Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

aka The Herripedia


Including a complete, illustrated translation of Paul Neucrantz’ C17th treatise on the herring together with notes on his sources


The herring is the King, or even Emperor of Fishes. It is scientifically fascinating and, historically, has been of huge economic significance. But it has also always been funny.

In 1654 the splendid council of the Republic of Lübeck published Neucrantz’ learnedly comic celebration of the fish he loved: De Harengo exercitatio medica in qua principis piscium exquisitissima bonitas summaque gloria asserta et vindicata (A Medical Treatise upon The Herring, in which the excellent virtue and supreme glory of the Emperor of Fishes are presented and proved). The publication was sponsored by Joachim Wild, bookseller of Rostock.

Paul Neucrantz was a Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine of Rostock, but lived and worked in Lübeck and was very much a part of the medical, scientific and cultural scene there. The city had a sense of the herring’s role in its glory days as capital of the Hanseatic League, but by the mid C17th this variable federation of European cities was crumbling. The Scania herring fishery, with which Lübeck had been so involved, had gone.

On Herring is a defence in fifteen chapters of a fish fallen from grace.

It’s witty, playful and determinedly out of all proportion to the subject demands of a cheap commonplace of the fish market. A written work over which he laboured, ensuring he’d dotted every i and crossed every t, but its origins are in an extensive speech he performed to an audience of his peers and patrons.

Neucrantz can’t help throwing in a fascinating side track here, a little known fact there. He takes every opportunity to demonstrate the dazzling range of his sources and authorities. If you want an idea of C17th medicine and natural history or of late Hanseatic academic culture, it provides a beautifully rich snapshot.

In addition to Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the Gospel According to Mark and Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, he draws on well over 100 sources by over 90 individual writers. Half of his authorities, Latin, Greek and translated from Arabic, were not aware of the herring – he spends a whole chapter conclusively proving this – but he’s also on top of contemporary thinking, particularly in medicine. He draws on correspondence with the great Dutch surgeon Nicolaes Tulp, who, as well as being painted by Rembrandt, was clearly a fellow enthusiast for the herring. And he conducted his own research among the fishermen and fish sellers of Lübeck’s fishing port Travemünde and on the specimens he bought from them.

His treatiselooks at the herring and its natural history; its involvement in economic and political history; in folklore and cultural tradition; its preservation, recipes and medical uses.

Some of the questions he raises have only been fully addressed in the C20th and C21st. He points to what have become recognised as the mixed herring populations in the Southern North Sea, a flaw in the then prevalent theory of a single, grand, divinely provident migration. He devotes a whole chapter to the ‘squeaking of herrings’, the communicative ‘farts’ explained by Wilson, Dill and Batty in 2003 – a phenomenon which in the 1980s Swedish naval intelligence considered evidence of Soviet submarine activity.

Swedish naval intelligence was probably unaware of Neucrantz and got Hakan Westerberg and Magnus Wahlberg to analyse its recordings. They were probably not aware of Neucrantz either.

The miracle of digital publication means the C17th academic Latin text is now available online (see link below) but Neucrantz is still largely unknown. Did you mean Marantz or Neurotin? Google asks. When I last searched, the herripedia occupied the two top places, you didn’t come across the Latin text until No 8 and three of the intervening five were for a Neukrantz. This is how the world treats herring obsessives.

On the text and translation

Neucrantz’ treatise is competitive, proving points against Dr Grakius, who had given a disrespectful speech on the subject of the herring at a wedding in Thurovia – the Swiss canton Thurgau on the southern shores of Lake Constance. Grakius had had an unfortunate experience after eating the fish.

In marshalling his evidence, Neucrantz gives chapter and verse. Today even the most enthusiastic harengophile can lose the will to live in the detail of the references. The translation aims at making the work accessible and these details have been pared back, often to just the author. Instead, a list of the sources has been provided, briefly saying who each one is and indicating the specific works referenced. It’s interesting to read just on its own.

In the late 1990s, I came across a mention of De harengo in J Travis Jenkins’ The Herring and the Herring Fisheries (1927). I ordered a photocopy from the British Library. Foolishly, Ingrid O’Mahoney, a friend of my sister, agreed to attempt a literal translation. C17th German academic Latin is not classical Latin and it was very generous of her.

Off and on, I struggled with it. The more I found out about herrings, herring history and herring thinking, the more it has become possible to disentangle what Neucrantz is saying. When I came back to it in 2018, the resources of the internet proved transformational. For a start, you can check out a lot of the references.

As I write, I don’t think there’s another translation available in English or German, but the floodgates might yet open. If anyone out there is a fluent reader of C17th academic Latin, corrections are always welcome.

Notes on Neucrantz’ sources

Joannes Actuarius (c 1275 – c 1328) Byzantine physician in Constantinople; De actionibus et affectibus spiritus animalis, ejusque nutritione (On the Spirit of Animal Nutrition).

Aelian or Claudius Aelianus (c 175 – c 235 AD) Roman author of De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals).

Aëtius of Amida (late C5th, early C6th AD) Byzantine Greek physician; Sixteen Books on Medicine

Alexander of Tralles (c 525 – 605 AD) Physician in Anatolia; Twelve Books on Medicine.

Ulisse Aldrovandi or Aldrovandus (1522 – 1605 AD) Italian naturalist, regarded by Linnaeus as the father of natural history studies; Diversità di cose naturali (Natural History).

Ali ibn al-Abbas al-Majusi or Masoudi (C10th AD) Referred to by Neucrantz as Haly Abbas, a Persian physician and psychologist, possibly Zoroastrian; Kitab al-Maliki or The Complete Art of Medicine.

Al-Razi or Abu Bakr Muhammed ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (854 to 925 or 932 AD) Persian polymath, physician and philosopher, known to Neucrantz in the latinised name Rases (also Rhazes or Rasis); Neucrantz refers to a Compendium of Rules for Eating and Drinking, which may be the Manfe’ al aghzie va mazareha or Benefits of Food and its Harmfulness but may be drawn from advice in his medical encyclopaedia, the Kitab al-Hawi fi al-Tibb, translated into Latin as Liber Continens; he also specifically refers to the Kitab al-Mansouri, the Book on Medicine dedicated to his patron.

Al-Zahrawi or Abu al-Qasim ibn al-‘Abbas al-Zahrawi al-Ansari (930 – 1013 AD)Referred to by Neucrantz in his latinised name Abulcasis, physician, surgeon and chemist in Adalusia, considered the greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages; Kitab al-Tasrif, a medical encyclopaedia; Neucrantz refers to him in the context of cold roast fish and the 30 volumes include his thoughts on nutrition, although Vol. 30, on surgery, was the most widely distributed in translation.

Ambrose of Milan or St Ambrose (c 399 – 397 AD), Of Belgian origins he was Bishop of Milan; Hexameron (The Six Days of Creation).

Androsthenes (C4th BC); Explorer and an admiral under Alexander the Great; The Navigation of the Indian Sea.

Antiphanes (c 408 – 334 BC), Greek comic poet; Boutalion (On Rustic Matters) – work included in Athenaeus Deipnosophistae.

Apicius (C1st or C5th AD) Sometimes said to be by, but definitely named after a C1st Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius – from whom some of the recipes may have come – the only surviving copy dates from C5th, so it may have just taken his name; also called De re coquinaria or De re culinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) a collection of Roman recipes.

Apollodorus the Athenian (c 180 – after 120 BC) Greek scholar and writer; Neucrantz probably refers to The Catalogue of Ships.

Aristophanes (c 446 – 386 BC) Greek comic playwright; The Acharnians, Wealth.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) Greek philosopher, later revered by Muslim scholars as The First Teacher and then in the European Renaissance – a kind of No 1 authority for Neucrantz, even though he did not know the herring; On Breathing (generally regarded as not by Aristotle, but included in the Corpus Aristotlelicum); History of Animals; Metaphysics; Meteorology.

Arnobius of Sicca (C3rd/C4th) Tunisian Berber Christian apologist; Adversus nationes (Against the Pagans).

