12 December 2010


Adriaen Coenen (1514-1587) was a Dutch fishmonger, auctioneer of seafood, amateur biologist, imaginative illustrator, born storyteller, and autodidact extraordinaire. Plus he was the world's first blogger.

Well, not really. Though I was struck, browsing page by page through his Visboek (Fishbook) at the National Library of the Netherlands, by how bloglike his work was, complete with a compulsive need to share what he was learning in compartmentalized form.

One of the finest pictures in the Visboeck is the flying fish (above), a species unknown in European waters. Coenen freely borrowed from other fish books of his day. He also had the opportunity to see many strange species or hear many a fish tale from the seagoing vessels visiting his seaside town of Scheveningen.

(The Beach at Scheveningen. 1658. Adriaen van de Velde.)  

This painting above was made nearly a hundred years after Coenen. Yet the beach was probably much the same as when, late in life, Coenen conducted the town's fish auctions there.

[Disclaimer: Virtually all the information in this post is Googlemangled from the Dutch pop-ups on the National Library of the Netherlands site. I've done my best to wrestle sense into them, but I make no guarantees.]
Amazingly, if I'm reading this translation correctly, Coenen didn't begin his Visboek until he was 63 years old. He compiled all the information and illustrations—more than 800 pages—in only three years.

As his work became known, he began to hobnob with the well-heeled and well-schooled in The Hague, some of whom became his patrons. Fishermen and sailors helped out by bringing him strange specimens acquired from distant waters.

Early in the book, Coenen presents a series of maps in two-page spreads. The one above is of the herring catch, so important that Coenen called it "our big golden mountain in Holland." 

According to the pop-up window on this page at the National Library of the Netherlands, the technique of curing herring at sea was already at least two centuries old in Coenen's time. During his lifetime, the herring fishery moved from inland to offshore waters. 

I'm guessing this was a result of overfishing, perhaps from those same advances in curing techniques that allowed boats to stay at sea and fish longer. Or maybe it was a result of changes in climate and currents. Or both. Or neither.

One of my favorite images is of this maplike tuna caught in the Mediterranean in 1565. The fish was reported to sport tattoos or drawings of ships on its skin. This finding was so extraordinary that six witnesses recorded their observations of it with a notary public in Gibraltar.  

Coenen learned of this fish in a pamphlet he received from his patron, Cornelis Suys, President of the Court of Holland in The Hague. 

One of the wondrous aspects of the Visboek is the way Coenen ranges bloggily all around the great tree of knowledge. In the page above, he describes the life cycle of "tree geese," or barnacles (I think).

Tree geese were curiosities dating back to at least the 12th century. They were believed to come from far northern regions and to fall somewhere between plants and animals. The best I can make of this Googlemangled passage is that the tree geese grew on trees but wouldn't come fully to life until they fell from the trees into the water. A different species, the goose barnacle, could grow right on the trunk of a tree. And a third kind could live on wood decaying in water.

Coenen noted that lobster and crab were food mostly for the rich.

He complained that jellyfish were useless, if not worse, and wondered why nature put them into the sea, calling the phenomenon "incomprehensible to man." 

In Coenen's village of Scheveningen, the fishermen were burdened by jellyfish, which "hang from their nets as firm as glue" and had to be loosened by hand—a process that left the men numbed from repeated envenomations.

Coenen noted that salmon were known for their great strength and endurance and that only the wealthiest citizens could afford to send fishermen to sea to catch them. Salmon nets were almost prohibitively expensive since they needed to be much stronger than those used to catch plaice, haddock, or cod.

The 16th century saw wild oscillations in salmon abundance. In Coenen's father's time, salmon was rare to find or catch, even though worth a fortune. In Coenen's youth, there was an oversupply and prices fell. Around 1580, they became scarce again and prices rose. 

The ocean sunfish, or mola mola, was a great rarity in Dutch waters. Coenen saw only three in his life. In 1562 a large zonvis (above) was caught by a local fisherman and Coenen bought the fish and (best I can tell from the translation) sent it out with a man who took it around Delft and The Hague, exhibiting it for a fee. Coenen later dried the fish and sold it to an adventurer (I'm not at all confident of anything about my interpretation of this translation).

Coenen had never seen the fierce-looking walrus he depicted in the Visboek. He listed several other names for this animal: elephant seal, water lilies, and "a strange sea horse." The accompanying text is in German and recounts the capture of these wonderful creatures in the distant past in waters between Africa and Spain.

