A brief account of the writing of Thomas Nashe’s extraordinary late C16th work; its scurrilous red herring origin story extracted in full
The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nash co-authored a satirical play, The Isle of Dogs (1597) with Ben Jonson. Possibly taking a poke at the queen herself, it was deemed to have gone too far and immediately banned.
The text has not survived, but Jonson went to prison for it. When they came for Nash he had prudently decamped from London for a self-imposed exile in Great Yarmouth, not far from his Lowestoft birthplace.
When things had quietened down he wrote Nashes Lenten Stuffe or The Prayse of the Red Herring (1599) both as a thank you for Yarmouth’s hospitality and a testing of the waters for his return.
A wild narrative of the town’s history with endless red herring-like diversions, it also includes a story of the origin of red herring, the product for which the town was famous.
The mockery it makes of the Pope and the Catholic Church was politically more on message than The Isle of Dogs had been.
Nash’s Account of the Origin of Red Herring
A Fisherman of Yarmouth having drawne so many herrings hee wist not what to do withall, hung the residue that he could not sel nor spend, in the sooty roofe of his shad a drying.
The weather was colde, and good fires he kept and what with his fiering and smoking, or smokie firing, in that his narrow lobby, his herrings, which were as white as whales bone when hee hung them up, now lookt as red as a lobster. It was foure or five dayes before either hee or his wife espied it, & when they espied it, they fell downe on their knees & blessed themselvs, & cride, a miracle, a miracle, & with the proclaiming it among their neighbours they could not be content, but to court the fisherman would, and present it to the King, then lying at Borrough Castle two miles off.
Well, thither our Fisherman set the best legge before, and unfardled to the King his whole sachel of wonders. The King was as superstitious in worshipping those miraculous herrings as the fisherman, licenced him to carry them up & downe the realme for strange monsters, giving to Cerdek sands (the birth place of such monstrosities) many privileges, and, in that the quantitie of them that were caught so encreased, he assigned a broken sluce in the Iland of Lovingland, called Herring Fleete, where they shoulde disburden and discharge their boates of them, and render him custome. Our Herring smoker, having worn his monsters stale throughout England, spirted over seas to Rome with a Pedlers pack of them, in the Papall chaire of Vigilius, he that first instituted Saints eeves or Vigils to be fasted. By that time hee came thither he had but three of his Herrings left, for by the way he fell into the theevish hands of malcontents, and of launceknights, of whom he was not only robbed of all his mony, but was faine to redeeme his life besides with the better parte of his ambry of burnisht fishes.
These herrings three he rubbed and curried over till his armes aked againe, to make the glowe and glare like a Turkie brooch or a London Vintners signe, thicke iagged and round fringed, whith theaming Arsadine, and folding them in a diaper napkin as lilly white as a Ladies marrying smocke, to the market steade of Rome he was so bold as to prefer them, and there on a hie stoole, unbraced and unlaced them to any chapmans eie that would buye them. The Popes caterer, casting a licorous glaunce that way, asked what it was he had to sell: the king of fishes, hee answered: the king of fishes? replied hee, what is the price of him? A hundred duckats, he tolde him: a hundred duckats? quoth the Popes caterer, that is a kingly price indeede, it is for no private man to deale with him: then hee is for mee, sayde the Fisherman, and so unsheathed his cuttle-bong, and from the nape of the necke to the taile dismembred him and pauncht him up at a mouthfull. Home went is Beatitudes caterer with a flea in his eare and discoursed to his Holinesse what had happened. Is it the king of fishes? the Pope frowningly shooke him up like a catte in a blanket, and is any man to have him but I that am king of kings, and lord of lords? Go, give him his price, I commaund thee, and lette mee taste of him incontinently. Backe returned the Caterer like a dogge that had lost his taile, and powred downe the herringmerchant his hundred ducats for one of those two of the king of fishes unsolde; which then he would not take, but stoode uppon twoo hundred. Therupon they broke off, the one orging that he had offered it him so before, and the other that he might have tooke him at his proffer; which since he refused, and now halperd with him, as he eate up the first, so would he eate upp the second, and let Pope of patriarch of Constantinople fetch it out of his belly if they could: Hee was as good as his word, and had no sooner spoke the worde, but he did as he spoke. With a heavy heart to the pallace the yeoman of the mouth departed, and rehearsed this second il successe, wherewith Peters successour was so in his mulliegrums that he had thought to have buffeted him, & cursed him with bell, book, & candle; but he ruled his reason, & bade him, thogh it cost a million, to let him have that third that rested behind, and hie him expeditely thither, lest some other snatched it up, and as fast from thence againe, for hee swore by his triple crowne, no crumme of refection would he gnaw upon, till he had sweetened his lippes with it.