Athenaeus of Naucratis (Late C2nd/early C3rd) Greek rhetorician and grammarian; Deipnosophistae (The Dinner Table Philosophers or Feast Wisdom), 15 books referring to and quoting roughly 800 classical writers and 2,500 works, many of which would otherwise have been lost entirely – including the comic food poet Archestratus (C4th BC).

St Basil of Caesarea or Basil the Great (329/30 – 379 AD) Bishop in Cappadocia, influential in establishing Nicene orthodoxy in the early Christian church (and opposing heresy); Hexameron (The Six Days of Creation).

Pierre Belon or Bellonius (1517 – 1564), French traveller and naturalist De Aquatilabus, 1553 (On the Nature and Diversity of Fish or La Nature et Diversite des Poissons).

Pieter de Bert or Petrus Bertius (1565 – 1629 AD) Flemish philosopher, geographer and cartographer; Neucrantz refers to a description of Flanders, which may have been included in his map book Tabularum geographicarum contractarum (1603) or his Commentarium rerum germanicarum (German Commentaries, 1616).

Boethius or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (c 477 – 524 AD) Roman philosopher; The Consolation of Philosophy, composed while in prison before being executed by Theodoric the Great.

Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn (1612 – 1653) Dutch scholar and writer; Neucrantz refers to his Navigationibus Hollandorum adversus Pontum Heuterum (Dutch Voyage to the Black Sea), but his Town Atlas of Holland identifies C12th participation in the Scania herring fairs.

William Camden (1551 – 1623 AD) English antiquarian, historian and writer; Britannia, first published in 1586, but Neucrantz is drawing on the 1607 edition, which, probably prompted by James I’s obsession, includes an account of herring migration as divine providence aimed at Britain rather than The Netherlands (see Divine Providence).

Isaac Casaubon (1559 – 1614) French scholar, regarded by some at the time as the most learned man in Europe; an editor and commentator on Athenaeus’ Feast Wisdom.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c 25 BC – c 50 AD) Roman encyclopaedist; De Medicina, believed to be just the surviving section of a much larger work.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC) Roman statesman, philosopher and scholar; Tusculan Disputations, a series of five books named after the location of his villa, covering death, pain, grief, vexations and virtue as a route to happiness.

Columella or Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 – c 70 AD) Roman writer on agriculture, born in Cadiz; De Re Rustica (On Rural Affairs).

Cyril of Alexandria (c 376 – 444 AD) Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, saint and prolific writer, he had a bad relationship with the Nestorians and the Catholic Church, who didn’t give him a saint’s day until 1882; Unspecified works.

Pietro d’Abano or Petrus Aponensis (c 1257 – 1316 AD) Italian philosopher and professor of medicine in Padua; De venenis eorumque remediis (On Poisons and Their Remedies).

Democritus (c 460 – c 370 BC) Greek philosopher from Thrace – some consider him the father of modern science, although Plato wasn’t keen – he wrote extensively on nature and the natural sciences; unspecified works, but only fragments survive and Neucrantz may have drawn on the through citations in the works of others.

Pedanus Dioscorides (c 40 – 90 AD) Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist from what is now South West Turkey; De Materia Medica.

Empedocles (c 494 – c 434 BC) Greek philosopher from Sicily; On Nature.

Eustathius of Thessalonica (c 1115 – 1196 AD) Byzantine Greek scholar and archbishop, he became a saint in 1988; Commentary on the Iliad.

Festus or Sextus Pompeius Festus (C2nd) Roman grammarian; De verborum significantu.

Aelius Galenus or Galen (129 – 161 AD) Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher from what is now Western Turkey, hugely significant medical authority, not least for his is approach to dissection; Various from a huge number of works on medicine, including De Usus Partium Corporis Humani (The Function of the Parts of the Human Body).

Theodorus Gaza or Theodore Gazis (1398 – c 1475) Greek scholar, translator of and commentator on Aristotle; Neucrantz is probably referring to his commentary on either Aristotle’s De partibus animalium or his De generatione animalium.

Conrad Gessner or Conradus Gesnerus (1516 – 1565 AD) Swiss physician and naturalist; Historia Animalum (1549).

Paolo Giovio or Paulus Jovius (1483 – 1552 AD) Italian physician and writer; De romanis piscibus, 1524 (On Fish in Rome) and Descriptio Britannae, Scotiae, Hiberniae et Orchadum,1548.

Saxo Grammaticus (c 1160 – 1220) Danish historian, theologian and writer; Gesta Danorum (Story of the Danes) – Saxo Grammaticus is referenced by many herring historians for his description of massive shoals in The Sound, which may or may not have been linked to the emergence of the Scania fishery.

Ludovico Guicciardini (1521 – 1589 AD) Italian writer and merchant; Description of the Low Countries, 1567).

Hippocrates (c 460 – c 370 BC) Greek physician from Kos, another Father of Medicine, founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine and possible author of the Hippocratic Oath, although it may have been written after his death; Neucrantz refers to a number of works included in the Corpus Hippocraticum (The Hippocratic Corpus) – whether this collection of texts is by Hippocrates has not been established.

Caspar Hofmann (1572 – 1648) Medical academic; Institutum medicarum (1645)

Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 – 8 BC) Roman poet; Satires.

Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Isaac Judaeus or Isaac Israelites (c 832 – 932 AD) Jewish physician and philosopher from Cairo, writing in Arabic; De particularibus diaetis or Diaetae Universales,translated into Latin by Constantine the African in C11th from the Kitab al-Adwiyah al- Mufradah wa’l-Aghdhiyah (his work was also translated into Hebrew and Spanish).

Ibn Sina, Abu Ali Sina or Pur Sina (c 980 – 1037) Persian polymath, one of the most significant physicians, scientists, thinkers and writers or the Islamic Golden Age and regarded as the father of early modern medicine – known to Neucrantz and in most of the European tradition as Avicenna; The Book of Healing, The Canon of Medicine.

Isidore of Seville or Isidorus Hispalensis (c 560 – 636 AD) Scholar and Archbishop; Etymologiae (The Etymology, an encyclopaedia) aka Origines.

Adriaen de Jonghe or Hadrianus Junius (1511 – 1575 AD) Dutch physician and antiquarian; Batavia and Nomenclature – primarily known in the herring world for the former, which suggests the supposed herring migration down the eastern coasts of Scotland and England was a sign of divine providence aimed at the Dutch state (see Divine Providence).

Jordanes, Jordanis or Jornandes (C6th AD) Byzantine historian; Getica, a history of the Goths, written c 550 AD.

Diogenes Laërtius (C3rd AD), Greek biographer of whom little is known; Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.

Joost Lips or Justus Lipsius (1547 – 1606) The text reference is to Centur: 3, epist 51, possibly from Variarum lectionum (Various Lessons, 1567).

Livy or Titus Livius (c 60 BC – 17 AD) Roman Historian; Ab Urbe Condita Libri (The History of Rome from its Foundation, which includes The War with Hannibal)

Lucretius or Titus Lucretius Carus (99 – 55 BC) Roman poet and philosopher; De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things.

Macrobius or Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (C5th AD) Roman writer also referred to by Neucrantz as Clarissimus the Interpreter; Saturnalia, a series of dialogues between learned men at a banquet.

Olaus Magnus (1490 – 1557 AD) Swedish writer and cartographer; Carta Marina (A Marine Map and Description of the Northern Lands and their Marvels, 1539); Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555).

Martial or Marcus Valerius Martialis (c 38 – 104 AD) Roman poet from Spain; Epigrams.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli or Matthiolus (1501 – 1577 AD) Italian physician, naturalist and botanist, the first to describe allergy to cats and the first in Europe to document the tomato; Discorsi (Speeches).

Nonius Marcellus (C4th / C5th AD) Roman grammarian; De compendiosa doctrina (Compendium of Teaching).

Luis Mercado (1525 – 1611 AD) Spanish physician; Neucrantz refers to The nature and cure of putrid fevers, which may be in his work De Febrium.

Nemesius of Emesa (C4th/C5th AD) Greek Christian philosopher drawing on Aristotle and Galen, Bishop of Emesa (present day Homs in Syria); De natura hominis (On Human Nature).

Oppian of Corycus (C2nd AD) Greco-Roman poet from Caesarea or Corycus in what today is South West Turkey; Halieutica (On Fishing).

