Fantastic Fish of the Middle Ages
Here after followeth of the natures of the fisshes of the See whiche be right profitable to be vnderstande. Wherof I wyll wryte be the helpe and grace of almighty god, to whose laude & prayse this mater ensueth.
- Lawrens Andrewe



Salmo is a fysshe engendered in the swete water, & he waxeth longe & gret / & also he is heuy / & his colour nor sauour is nat gode tyll he haue ben in the salt water & proued it / thus draweth the samon to the water agaynst the streme; he neuer seaseth tyll he haue ben in the se and returned agayn to his olde home, as Phisiologua saith / his fisshe is rede, & he may nat liue in a swet standinge water / he must be in a fresshe riuer that he may playe up and doune at his plesure.

The Salmon is a fish born in sweet water, & he grows long & big & he is also heavy. Neither his colour nor his flavour are good until he has lived in salt water & proven himself. Thus he is drawn to swim upstream; he never ceases until he has been in the sea and returned again to his old home, as Phisiologua says. His flesh is red, & he cannot live in sweet standing water. He must be in a fresh river where he may play up and down at his pleasure.

"thus draweth the samon to the water agaynst the streme"


Salpa is a fowle fisshe and lytell set by / for it will neuer be ynough for no maner of dressings tyll it haue ben beten with grete hamers & staues.

The Salpa is a foul and useless fish, for it will not die in any way until it has been beaten with large hammers and staves.


Serra is a fysshe with great tethe, and on his backe he hathe sharpe fynnes lyke the combe of a cocke / and jagged lyke a sawe wherewith thys monstrous fisshe cutteth a ship thorough, & whan he seeth a shippe commynge, than he setteth vp his finnes & thinketh to sayl with the shippe as fast as it / but whan he seeth that he can nat continue / than he latteth his finnes fall agayn & destroieth the shippe with the people, and than eteth the dede bodyes.

The Serra is a fish with large teeth, and on his back he has sharp fins like a cockscomb. These fins are jagged like a saw and with them this monstrous fish can cut a ship through. When he sees a ship coming, he sets up his fins thinking to sail along with the ship as fast as it is moving. But when he sees that he can't continue, then he lets his fins fall again & destroys the ship with the people, and then eats the dead bodies.


"It is faced & handed lyke a gentylwoman... "

Scilla is a monster in the see betwene Italye & Sicill / it is great ennemye vnto man. It is faced & handed lyke a gentylwoman / but it hath a wyde mouthe & ferfull tethe / & it is belied like a beste, & tayled lyke a dolphin / it hereth gladly singinge. It is in the water so stronge that it can nat be ouercome / but on the lond it is but weke.

The Scilla is a monster in the sea between Italy & Sicily. It is a great enemy of man. It has face and hands like a gentlewoman, but it has a wide mouth & fearful teeth. It has a belly like a beast and a tail like a dolphin. It gladly listens to singing. In the water it is so strong that it cannot be overcome, but on land it is weak.

Syrene the Mermayde

"Syrene, the mermayde is a dedely beste... "

Syrene, the mermayde is a dedely beste that bringeth a man gladly to dethe / frome the nauyll vp she is lyke a woman with a dredfull face / a long slymye here, a grete body, & is lyke the egle in the nether parte / hauinge fete and talentis to tear asonder suche as she geteth / her tayl is scaled like a fisshe / and she singeth a maner of swete song, and therwith deceyueth many a gode mariner / for whan they here it, they fall on slepe commonly / and than she commeth, and draweth them out of the shippe, and tereth them asonder / they bere their yonges in their armes, & geue them souke of their papis whiche be very grete, hanginge at their brestis / but the wyse maryners stoppe their eares whan they se her / for whan she playth on the water, all they be in fear, & than they cast out an empty tonne to let her play with it tyll they be past her / this is specifyed of them that haue sene it. Ther be also in some places of arabye, serpentis named sirenes, that ronne faster than an horse, & haue wynges to flye.