So said, so done: thither he flew as swift as Mercury, and threw his two hundred ducats, as hee before demaunded. It would not fadge, for then the market was raised to three C. and the Caterer grumbling therat, the fisher swayne was forward to fettle him to his tooles, and tire upon it, as on the other two, had not he held his hands, and desired him to keep the peace, for no mony should part them: with that speech he was quallified, and pursed the three hundred ducats, and delivered him the king of fishes, teaching him how to geremumble it, sawce it, and dresse it, and so sent him away a glad man. All the Popes cookes in their white sleeves and linnen aprons met him middle way, to entertaine and receyve the king of fishes, and together by the eares they went, who shoulde first handle or touch him: but the clarke of the kitchin appeased that strife, and would admit none but him selfe to have the scorching and the carbonadoing of it, and he kissed his hand thrice, and made many Humblessos, ere he woulde finger it: and such obeysances performed, he drest it as he was enjoyned, kneeling on his knes, and mumbling away twenty ave Maryes to himselfe in the sacrifizing of it on the coales, that his diligent service in the broyling and combustion of it, both to his kingship and to his fatherhood, might not seem unmeritorious. The fire had not perst it, but it being a sweaty loggerhead greasie sowter, endungeoned in his pocket a twelvemonth, stunk so over the popes pallace, that not a scullion but cryed foh, and those which at the first flocked fastest about it now fled the most from it, and sought to rid theyr hands of it than before they sought to blesse theyr handes of it. Wyth much stopping of theyr noses, between two dishes they stued it, and served it up. It was not come wythin three chambers of the Pope, but he smelt it, and upon the smelling of it enquiring what it should be that sent forth such a puissant perfume, the standers by declared that it was the king of fishes: I conceyted no lesse, sayde the Pope, for lesse than a king he could not be, that had so strong a sent, and if his breath be strong, what is he hymself? like a great king, like a strong king, I will use him; let him be caried backe, I say, and my Cardinalls shall fetch hym in with dirge and processions under my canopy.
Though they were double and double weary of hym, yet his Edict being a lawe, to the kitchin they retuned him, whither by and by the whole Colledge of scarlet Cardinalles, with thyr crosiers, theyr censors, their hosts, their Agnus deies and crucifixes, flocked togither in heapes as it had beene to the conclave or a general counsaile, and the senior Cardinall that stood next in election to bee Pope, heaved him up from the Dresser, with a dirge of De profundis natus est fex; rex he should have sayd, and so have made true latine, but the spirable odor and pestilent steame ascending from it put him out of his bias of conguity, &, as true as the truest latin of Priscian, would have queazened him, like the dampe that tooke both Bell and Baram away, and many a woorthy man that day, if hee had not beene protected under the Popes canopy, and the other Cardinalles, with theyr holi-water sprinkles, quencht his foggy fume and evaporating. About and about the inward and base court they circumducted him, with Kirielyson and Halleluiah, and the chaunters in their golden copes and white surplesses chaunted it out above gloria patri, in praysing of him: the Organs playde, the Ordonance at the Castle of Saint Angelos went off, and all wind instruments blew as loude as the winde in winter in his passado to the Popes ordinary or dining chamber, where having sette him downe, uppon their faces they fell flatte, and lickt every one his ell of dust, in douking on all foure unto him.
The busie epistasis of the commedy was when the dishes were uncovered and the swarthrutter sowre tooke ayre: for then hee made such an ayre, as Alcides himselfe that clensed the stables of Agæus nor any hostler was able to endure.
This is once, the Pope it popt under boord, and out of his pallace worse it scared him then Neptunes Phocases, that scard the horses of Hippolitus, or the harpies, Iupiters dogges, sent to vexe Phineus; the Cardinalles were at their ora pro nobis, and held this suffocation a meete sufferance for so contemning the king of fishes and his subjects, and fleshly surfetting in their carnivalles. Negromantic sorcery, negromantic sorcerie, some evill spirit of an heretique it is, which thus molesteth his Apostoliqueship. The friars and munkes caterwawled, from the abbots and priors to the novices, wherefore tanquam in circo, wee will trownse him in a circle, and make him tell what Lanterneman or groome of Hecates close stoole hee is, that thus nefariously and proditriously prophanes and penetrates our holy fathers nostrils. What needes there any more ambages? the ringoll or ringed circle was compast and chalkt out, and the king of fishes, by the name of the king of fishes, coniured to appeare in the center of it; but surdo cantant absurdi, sive surdum incantant fratres sordidi, he was a king absolute, and would not be at every mans cal, & if frier Pendela and his fellowes had any thing to say to him in his admiral court of the sea let them seek him, and neither in Hull, Hell, nor Halifax.
They seeing that by theyr charmes and spels they could spell nothing of him, fell to a more charitable suppose, that it might bee the distressed soule of some king that was drownd, who being long in Purgatorie, and not releeved by the praiers of the church, had leave, in that disguised forme to have egresse and regresse to Rome, to crave theyr benevolence of dirges, trentals, and so foorth, to helpe him onward on his journey to Limbo patrum or Elisium, and because they would not easily beleeve what tortures in purgatory hee had sustained, unlesse they were eye-witnesses of them, hee thought to represent to all thyr sences the image and Idea of his combustion and broyling there, and the horrible stinch of his sins accompanying, both under his frying and broyling on the coles in the Popes kitchin, & the intollerable smel or stink he sent forth under either. Una voce in this splene to Pope Vigilius they ran, and craved that this king of fishes might first have Christian buriall, next, that for a saint hee would canonize him. Al these he graunted, to be ridde of his filthy redolence, and his chiefe casket wherein he put all his iewelles hee made the coffin of his enclosure, and for his ensainting, looke to the Almanack in the beginning of April, and see if you can finde out such a saint as saint Gildarde; which in honour of this guilded fish the Pope so ensainted: nor there hee rested and stopt, but in mitigation of the very embers wheron he was sindged (that after he was taken of them, fumed most fulsomely of his fatty droppings,) hee ordained ember weekes in their memory, to be fasted everlastingly.