Oribasius (320 – 403 AD) Greek physician and medical writer, the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate’s personal doctor; Collectiones Medicae (Medical Collections).

Paul of Aegina or Paulus Aegineta (c 625 – c 690 AD) Byzantine Greek physician; Medical Compendium in Seven Books.

Gaius Petronius (27 – 66 AD) Roman courtier in the reign of Nero (which can’t have been easy); Satyricon – he is believed to have been the author.

Plato (c 427 – 347 BC) Greek philosopher, who learned from Socrates and taught Aristotle; The Symposium – Neucrantz also refers to Marsilio Ficino‘s De Amore (1484), a commentary on The Symposium.

Titus Maccius Plautus (c 254 – 184 BC) Roman playwright; Neucrantz refers to his play Aulularia, generally translated as The Pot of Gold, Poenulus or The Little Carthaginian and the fragmentary play, Parasitus Medicus or The Parasite Physician.

Pliny the Elder or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24 – 79 AD) Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher; Naturalis Historia, (Natural History).

Pliny the Younger or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61 – c113 AD) Pliny the Elder’s nephew, Roman lawyer, magistrate and author; Neucrantz refers to a letter to Oppian on the subject of hunting.

Plutarch (c 46 – c 120 AD) Greek philosopher, biographer and essayist; De sollertia animalium (On the Intelligence of Animals) included in Moralia.

Pomponius Mela (c 43 AD) Roman geographer from Tingentera (Algeciras); De Situ Orbis.

Johannes Isaac Pontanus (1571 – 1639 AD) Dutch historian; Discussiones Historicae, 1637.

Priscian or Priscianus Caesariensis (late C5th – early C6th) Latin grammarian from what is now Algeria; Institutes of Grammar, the

Theophilus Protospatharius or Philotheus (C7th) Greek medical writer about whom little is known; De Corporis Humani Fabrica (On the Parts of the Human Body), an abridged and altered version of Galen’s De Usus Partium Corporis Humani, and a Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates (uncertainly attributed to him).

Guillaume Rondelet or Rondelatus (1507 – 1566) French anatomist, naturalist, botanist and zoologist; Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt, 1554 (The Book of Marine Fish, referred to as On Fish).

Boudewijn Ronsse or Balduinus Ronsseus (1525 – 1597) Dutch physician and medical writer; Epistolae medicinales (1618).

Johannes Russus (untraced) Annals of Lübeck.

Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484 – 1558 AD) Italian scholar and physician; Exotericarum exercitationum, 1557 (The Exercises); Festus, Letters.

Stephan von Schoneveld or Stephanus Schoneveldus (C16th / C17th) German naturalist, possibly a physician and from Hamburg; Neucrantz refers to a Book About Fishes, which will be The Ichthyology and Nomenclature of Sea and River Creatures in the Duchy of Schleswig Holstein (1624).

Martin Schoock or Martinus Schookius (1614 – 1669 AD) Dutch historian and philosopher; Neucrantz refers to a work on the Dutch states or provinces, which is almost certainly Belgium federatum, sive Distincta descriptio reip. federati Belgii (1652).

School of Salerno or Schola Medica Salernitana (founded in C9th AD, but still in operation in C17th) Medical school which played a major role in translating and disseminating Ancient Greek, Arabic and Jewish texts; Neucrantz refers to a ‘book on the preservation of health’, which is probably the Regimen sanitatis Salernitatum (C12th or C13th).

Seneca the Younger or Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) Spanish Roman philosopher and playwright; Naturales Quaestiones (Questions of Nature).

Simon Sethus (C16th) Greek writer on food; On the Qualities of Food (1561).

Gaius Julius Solinus (C3rd AD) Latin grammarian and encyclopaedist; De mirabilis mundi (The Wonders of the World) aka Polyhistor (Multi-descriptive) and Collectanea rerum memorabilium (Collection of Curiosities).

Sophocles (c 497 – 405 BC) Greek playwright; Ajax.

Strabo (c 63 BC – c 24 AD) Greek geographer, philosopher and historian; Geographica.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c 56 – 120 AD) Roman historian; Germania (On the Origin and Location of the German Tribes); Annales (The Annals).

Theophrastus (c 371 – c 287 BC) Greek philosopher; On Character and Ethics (Characters); On Fish That Live on Land; On the Reason for Plants.

Nicolaes Tulp or Tulpius (1593 – 1674 AD) Celebrated Dutch surgeon; Neucrantz refers to his Observationes Medicae (1641), but also was in a direct correspondence with him, which included specific letters, probably in response to a request from Neucrantz, on the subject of herring; see Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632).

Adrien Turnèbe, Adrianus Turnebus or Adrien Tournebeuf (1512 – 1565 AD) French classical scholar; Adversaria.

Valerius Maximus (C1st AD) Latin writer; Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium (Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings).

Varro, Marcus Terentius Varro or Varro Reatinus (116 – 27 BC) Roman scholar and writer; De Lingua Latina or On the Latin Language and, possibly, Rerum rusticarum or On Agricultural Topics.

Virgil (70 – 19 BC) Roman poet; Aeniad.

Franciscus Vicquius (C16th/C17th) Dutch doctor, a contemporary of Nicolaes Tulp, mentioned in his Observationes Medicae;(unable to trace his non-Latinised name or relevant works).

Vincent of Beauvais, Vincentius Bellovacensis or Vincentius Burgundus (c 1184/1194 – c 1264) French Dominican friar and encyclopaedist; Speculum Naturale (The Mirror of Nature).

Gerhard von Wesel (1443 – 1510 AD) German merchant from Cologne; Neucrantz, mentions a description of Flanders.

Xenophon (431 – 354 BC) Greek military leader, philosopher and historian; Symposium or The Banquet, The Cyropaedia or The Education of Cyrus.


A Medical Treatise on the Herring
in which the most excellent good qualities and the greatest glory
of the Emperor of Fishes are published and proved
for the most splendid Council of the Republic of Lübeck

In which the reason for this book is explained

O, magnificent, most noble, learned and generous amongst men, my masters to whom all honour is especially due, until recently we hadn’t discussed the virtues of the herring. At the recent wedding in Thurovia, however, Master D Johannes Grakius gave us his thoughts On Herrings. He called them unpleasing and unhealthy fish.

Given to buying whole and ungutted, he’d eaten a fresh specimen, properly cooked, and suddenly he felt ill. There was a belching. There was a thunderous seizure of the bowels. And then there came the diarrhoea: like a deluge. In the light of this experience he decreed his abstinence from herring. No matter how reasonably priced, it was banished from his tables. And in his address he told us of those brave, but demoralised fishermen of Travemunde: they may catch it but they don’t like it! Any other fish is preferred.

Popular opinion seems to be with him, My Lords, when he argues eating herrings can lead to the fever. This is why mistresses of the house are expected to order them carefully gutted, cooked, only lightly salted and then marinated in vinegar and horseradish, its harmful effects thus countered. Boudewijn Ronsse says the herring acquired this unjustified reputation in his lifetime. Likewise, Stephan von Schoneveld, in the chapter on herrings in his Book About Fishes, argues, as a soft fish, it’s inclined to produce excrement and fevers among the incautious.

I had only recently asserted the exact opposite in my Purple Book on the Treatment of Malignant Fevers. Having surveyed the commentaries of doctors and natural historians on just about any fish they chose to mention, I feel duty bound to stick to my opinion, holding it to be well-founded: the herring is a fish of the most commendable virtue. Were I not to undertake this present and necessary defence of the chief of fishes, I should be dismissed as a lick-spittle toady, a man who’d deny the truth of anything.

According to The Characters of Theophrastus, to understand is to forgive. Perhaps this rambling introduction tests your patience, but I’ve been given this opportunity to respond and so I must ask for precisely this forgiveness. In what may, of course, be a dubious insertion into the surviving volume of Cornelius Nepos’ On the Lives of Great Men, Cato the Elder chides Aulus Albinus for his apologies: I have been welcomed by this town with such generosity and affection, I trust that I too might crave indulgence rather than address my crimes.