Siren the Mermaid is a deadly beast that gladly brings a man to death. From the navel up she is like a woman with a dreadful face, long slimy hair, a fat body, and is like an eagle in the lower parts, having feet and talons to tear asunder whatever she gets. Her tail is scaled like a fish, and she sings a type of sweet song, and so decieves many a good mariner, for when they hear it, they fall asleep together. And then she comes and takes them out of their ship and tears them asunder. They hold their young in their arms, & give them milk from their nipples which are very large, hanging from their breasts. But the wise mariners cover their ears when they see her, for when she plays on the water, all are afraid. Then they cast out an empty barrel to let her play with until they are past her. This is specifically mentioned by those who have seen it. There are also in some place of Arabia serpents named sirenes that run faster than horses & have wings to fly with.

The above illustration is from Konrad Gesner's Historia Animalia (1560) and shows a sea monster seen near Rome in 1523.


Solaris is a fishe so named because it is glady be the londes syde in the sonne / he hathe a great hede, a wyde mouth, & a blake skine, & slipper as an ele / it waxeth gret, & is gode to be eten.

The Solaris is a fish so named because it is glad to be on land in the sun. It has a large head, a wide mouth, & a black skin, & is slippery as an eel. It grows large and is very good to eat.

"he hathe a great hede, a wyde mouth, &... slipper as an ele"


Solea is the sole, that is a swete fisshe and holsom for seke people.

The Solea is the Sole, a delicious fish which is wholesome for sick people.

"Solea is... a swete fisshe"


Solopendria is a fisshe / whan he hathe swalowed in an angle, than he spueth out al his guttes till he be quyt of the hoke / and than he gadereth in all his guttes agayne.

The Solopendria is a fish that, when it swallows a hook, spews out all of its guts until it is rid of the hook, then it gathers in all of its guts again.

Scorpion of the See

The Scorpion of the see is so named because whan he is taken in any mannys handes he pricketh him with his stinge of his tayle. Plinius saith that the dede creuyce that layeth on the drye sonde be the see syde, becommeth scorpyons.

The Scorpion of the Sea is so named because when it is taken in any man's hands it pricks him with the sting of its tail. Pliny says that dead crayfish that lay on the dry sand by the seaside become scorpions.

The Scorpion of the see

"The Scorpion of the see... "


Sturio / the sturgion is a gret fisshe in the ronninge waters / and he taketh no fode in his body, but lyueth of the styl and swete ayres therfore he hathe a small bely / with a hede and no mouthe, but vnder his throte he hathe a hole that he closeth whan he wyll / he openeth it whan it is fayre weder / & with an east wynde he waxeth fat / and whan that the north winde bloweth, than falleth he to the grounde / it is a fisshe of ix. fote longe whan he is ful grown / he hath whyte swete flesshe & yolow fatte / & he hathe no bone in all his body but only in his hede.

Sturio the Sturgeon is a large fish in the running waters. He doesn't take food into his body, but lives off of the still and sweet airs; therfore he has a small belly with a head and no mouth, but under his throat he has a hole that he closes at at will. He opens it when the weather is fair, and with an eastern wind he grows fat. When the north wind blows he falls to the ground. It is a fish 9 feet long at full growth. He has tasty white flesh & yellow fat. He has no bones in his body, only in his head.

The Sturgion

"... the sturgion is a gret fisshe in the ronninge waters... "

Se Craues

Iorath sayth. The fisshes that be named se craues / whanne they haue yonges / they make suche noise that through theyr noyse they be founde and taken.

Iorath says that the fish named Sea-Crevices, when they have children, make so much noise that they can be found and taken.


"Squatinus is a fisshe in the se... "

Squatinus is a fisshe in the se, of fiue cubites longe: his tayle is a fote brode, & he hideth him in the slimy mudde of the se, & marreth al other fisshes that come nigh him: it hath so sharpe a skinne that in som places they shaue wode with it, and bone also / on his skinne is blacke short here. The nature hathe made him so harde that he can nat almoste be persed with nouther yron nor stole.

The Squatinus is a fish of the sea and is five cubits long. His tail is a foot wide, and he hides in the slimy mud of the sea, and scares away all other fish that come near him. Its skin is so sharp that in some places they shave wood with it, and also bone. On his skin is short black hair. Nature has made him so hard that he can hardly be pierced with either iron or steel.

The above illustration is from Konrad Gesner's Historia Animalia Liber IV (1558) and shows an Angel Shark, a member of the family Squatinidae.

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© James L. Matterer

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