Coenen more or less quoted from the Swedish ecclesiastic and writer Olaus Magnus, whose book Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), described how the people of the far north employed every part of a whale. They used the skin to make belts, bags, and clothing. They used the blubber to smooth and waterproof their boats and to lubricate their wagon wheels. The smallest bones were used as fuel for warming and cooking fires. The large bones were used as building materials—the only such materials in a realm devoid of trees. From the ribs, vertebrae, and other bones, the people made whole houses, plus tables and benches. 

Olaus Magnus imagined that people living in whale-bone houses often dreamt they were in danger on the sea and that storms threatened to drown them.

A curious new species was discovered in 1431 in the waters off Poland. It was called the zeebisschop—the sea bishop (above). Coenen sourced his information from the 1517 Great Chronicle of Holland, an authoritative work in his time. 

The zeebisschop possessed a hat, a wand, slippers, a chasuble, and gloves, just like a real bishop. It also possessed a head, eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, arms, hands, and feet, and yet it was a cold fish. Coenen found this to be evidence of the wonderful works of God, and was inspired to write poem about it. Make what you will of the tortured translation:

The bishops are not only was
That means there are large parried
Also grows in the sea such a bishop, a serious biter 
And does he not been wearing miter.

In 1564 a sea monster appeared in Brazil. Coenen portrayed it on the bank of a river, standing on its hind feet or flippers, 17 feet long, and with a velvety skin. It uttered loud cries. 

The locals attacked and killed it with swords and bows and arrows. Was it a manatee? Or a fur seal far from home?

The most famous and wonderful sea creatures of Coenen's time were the mermaids and mermen. He wrote pages about them but always quoting others. He remained skeptical: "But I can not find a man do this day who with his own eye in the year 1579 has seen one."

In Coenen's time there were stories of the existence of strange fish-people something along the lines of the wolf-people we know today. He wrote of a woman found in 1403 in the Dutch town of Purmer, who swam in the sea searching for food, slept in the water, and was covered with moss and slime.

The local townswomen gathered their courage and captured this wild woman, cleaned her up, and took her to Haarlem, where she remained a curiosity for many years. Eventually she learned to eat normal food, and to spin wool, but not to speak. 

Even in the 16th century fishing was a sport enjoyed by people who did other things for a living. Coenen wrote that "craftsmen" from the cities took pleasure in fishing in the waterways and canals, and that the inhabitants of coastal villages who were not professional fisherman still fished for fun in the summer.

Then, as now, there seemed to be a lot of interest in sea life that might potentially eat you, such as this "Monstra in Nordwebra"—maybe a great white shark?

Coenen wrote how fishermen lured whales to their boats by playing flutes, then harpooned them. 

On another page, he described how whales love "zeekalveren" (young seals), herring, and other oily fish, and how they take great risks in catching them by swimming into shallow water, where they sometimes accidentally beach. The locals considered this a great windfall and—to prevent the whales from floating free on the tide—rushed to tie them down with ropes and anchors.

Maybe this explains the rope around the tail of the sperm whale in the Jan Saenredam engraving I wrote about in an earlier post. Maybe this is what inspired Jonathon Swift's people of Lilliput?


Based on the writings of Olaus Magnus, Coenen described  the process of fishing with bells and other noise. In the top image you can see a fish caught in a trap with a hanging bell. Some fish were spellbound by certain sounds, said Coenen

The lower image shows a large group of dolphins circling a boat when a fisherman played harp—a sound that "obviously dolphins love." After the performance, the dolphins beat their tails hard against the water as a token of their appreciation. However, this was seen as a bad omen, since soon thereafter a heavy storm blew up.

Here Coenen portrays a huge herd of whales that (as best I can tell) passed by the the Caps Hondsbosse seawall, leaping and breaching, in the same year William of Orange (the Dutch one not the English one) was married. The old people said: "They draw to the bride."

But Coenen wrote that gatherings of whales like this passed by Scheveningen twice a year, that they always swam in the same direction, and that it might be two or three hours before the herd had completely passed by. Almost always afterward, he said, there would come a severe storm or lightning.

Throughout his book, Adriaen Coenen describes getting his hands on interesting specimens and drying them or preserving them in some other way and hanging them outside his house. I wish he'd painted an image of that seaside museum. Sadly, there don't seem to be any surviving images of him either, at least not that I could find. He also wrote a Walvisboeck, a Whalebook. I guess these works survive as his avatars.
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