And so, exactly which kinds of argument should be marshalled before the noble rulers of our state, their own rich examples always suggestive of good taste? At a wedding the speeches should lead guests towards a sense of celebration. The vacuous and the inappropriate are not welcome here. The guest’s stomach shouldn’t feel bloated by food or by drink or by foolishness: these leave no other option but the sick bucket and the next day’s nausea and disgust for the world hanging in his head.

The gluttony we associate with the Boeotians is commented upon amusingly in Eubulus’ Antiope, Europa, Cercopes and Mysians. It is referred to by Diplonius and by Alexis, in Polybius’ The Histories, by Crates in Lamia, by Philaetetus and in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophos or Feast Wisdom.

Feast fresco from the Tomb of the Diver as an illustration for Athenaeus' Feast Wisdom
The Deipnosophistae (Feast Wisdom) of Athenaeus is one of Neucrantz’ major classical authorities on eating matters (image from The Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, c 470BC)

Over-indulgence in drink is likewise mentioned by Pliny, who writes of the Parthians, that they gloried in it as if it were a virtue. St Basil the Great’s Speech Against Drunkenness and Luxury, extensively commented upon by Joost Lips, describes prodigious drinking bouts among the Greeks, giving Horace, in his Satires, the phrase, to behave like a Greek. Tacitus, in Germania, describing German geography and customs, condemns the drunkenness. But with all these writings providing an education against evil, the like is rarely seen at Lübeck weddings these days. Civic obedience is the watchword.

As rulers of the state, mindful of Tacitus, you combine reason, legal sanction and a due fear for the consequences of transgression. Over-indulgence is restricted through the encouragement of debate on a variety of subjects, both serious and entertaining. Through your own generosity and dignity you influence your guests’ behaviour. This is not about solemnity. We look to the example of Agathon in the Symposium of Plato; of Xenophon’s description of Callias; the noble Roman Laurentios discussed by Athenaeus in Feast Wisdom; Pliny the Elder as cited by his nephew. Perhaps I am at one of Plutarch’s dinners, as described in Table Talk: the pleasures of the debate will stay with me tomorrow. Timotheus, son of Conon, the most celebrated Athenian leader, bore witness, Those who dined with Plato felt wonderful the next day.

Ariston says much the same, referring to Plutarch and Table Talk: The academician Polemo told those about to feast, they should consider with each glass, not just the pleasures of the moment, but of its consequences. The above authors considered it appropriate, at these banquets, to write down the speeches which accompanied the wine. Aristotle, Epicurus and others did the same. Ariston made sure he shared his banquets with the erudite. And the ancient Romans, seeing friends reclining together at feasts, called it con-vivial because it held those lives together. Cicero says it was even more true of the Romans than the Greeks, that they made no distinction between drinking party, supper, symposium or dinner. What they sought was something which brought together a little of each.

In entrusting this commentary on the glories of the herring to print, I just wish to place its virtues on record. May the following chapters bring you delight whether you were there at the feast or not. In writing them down, I am refreshing my memory of a most agreeable discussion, one which accorded with Plutarch’s stipulations in every respect. I mean no insult to Doctor Grakius: he is a man dear to me in every other respect. He spoke of the herring as his own stomach experienced it: no accusations should be levelled against him. He is a man, skilled in law and zealous in pursuit of his arguments.

So, Gentle Reader, I beg you not to dismiss Of Herrings. It is my defence of the fish against the accusations he made. It has found some popularity. Please do not condemn it in advance through any tenderness in your own stomach. As Pliny says: Nothing in the contemplation of nature should be beneath our concern.

In which it is demonstrated that the Herring was unknown to both Greek and Roman writers alike

Principal among the questions to be investigated is whether the herring was a fish known to classical authority. I have my doubts. It is not mentioned in the works of Aristotle, Athenaeus, Oppian, Aelian, Pliny, Galen, Oribasius, Isaac Israeli, Ibn Sina or al-Razi, the leading writers upon matters related to fish. It may have been entirely unknown to them. In previous centuries, because of ‘the dangers of an awful and unknown sea’ (Tacitus, Germania),there was considerably less trade than we see now in these days of global circumnavigation. Perhaps time has destroyed the works of those who may have concerned themselves with this territory.

Isaac Judaeus
Isaac Judeaus (Isaac Israeli ben Solomon) great C9th/10th physician and one of the leading writers upon matters related to fish who does not mention the herring

Gaul, Flanders, Batavia and Britain itself, conquered by Julius Caesar, were, of course, brought into the Roman Empire: the noblest of fishes will not have been unknown, neither to its soldiers, nor to their commanders. Salting herrings in those parts, however, is believed to have been unknown, a practice introduced from distant lands more recently. Then again, the travellers in those times were so concerned with the acquisition of wealth, why would they bother with the knowledge one discovers in books? As Petronius says in Satyricon:

If a region of the world promised gold,
It was considered hostile and ignorant, the pursuit of wealth
Justifying the calamities of war.

The literary arts and their rewards came later to these places, long remaining unknown. This is why so many of our ancestors’ outstanding achievements are lost in oblivion. But what sort of place was this Germany, described by Pomponius Mela, Julius Solinus, Strabo, Pliny (if only the twenty books of his The German War Waged by Drusus had survived!) and Tacitus’ single book? With all due respect to these great writers, Germania has altered greatly for the better. It is unrecognisable from those descriptions of its origins. Strabo himself says the country beyond the Albis and towards the Great Ocean was completely unknown to the Romans. Pliny makes clear that Germany was not thoroughly explored. It’s hardly surprising this noble native of our seas, the herring, escaped the attention of the Greeks, whose trading voyages were even earlier, as well as the Romans.

Pliny admits the existence of over 176 unknown sea fish. Their names hadn’t reached him, because they spent their lives in the vast seas towards the Indies or towards the North Pole. Complete knowledge of all fish wasn’t granted to previous centuries, hasn’t been achieved in our own and is unlikely for many to come, if ever. Byerinus in About Matters of Dining said as much. In pursuit of nature’s secrets we come in the end to the power of the Divine, from which all human thought turns away, uncomprehending.

I’m saying this in the knowledge of no reliable report that herring has been seen or recently eaten by anyone travelling to the Mediterranean or Thrace. Let me be clear: the herring was unknown to the ancients. In De la Nature et Diversité des Poissons, Bellonius says herrings are native to the Mediterranean and he saw them for sale at the market in Rome, but I’m afraid I agree with Rondelet and Ulisse Aldrovandi: he’s been deceived by the similarity of Thracian and Sardinian fish.

Both these authors make clear the herring is not a Mediterranean native, although we know the herring’s richly salted and exotic delights have been traded by the Dutch in Italy for many years. Both the celebrated Amsterdam Doctor, Franciscus Vicquius, and the noble Dr Tulp, having travelled extensively in Turkey, are uncertain as to whether they ate herrings or Cellerini in the Propontis. Bellonius thinks these were sardines or sardellas. If herring catches were on the same scale then as they are now towards the British coast of the German Ocean, it is hard to believe the herring would have escaped the Romans’ notice. Swimming at the edge of empire and beyond, the greater part of the world turned its back on the King of Fishes.

Fish live within their own prescribed borders, as if separated by walls, ramparts or hedges; as if circumscribed by lines drawn with a Thalassometer.(‘We have heard of Geometers, why not Thalassometers,’ asks St Ambrose). Each sea does not feed every fish. Each sea, indeed, has its own fish, which you’ll not find anywhere else, as was said, famously, by St Basil and St Ambrose.

Man’s intemperance is striking, considering how happy we can be in moderation; how rich we may feel in so many small ways. Nevertheless we violate age-old borders, dividing the world by fire and sword. We venture upon the sea in winter. We delve in the bowels of the Earth to the very Land of the Dead; we climb inaccessible mountain ridges to differentiate a thousand types of stone and reach the very clouds. We wander through deserts and among volcanoes on journeys of almost unimaginable length. There is no place left in the entire world unmarked by human footprints, ‘through the insatiable desire for possession alone,’ as Pliny says.

So let’s consider in which genus the Herring should be counted.

