Rondelet's "Libri de Piscibus Marinis”: a Book About Science, Sea Monks and Sea Bishops

Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum's earliest printed book – Guillaume Rondelet's (1554) illustrated treatise on fish and marine life.

This very rare and important book, held by the Queensland Museum Library, is famous for being the earliest attempt to scientifically document the most important fish, mammals and invertebrates known to Europeans at the time, and is widely considered the 'beginning' of modern ichthyology (the study of fish).

Rondelet was a leading French anatomist in the 16th century, and had first-hand knowledge of many of the species he depicted. However he also chose to include in his book two bizarre 'flights of fantasy' – the Sea Monk and Sea Bishop – suggesting that he might have had a very wicked sense of humour!

Myth, science and Sea Monks

In the 16th century, 'science' - based on provable observations – was still in its infancy. The oceans were seen as home to strange or dangerous creatures which were mostly the product of exaggeration rather than truth.

The books of distinguished French anatomist Guilleaume Rondelet (published 1554 and 1555) rank among the most reliable accounts of marine animals of their day. However, alongside accurately illustrated fish, crustaceans and molluscs, Rondelet felt compelled to accept such questionable sea life as the human-faced 'Sea Monk' and 'Sea Bishop'.

Did he believe they existed or was he just giving readers the 'monsters' they expected?

Sea Monks: Real or imaginary?

Supposedly caught off the Danish coast c. 1546, the Sea Monk became 'fact' once it was illustrated and described in books such as those by Rondelet (1554) and Gesner (1558).

This scientific paper concludes that the Sea Monk might be the Angel Shark (Squatina squatina) rather than another fish species, a Giant Squid or a seal.

However, given the lack of reliable information, it is more likely the Sea Monk is fictional.

Were the Sea Bishop and the Sea Monk jokes? Their comical appearance suggests so.

The Sea Bishop probably represents a 'Jenny Haniver' – a dried skate or stingray, modified to look humanoid. Such curios have been made for centuries. In Asia, hybrid 'sea monsters' were no more than mummified monkey and fish parts sewn together. The most famous of these – P.T. Barnum's 'Feejee Mermaid'– was exhibited with great success in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Queensland Museum Library (Rare Book Collection): 16-2094

Fish authorities consider Rondelet’s book the beginning of scientific ichthyology.
Lugduni: Apud Matthiam Bonhomme, 1554
Portrait of Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566)
Frontispiece from Rondelet, G. (1554) Libri de Piscibus Marinis, in quibus verae Piscium effigies expressae sunt Image source: Queensland Museum Library (Rare Book Collection): 16-2094
Credits: Story

Author: Dr John Healy
Photographer: Geoff Thompson

Credits: All media
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