2016.
Barthe, Pascale, ‘Guillaume Rondelet’s Monkfish, or Natural History as Social Network’, in Jeff Persels, Kendall Tarte, and George Hoffmann (eds), Itineraries in French Renaissance Literature (Brill, 2018), pp 377-397.
Eberhart, George, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (Santa Barbara CA, 2002).
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.
Paxton, Charles G. M. and R. Holland, ‘Was Steenstrup Right? A New Interpretation of the 16th Century Sea Monk of the Øresund’, Steenstrupia, 29, no. 1 (2004), 39-47.
Pinon, Laurent, ‘Gessner and the Historical Depth of Renaissance Natural History’, in Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi (eds), Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005), pp 241-267.
Robinson-Hammerstein, Helga, ‘The Battle of the Booklets: Prognostic Tradition and Proclamation of the Word in early sixteenth-century Germany’, in Paolo Zambelli (ed.), “Astrologi Hallucinati”: Stars and the End of the World in Luther’s Time (Berlin, 1986), 129-151.
Van Duzer, Chet, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London, 2014).
Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
 Translated by Pascale Barthe, ‘Guillaume Rondelet’s Monkfish, or Natural History as Social Network’, in Jeff Persels, Kendall Tarte, and George Hoffmann (eds), Itineraries in French Renaissance Literature (Brill, 2018) p. 386.
 Worth did not purchase a copy of Belon’s De Aquatilibus (Paris, 1553), nor his 1555 French edition.
 Japetus Steenstrup was able to pinpoint where the apparition had occurred for ‘Den Elopoch’ (Belon) and ‘Denelopoch’ (Rondelet) was a corruption of the name Ellenbogen – modern day Malmö; on this see Charles G. M. Paxton, and R. Holland, ‘Was Steenstrup Right? A New Interpretation of the 16th Century Sea Monk of the Øresund’, Steenstrupia, 29, no. 1 (2004), 42.
 Barthe, ‘Guillaume Rondelet’s Monkfish’, p. 382.
 Louisa Mackenzie, ‘French Early Modern Sea-Monsters and Modern Identities, via Bruno Latour’, in Pia F. Cuneo (ed.), Animals and Early Modern Identity (Farnham, 2014), p. 332.
 Guillaume Rondelet, Libri de piscibus marinus (Lyon, 1554), p. 493.
 Paxton and Holland, ‘Was Steenstrup right?’, 40.
 Laurent Pinon, ‘Gessner and the Historical Depth of Renaissance Natural History’, in Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi (eds), Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005), p. 255.
 Paxton and Holland, ‘Was Steenstrup Right?’, 43.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 45.
 George Eberhart in his Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (Santa Barbara CA, 2002), p. 477.
 On the polemical use of prodigies such as the papal ass and monk calf see Helga Robinson-Hammerstein, ‘The Battle of the Booklets: Prognostic Tradition and Proclamation of the Word in early sixteenth-century Germany’, in Paolo Zambelli (ed.), “Astrologi Hallucinati”. Stars and the End of the World in Luther’s Time (Berlin, 1986), p. 150.
 Paxton and Holland, ‘Was Steenstrup Right?’, 39.