It is not a Thrissa or, in any way, of the genus Thrissae, nor is it thought to be by Caspar Hofmann, Hadrianus Junius and Rondelet, all men of outstanding learning. Thrissa is counted as a fish of the Nile by Athenaeus; as one which moves between the sea and the river by Oribasius. Dorion, in Athenaeus, describes Thrissa as a river fish, thorny, dry and without succulence. Such an insult to the herring would be inexcusable: it’s a splendid, well-flavoured fish. (Anyone wanting notes on salting Thrissa will find them in Galen, although the drier Thrissae should not be preserved in brine.)

The bellies of the Thrissa or the Alosa are protected by much sharper bones than those of the herring. Even only mildly cured, a herring’s guts come out easily. Its bones are softer and less troublesome when eating. Those of the former are more irritating, according Rondelet’s On Fish. He also distinguishes herrings from the Thrattae and the Alosae by the small round spots of the latter, remarking that in Rome, Marseilles and Venice these are so like herrings and sardines, even the Gauls, who know the herring well, accept them as such without a word.

Aldrovandi declares Bellonius was deceived by the similarity of shape: these are fish native to the Mediterranean, he argues, reporting seeing them himself in the market at Rome. Furthermore, Athenaeus says that Thrissae have not changed their home from that accorded them by Aristotle. Such ‘herrings’ would not be found by the ocean’s travellers, even if they circumnavigated the entire coast of Britain, as described in Camden, Martin Schoock and others.

This same Athenaeus describes how, in Aristotle’s On the History of Animals and Living Things, the Thrissa is called Orchestris, because it rejoices in singing and dancing and may apparently leap out of the sea. On the same point, Aemilianus (About Animals) refers to Egyptian Thrissae being caught while jumping to the sound of singing and clapping. Such behaviour is unknown amongst herrings, which assemble of their own accord in shoals beyond computation.

So: if we happen to see fish jumping and playing under a calm sky to the accompaniment of song, these are Thrissae, Italian Alosae or, if you prefer, Trichides or Trichiae (referred to by our own countrymen as Red Eyes, Blener and Blicker). In the commentary on Aristophanes’ Acharnians and in Julius Pollux these are are described as Hairy Fish, because they have bones like hair. Casaubon warns, in his notes on Athenaeus, that due to the bristliness of the bones these can cause people to choke if swallowed incautiously.

Neither is the herring Aristotle’s Chalcis, which Theodorus Gaza translates as the bronze fish, because of its scales and their silver and iron sheen. This ‘herring’ is suggested by Ulysses Aldocandusin, Camden, Bellonius and by Schoock in Belgian Treaties. Aristotle, however, says the Chalcis is a river fish. He also describes how the Chalcis can be infested with a dreadful disease and that many are destroyed by lice growing under the gills, a thing which does not occur in the fish with which we are concerned.

The true herring has silver scales, the colour of the shiniest iron. It may fully deserve the splendid name of Chalcis, but it’s not a river fish, nor, in its nobility, is it destroyed by infestation – it has never been found with lice upon it. The Chalcis spawns three times a year, according to Pliny, whereas the herring spawns only once. This is a fact. In some parts this occurs in the autumn: it expends its love, the sperm-bearing tubes become feeble, the fish is worn out and is called Spent.

The Herring is not Aristotle’s Mainis, Pliny’s Maena of Pliny, the Menola of the Italians, the Mainis or the Leukomainis found in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophia – even if Theodorus Gaza says these and the Halec are one and the same. Massirius, a diligent and learned man, asserts that which the Venetians call Leukomainides or Smerids is the same salt fish Pliny calls Giruli and that these are the Aringae of the Belgae – those who live between the Seine and the Rhine – but he’s not confident in this, as Hadrianus Junius says in Nomenclature.

The Herring doesn’t spawn in winter like the Maena, but in the spring, its offspring caught in estuaries in July and August. The Herring does not turn black or into any other colour when the female begins swelling with roe – Aristotle declares in winter the Maenae become white, in summer becoming blacker. Blue spots are not spread across their whole bodies and, in particular, on their heads and backs, as Rondelet describes. Their flesh does not become unpalatable when the female starts to swell, Rondelet describing them as goatish; Martial in his Epigrams writing:

The smell of an aroused goat can be compared
To that of the Gerres, the coarsely salted, useless Maenae.

From the above lines we have to accept these fish were of no value to the Romans and that fresh herrings were unknown.

The herring, also, is not born of sand and mud, as Athenaeus describes the Maenis. In Athenaeus Feast Wisdom,Numenius calls thempaltry and in On Country Matters Antiphanes calls them Hecate’s food on account of the witch goddess having the cheapest, smallest and most despicable fish for her delicacies. According to Erasmus, this is where we get the proverbial Hecate’s mud. Were these writers thinking of the herring? Taste one. I rest my case.

The herring is not the Halec, Alec or Hallex of the ancients, referred to in Priscian, Horace, Plautus’ The Pot of Gold, Numerus (if Nonius Marcellusis is to be believed), Martial and Pliny’s Natural History. Alex was a seasoning of brine, left as residue in the fish sauce known as garum, according to Pliny (of which more later). This is to say an imperfect and unstrained sediment. Plautus appears to refer to this in Poenulus: ‘Hallex is the salt, almost the lees of a man, that is, not a man, but all that is wrong with him’. In their commentaries, Taubmann and Lambinus argue that Acidalius Hallex was thought of as that effeminate part of a man which seeks other men for mates. Horace, in his Satires, distinguishes the lees from the Hallex:

I was the first to find the lees and the allec
And the pepper.

So, in fact, it might be that garum, alec and this sediment or faex are all products of the same process of fish salting. Garum was the most expensive of these, halec less so and faex the least valued of all. Halec was used at one time to season of food and it’s well known that garum was the ancients’ favoured sauce, as I have shown in my Purple Book. Halec, however, was prepared from various fish, along with oysters, sea urchins, sea nettles, lobsters and red mullet livers.

According to Pliny, with some fish species, salt may lose its savour in the throat. Referring to Pliny, Apicius, a man with an astounding appetite for every sort of luxury, suggests alec was made from the red mullet livers.

Neither is the herring the Lesser Alec of Columella, who writes about it in Rustic Matters. The Lesser Alec is described a river fish or as having the diminished growth of a riverine species. The herring is not caught in Italian waters. It is the especial fish of the German Ocean and the Baltic. It tolerates fresh or brackish waters only to limited extent, although it’s true, recently hatched, the young don’t like salt water and in summer months may be found in estuaries.

Considering its name, the Alec was clearly also salted, for als alos o means salt. Isidore of Seville notes that the Lesser Alec is a small fish suitable for liquefying brine. In Priscian, Charisius Halex is similarly described. Columella says the Lesser Alec, like the bronze fish, disintegrates in salt. Galen notes and experience tells us, very small fish do this in salt, becoming liquid, because of their soft, moist flesh.

I believe it to be because of this association with salt that Halec is used by Actor as the name for herring in his book The Nature of Things, which is, in turn, mentioned by Vincent of Beauvais in A Natural Mirror, by Olaus Magnus, in Scaliger’s Exercises, by Paolo Giovi and others. And now the usage has passed into common parlance. When herring is salted it is said to last, fit for human consumption, longer than any other fish and this is why Vincent mentions it more than once.

If, however, of the three possible genus classifications, one must be ascribed to the herring, I’d include it among the Chalcides or bronze fish, since Athenaeus writes that Chalcidae are called sardines by both Epaenatus and Aristotle. Sardines are similar to Herrings. Indeed, Bellonius even substitutes a picture of a herring for the Celerini or Greater Sardine. Due to the similarity of shape, I accept that sardines are a second species of Herring. They’re caught in the Mediterranean in large numbers and were well known to the ancients. Furthermore, the name of Chalcides, although specific to one species, is also used by Dorio in reference both to the anchovy, a fish which the people of Chalcedon call Encrasicheli,and to those which Athenaeus tells us they call Trichii.

Ancient manuscripts also refer to the Allus or Allex, which Scaliger’s Notes and Festus’ On the Meaning of Words describe as about the length of a thumb or index finger and favouring garlic sauces.

