Of warrior fish and giggly men

The armor-plated sturgeon (The Times, 4 May 2023)

I just love it when unwarranted presuppositions are blasted wide open by the detonations of evidence.

For a long time, we’ve considered Western monks, medieval or modern, as the apex of dullness, men tired with life and running away from it, with as much potential for humour as a summer day in Blackpool.

But the briefest glimpse at the many manuscripts produced by medieval monks reveal men engaged in boisterous comedy. There’s no other way of reaching the atmosphere of a medieval monastery than by the things the monks produced and left behind, and the most enduring traces are the pages they wrote and illustrated. Nuns picking up penises from the orchard trees, extraordinarily fantastic beasts fighting each other in impossible skirmishes, many of these still completely misunderstood by modern scholars in search of a unifying theory of medieval culture that never quite lands.

So when a monk from the abbey of Crowland in Lincolnshire writes around 1215 that the year before lots of unusual types of fish were spotted and captured in English seas that resembled armoured warriors (“militi armati simillimi”), with shield and helmet (“scutati et galeati”), we can either think ‘what has this guy been smoking, medieval credulity and all that’, or ‘hold on, there might be something going on here’.

Is it possible that brother Roger who reported the story was having just a little bit of fun with the data? After all, he was writing around turbulent times, and the unusual capture of fish comes in a larger context of nature being disturbed by the ongoing war in England between King John and his northern barons. The cosmos responding to human violence and a way of dealing with the anxiety of all-round upheaval.

And fish clad in armor aren’t all that unusual.

Without suspecting that 13th-century English fishermen had spotted specimens of the Galeaspida family (from the Latin galea for helmet, like in Roger’s text), fish having a horseshoe-shaped headshield and being extinct for 430 million years), it could be that the fish in question weren’t anything other than unusually large sturgeons, whose ‘armoured’ physiognomy easily invites comprisons with ironclad soldiery. The Times ran a story this week about sturgeon (the fish, not the Scottish leader) making a comeback in English waters, and the photo, which is reproduced above, shows a fairly indomitable looking warrior fish.

A fish wearing a helmet and a shield is a pretty funny image, and we’d do Roger a favour to join in his gentle reverie, which says more about us, readers, than about him.

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