In this treatise I have decided to keep to the name Harengus, even though it was unknown in the marketplaces of Rome. It carries the authority of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s About Fish and Rondolet’s On Fish, as well as that of and other great writers on the subject of. It is a barbarian name and through its use I hereby confirm it to have been unknown to ancient writers.

Along with these and other authors, I say, herrings are not caught in the Mediterranean, where so many other species have been. It would be superfluous to attempt an etymology from the libraries of classical authority, in which, for so many centuries the fish was unknown. To our people it is Hering, to the Dutch Hareng, to the Italians Harengo and Aringa, to the English A Heryng, to the French Harang and to the Danes Sild.

Which reviews the nature of the herring and its grounds

The Herring is a fish. In form it is more beautiful than any other. It lives in shoals and follows its leader. According to Aristotle, there is no shoal without a leader. That most generous and excellent of men, the celebrated Dr Tulp, the Scabinusof Amstelreda, has sent me a picture of the great philosopher, the highest authority upon fish. I freely admit the extent to which his writings have helped me in my present task. This is why I have decided to refer to him whenever possible. I think it’s good policy to refer to Pliny in the same way: his Preface to the Emperor Vespasian is filled with both talent and modesty and I’ve learned so much from his work.

But let us put that to one side. If, through good fortune, fishermen catch the shoal’s leader, they catch with him such a huge quantity of herrings, the nets cannot hold them. Ropes sometimes have to be cut, it being impossible to lift them out of the sea for the multitude of fish the nets contain. So Ulisse Aldrovandi reports, drawing upon Albertus Magnus.

I can myself bear witness to the belief amongst our fishermen that, from time to time, herrings come to our own estuary and our own shores in vast numbers: over and above what is caught by the nets, stretched one after another to surround the shoal, they can be taken by the poor with their own hands and pots. It is not unknown to catch more than forty lasts.

It’s hard to believe, but true, in Bergen, in Norway, such enormous herring shoals can enter the harbour and gather along the neighbouring shores and rocks, if an oar is placed in the water it will stand upright. People say this happens particularly in Norway, either because the fish are driven there by storms, or because they are being chased by a whale, which can consume an enormous quantity of fish at one gulp. (Olaus Magnus, About Halex)

In mentioning the Whale, I should remind readers of how Oppian, that excellent writer on all salty creatures, celebrated it in his most charming verses on the great beasts of the sea. The whale, he writes, grows to an astonishing size, but at a distance cannot see its prey because of the huge weight of fat it carries in the hump above its eyes. If its ears become blocked or obstructed, it is not able to avoid the shallows which are dangerous to it. For this reason it travels with a companion, a small, white fish, Aemilianus adds, with a long body and a narrow tail. This fish swims closely in advance of the monster and, by moving its tail before the Whale’s eyes, indicates whether there is prey nearby, an ambush prepared by fishermen or hidden rocks, shallows and narrow places that must be avoided. This is why Oppian calls this fish a leader (Pliny calls it a sea muscle). If it is intercepted, it is easier to catch the huge monster of the depths, as it thrashes and crashes about, after the manner of a cargo boat, its helmsman lost, swamped in a particularly violent storm. I refer you to Aemilianus’ Histor. Animal.

These days, whale fishing is pursued by crews carrying three-pronged harpoons, each with very long ropes attached: they try to spear the whale between the scales. When the monsters are wounded and their blood colours the waves around them, they dive for the sea bed, but this makes the harpoons’ wounds even deeper, so that at last, drained of blood, they give up their lives. When their corpses have been brought to shore and cut up, the fat is liquefied by cooking, as it is especially useful in the workshops of tanners and others. Catching whales is very dangerous: they often capsize the boats and drown the fishermen. Each man’s harpoon is given an identifying mark, so the ones most active in the chase, the ones who penetrate the beast most deeply can be rewarded for their labours at sea.

The herring spends its life and is caught in the wide German Ocean, which spreads itself between Germany, Great Britain and Norway. In Britannia,Camden, the most famous writer on English matters, testifies that it swims around the coast of Britain in vast numbers each year:

It makes its way from the deep ocean to the shores of Scotland around the Summer Solstice. Because it is fat at this time, it is most sought after and is sold immediately. From there it heads for the shores of England, so that from the middle of August until November, when it is at its best and fattest, it is to be caught between Scarborough and the mouth of the River Thames. After this, carried onwards by the violence of storms, it presents itself to the fishermen of the British Sea right up until Christmas. From here it swims west to Ireland and up on both of that country’s coasts, going right round Britain. In June is appears to stop, then, after it has spawned, it returns in great numbers.

That most famous Dr Tulp writes:

Fishermen follow the Herring, travelling from the Orkneys or Shetland, down the coast of Scotland and England. The Herrings sink to the bottom of the sea, not far from the harbour of Yarmouth, and there, as if in the safest of refuges, they lie hidden until, with the approach of Spring, they begin their journeys afresh, directing their route along lines marked out for them by the unfathomable wisdom of God, through the narrow seas between Gaul and England, dividing themselves as necessary, so that, after completing this voyage around the whole of Britain and Ireland, they meet once again at the same place from which they set out, combining together at the end of each year and awaiting the arrival of the fishermen from Holland and Zeeland.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632)
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632). A celebrated Dutch surgeon, Tulp corresponded with Neucrantz on the subject of herrings.

These fishermen make for the Ocean in large fleets and, from the Summer Solstice to 1stst December, they are busy catching herring. Having followed their leaders across so many seas, you’ll see the shoals of Herring so dense they disturb the surface of the water and the waves become slow. Nets are often torn by the sheer weight of them, as Paolo Giovi writes in his treatise On the Hebridean Islands.

Large numbers of herring are also caught off Denmark, in what is known as The Belt, as well as its islands and provinces – notably towards Scania, around Falsterbo. (Retaining its ancient name of Scandia or Scanzia, these shores are the workshop of the world and the birthplace of nations, according to Jordanes, On Matters Concerning the Danube). The quality of these herring is not as good as those off England and Holland.

A large number of herrings are similarly caught by the people of Bergen and along the whole coast of Norway.

In our times, the herring is rarer than once it was. It is also rarer on the southern shores of the Baltic, but it is caught occasionally and the closer we are to winter, the fatter and more delicious it becomes. Around February, as Spring approaches and the West Wind blows, when creatures of the land mate and marry (with Pliny, we refer to the generative spirit of the warming world, the feminine becoming both receptive and fecund). At this same time, in an enthusiasm of love, many fish also choose to spawn – and this is testified in Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals. The herring travels across the Baltic to its southern edges, the estuaries and coastlines, so it may lay its eggs in calmer waters; such places as offer sanctuary from the violence of storms and the savagery of whales.

Anyone questioning the self-protective intelligence of fish should read Pliny and Aelian. They both describe fish which, for these same reasons, leave the Mediterranean for the Black Sea. Looking to the safety of its progeny, a fish seeks peace and quiet when spawning (see also Plutarch’s On the Cleverness of Animals). Aristotle says the same in his description of the tuna’s migration to the Black Sea, where food is all the richer for the gentler waves; where it may spawn more safely on account of the lack of whales; where it’s more convenient to give birth because the sweeter waters better nurture its offspring. Spawned and growing up, however, they head for the wider seas again. In relation to the Black Sea, Basil the Great confirms this.

As proof of this theory, which explains why there are so many varieties of fish in the inlets of Borussia and Pomerania, it seems appropriate to add this comment from Divus:

Fish from so many different bays, as if by common plan, head in the direction of the north wind in a single shoal, hurrying towards that Northern sea, as if by some natural law. If you were to see them swimming thus, you’d say it was some current carrying them, cutting through the waves in such strength into the Propontis and the Black Sea.

In all of this I discern the rays of a Divine light, which penetrates even to the bottom of the sea. Thus awakened, at the established time and in their proper ranks, fish seek certain places, as if at the command of some general or master. As the Divine, St Paul, would say, neither taught nor knowing what they have to do.

We should only be all the more ashamed of our human attempts at anticipating the shoals. St Ambrose says:

Fish cross such great seas in order that they might find some usefulness in their own kind. We also cross different seas, but how much more honest is something done out of love for future generations, than out of the lust for money! Their crossings may be considered piety, ours the pursuit of profit. To them, their offspring come first, more precious than any financial gain; the wages we bring back take no account of the dangers involved in the unhappy pursuit of gain. And so it is that they make their way back to their native land, whilst we abandon ours. They increase their own species by swimming; we diminish our own species under sail.

But back to the herring.

Good catches are made when there is cloud, rain or snow. When a gentle wind is in the South West or the South, herring can be caught by the last. In dry and calm weather, catches are smaller. When the seas rage, especially with gales from the East or the North, herrings swim down to the sea bed where it’s calmer.

Apart from the swordfish, whose scales face towards its head, fish adjust to wind strength, always swimming against the waves and the tide, careful not to show their tails to a following wind and consequently risk a painful loss of scales (Plutarch, On the Ingenuity of Animals). On the other hand, when these winds blow gently and it is cloudy or rainy, I’ve seen huge herring shoals pouring into the estuaries, along the coast and into the nets.

As the air warms and frogs begin to croak, they turn back, leaving their spawn behind and heading for the open sea. The immature fish can be caught over the next few months, until, becoming intolerant of fresher water, they themselves, swim out to sea, where they soon grow to full size. This phenomenon can be observed in other fish too (Aristotle, Basil the Great and Ambrose of Milan).

I’m of the opinion, in the depths of winter when the sea is at its wildest, herrings make for the sea bed and hide as other fish do: it’s quieter down there and warmer (Aristotle, Aelian, Pliny, Vincent of Beauvais, Olaus Magnus). Camden, in Britannia, says in the roughest northern winters, they hide in the deeps and in caves.

In the breeding season, I believe they wake and set off for more comfortable locations, spawning along the vast shores of Norway, of Scotland and neighbouring islands – northern seas being sweeter and better for feeding the fry. When drawn by Spring’s warm breezes, they head for more temperate southern climes (something other fish also do, according to Basil the Great, St Ambrose & Aelian) where, refreshed after a short period of feeding, they become such a rich catch for the fishermen.

There’s one thing which puzzles me: herrings are believed to appear once a year, around the dates I’ve indicated. On the other hand, according to reliable observation it is agreed, with Venus in the descendent, they head for Scania every autumn, whilst in September the same fish – tubes empty, where there’d once been milky sperm and eggs – are known to reach Dogger Bank near the coast of England. Weak and dry, these herrings are only suitable for the lower classes. The Dutch call them Edel Hareng, whereas we call them as Spents. So perhaps, contrary to our previous assertion that they produce offspring only once a year, herrings spawn twice.

We must defend the truth here: these fish come just once a year, every year, under the influence of Venus. In early spring, in the northern fisheries, most herrings are certainly thin, weakened by mating and then giving birth, suitable only for bait; some may come up from the sea bed later, but it is logical that those coming out of their hiding places most recently should be plumper – as Aristotle says, they will be the most fertile after their long rest. This is why the Dutch and their allies ban fishing for the salt herring trade before St John’s Day, June 24th, when these same herrings are at their best – young and only moderately full.

There are among them, however, some really full ones, swollen with eggs and sperm. Not as sweet as the others, these are put in differently branded barrels, as suitable for alternative household uses. It seems likely these spawn later in the autumn on the sands of Dogger Bank. There are fewer of them compared to the earlier spawners, but there are tasty ones among them, ones perhaps that failed to mate in the autumn – although it can be hard to identify these from the ones already making their way towards their winter quarters.

Should we put this down to distinctive qualities in the herrings or to the nature of the different locations? Do the certain forces that urge conception on land (Pliny) exist in the same way at sea? Clarissimus the Interpreter argues fish may spend their time in the same places but breed and migrate at different times; that their secret ways are determined by Proteus or Nereus and are therefore unfathomable. Athenaeus, on the other hand, says he is simply misinterpreting Aristotle.

Scaliger suggests two species of herring, a very small one, known in North East Italy as Anchoia genuensis, and a larger one, which appears to be the sardine. I’m not able to make a precise and scientific determination as to herring types and characteristics – the fish are spread too widely – but I’d suggest three. Firstly, there is the Greater, which wanders around the German Ocean and is rightly and properly called The Herring. This may vary in size to such an extent that those caught in Scotland or Norway can be twice the size of those in Flanders – although irritatingly this is not always the case and sometimes they are not.

Secondly, there is the Smaller, which tastes roughly the same, but is a little fatter and very suitable for steaming. It can be caught and confused with The Herring. It is like them, but a little broader in the body and a little less rough about the belly in the way its scales stick out. We call these Brisling; in the Mediterranean they’re called sardines; the English, if memory serves, call them sprots. According to both Joh. Isacius Pantanus and Bellonius, the English ‘sprot’ is the young or offspring of The Herring. As said, however, where he’s been describing Sardina and Celerini, he’s used a picture of our own herring: this is how he manages to class Gesueris Sardina among its kind.

The third type, The Swedish, is intermediate in size between the other two. It is known as The Swedish, but also called Halec Bothnicus by Olaus Magnus and Stromling by the common people. The Swedes catch it in great numbers – certainly enough for the Arctic kingdom of the Gulf of Bothnia – and it is widespread throughout the Bothnian Sea.

In Sweden, Finland and Estonia – all those lands ruled by Christina, most serene and powerful Queen of Sweden, a ruler unmatched in any age and known to the whole world for a brightness of virtue such as cynical posterity will scarcely believe – The Herring is not found, but The Swedish or The Stromling compensates for its absence. It is a fish highly recommended by doctors, if eaten fresh and mature, its pale flesh tender and soft, but drier and more fragile than that of The Herring. As Columell suggests, like rock fishes, we call it after the rocks amongst which they live.

Salted they are a little bland, not as good as The Herring, indeed a bit like rock fish, which Galen considered unsuited for salting. Soft or very dry fish, lacking in oil, may be unsuitable for salting: since salting draws any liquid from the flesh, a dry fish becomes leathery and those which fall apart when steamed tend to melt when salted (Galen, Isaac Israeli).

The idea that stromlings are barren and lacking in entrails, as Olaus Magnus says, is not true. He says the same of The Herring and any one who has recently gutted one can confirm that I’m speaking the truth.

The shrew may not signal its presence, but the herring bears witness to the shoal. Its eyes and scales shine at night, making the surrounding sea flash with a fiery brightness. Moving back and forth the shoal seems to kindle lightning. We call this Herringflash. This bright reflection in the eyes lasts several days after they are dead.

If we are to believe Solinus, something of this nature is found in the birds of the Hercynian Forest – Their feathers shine and glisten in the dark, though the pall of night may make the darkness deeper. And Pliny says of the species of shellfish known, because they look like nails, as Dactyli:

It is in their nature to shine in the dark, when the splendour of the day has been extinguished, and the juicier they are the more they glow in the mouths of those who eat them and on their hands, on the ground and on their clothes, wherever the juice may drip.

The seagulls which the Netherlanders call Jan van Sent and which we call Memen, also have a reputation of giving away the position of herring shoals: having seen them on the surface, they flock to eat the spoils. Dr Tulp reports that the silver gleam of herrings on the surface shines more at night when there are more accompanying shoals below. In order to catch these, fishermen now lower their nets up to seventy feet deeper.

Dr Nicolaes Tulp has also reminded me in a letter, that sailors say the sea monster, known by then as Hille and called Helius by Olaus Magnus, does not like to see herring caught in the nets. It will strike the side of the ship like a hammer and, when the sailors raise their nets, it seems the monster has the fish and they do not.

Vincent of Beauvais describes this, seemingly drawing on the same source. Olaus Magnus and Ulisse Aldrovandi both declare that whenever they see a light shining from above on to the surface of the water, the herring shoals will swim up, enticed into the nets at certain times by this trick, as if they are happy to be caught as a gift from God for the good of mankind. This trick, however, is no longer deployed in Scandinavia or on our own shores, not making any sense to our fishermen, who hold rather that it frightens the herring and that the fish, in fact, hide from the brightness of snow or of lightning.

Dr Tulp also reports this method as having also been discontinued among the Dutch. Such fires as they kindle in the dead of night are used to let other boats know, that they’re about to haul up their nets because the sea is getting rougher; that their comrades need to take care none of their nets are likely to get snagged in the process. Trout and crabs, I remember, are supposed to be deceived by nocturnal lights.

Herrings do not tolerate fresh water and will soon die if placed in any – unless you add salt and even then they do not last long. I have, however, seen them live for more than an hour, packed closely with other herrings and transported in winter. Gessner, in his Book About Fish, thinks the opposite, that herrings cannot live out of water at all, dying immediately as soon as they feel the air: that there is no delay between the touch of air and death. This is also said by Vincent of Beauvais, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Olaus Magnus.

As I write, the memory of a fish comes to mind: Pomeranian nobles call it the Muraena, but is more correctly called the Lake Herring. It is unrelated, or only slightly related to the Muraena of the ancients through its similarity to the herring. It has a pleasant taste and a tender flesh. In fact, only its habitat, generally lakes and ponds, leads to suspicion as to its virtues. At first sight you’d think it a herring, but it is more scaly, there’s a line running along the length of its body, it is smaller and its flesh is heavier.

My friend Gottfried Acidalius, however, reports that in Marchia they grow to the same size as the herring and are seasoned with salt. He is a man of great elegance and enormous learning and has given me one of these Muraena from the fish tanks of his Most Illustrious Lord, Jochim Ernest, Duke of Schleswig Holstein, its civil and military prince. It is said these fish squeak and die quickly in the same way as the herring.

Concerning the squeaking of herrings whilst they do not breathe

It’s well known, fish do not have voices. From this comes the saying, more silent than a fish. In Ajax the Whip-Bearer Sophocles calls fish mute:

He brought destruction to mute fish,
He brought a plague upon the mute fish.

Suicide of Ajax
Ajax: he brought destruction to mute fish, but ended up committing suicide (Greek vase painted by Exekias, c 530 BC)

According to Athenaeus, fish are said to be mute by the poets, because, like mutes, they lack voices. The word derives from the Greek words for to shrink, to be done and voice. Fish have no lungs, no windpipe, no throat: the organs used in voice production. For this reason, although they ate other living things in moderation, even sacrificed some, the Pythagoreans would not eat fish. They revered silence, considering it a divine quality (Athenaeus). There is more on this in Plutarch, where it’s said Pythagoras bought a catch of fish and ordered that they be set free.

Aristotle observes that some fish make hissing sounds. Lyra and Chrome Fish make a grunting noise. The Boar Fish of the River Achelous is thought to have a voice and as to the Erica and the Cuculus, one produces a kind of whistle, the other a noise like the cuckoo’s song – from which it gets its name. Aelian confirms this. And so those who condemn all fish to mute silence may not have read the texts. Exocaetus, a fish which sleeps on the shore by the Arcadian town of Clitorium, is said to have a voice and, a thing of even greater wonder, to have no gills.

Herring, taken from the net and thrown into the boat or pressed in the hand, whistles – something our Mytuli,as well as the Lake Herring or false Muraena,are also heard to do when taken out of water.

All fish have this so-called voice, coming either from their gills, which contain little bristles, or from the innards gathered around their stomachs. Air is held in these places and, when the fish are rubbed or shaken, sounds are squeezed out. The sound is the air being drained from the innards. This principle also applies to insects, such as bees, flies and the rest, which buzz because, when they fly, they are expanding and contracting. Cicadas appear to sing because of the air being pushed out when they shake the membranes beneath the thorax. It is a distinguishing feature and Aristotle has more on the subject.

The herring, taken out of water, wriggles and, deprived of its natural element, soon dies due to the forceful rending of its gills. Eels on the other hand, along with the Muraena and other snakelike fish, are able to live longer away from water, because their small gills need less moisture – see Theophrastus’ On Fish that Live on Dry Land. Athenaus confirms it. All these arguments allow us to be certain that fish do not breathe because they lack lungs and that they die when exposed to fresh air.

Aristotle, in On Breathing, widely taught exactly this, contradicting Democritus, Anaxagoras and Diogenes the Cynic, all of whom reported that fish breathe (see Pliny). Various unconvincing arguments are presented: the panting or gentle gaping of a fish’s mouth in the heat of summer; the bubbles rising through water seen as the breath of life as experienced on land; the ability to hear and smell, both faculties dependent on the material of the air; the assertion that nowhere is without the gentle breathing of sleep.

Fish do not tolerate extreme cold, hiding in caves in a freezing winter (Aristotle, Aelian and Pliny), relaxing and swimming towards the surface in warm water, where the temperature is the same as their own. On the other hand, if it’s too warm and, unable to bear the temperature, they need to cool down, they hide in the depths where the air cannot reach in the way it does at the surface. The bubbles, in fact, rise due to the water, taken in with food or otherwise, being expelled from the gills (Aristotle).

The ability of fish to smell and hear suggests the penetration of air into water, as air would be necessary for this to occur, but the question of breathing is not affected: we all know, both water and air cannot be taken in simultaneously (Theophrastus). It’s also the case that sleep doesn’t require breathing in a fish. Hysterical women have been known to live for several days without any sign of breathing, sleep reviving them; fish revive themselves through the gentlest motion of their gills, as if their hearts had been moistened with dew.

Galen agrees, arguing even that fish are so cold by nature, their hearts do not require deep breathing. He argues this from their low blood content, warm-blooded aquatic creatures such as dolphins, seals and whales being said to breathe as land animals do. On the other hand, he writes that their gills are capable of receiving both air and vapour through a number of small openings which are so fine, they reject the larger molecules of water.

Along with Basil the Great and Ambrose of Milan, I believe water, their natural element, fulfils the same function in fish as air fulfils for land animals: after all, on land we see them die in the midst of the air. As the lung, loose in texture and full of holes, through its expansion and contraction drains and returns air for the heart, so gills open and close, drawing water in and out whilst simultaneously cooling the heart. As is demonstrated by Galen, the structure of the gills in fish is equivalent to that of the lungs (cf. Aristotle’s On Breathing, Ambrose of Milan’s Hexameron and Basil the Great’s Hexameron).

Certain fish, I grant you, play it both ways, being dual-natured. This is not in relation to their feeding habits, but because they drain water and air through the same structures – although not at the same time. Theophrastus writes about the Exocaetus, which emerges from the sea to sleep; Pliny, Clearchus and Athenaus say the same of Indian fish which climb out of rivers and jump back, as well as of a type of fish in the waters of Babylon, which remain in caves when floods subside.

According to Theophrastus and Pliny, They come out in search of food, moving by means of small fins and quick flicks of their tails, returning to their caves when faced with predators. Their heads are like sea-frogs, their other parts like those of the gudgeon, their gills like any other fish. Theophrastus says they are fish of a different nature. Requiring moderately low temperatures they have small gills, preventing any rush in the intake of air. This is also seen with the Muraena, with eels and with other fish said to spend longer periods on dry land.

In which it is shown that herrings do not live on seawater alone

It would be superfluous here to add an illustration of a herring and to describe its appearance in detail. Many famous authors have already done this – in particular, Albertus Magnus, Olaus Magnus, Conrad Gessner and Deodatus (On Health).

The herring has no intestinal complications, just a straight tube which is always empty, as if it immediately voids itself of food once it has been taken in. Evidence of this persuaded the author of On Matters of Nature (cited by Vincent of Beauvais in On the Mirror of Nature, by Aldrovandi and by Rondolet writing on the subject of herrings in About Fish) in his belief that herrings eat no food, being content simply with seawater – after the manner of Apuas that are born out of sea foam. Fishing writers declare them to be kept alive by seawater, their excellence stemming from the way they live upon this single pure element. From this Vincent states: the herring is said to live on the pure element water in the same way that the salamander lives on fire.

Opposing their opinion, one could argue that there’s no power in a single element capable of generating or nourishing life; also that there is no water so pure it does not have some earth mixed with it. And seawater contains salt. It is heavier than fresh water, is complex and is mixed with many other substances that combine in that salt.

In his Meteorology Aristotle says the density of water can produce such differences as make cargo vessels almost sink in rivers with the same weight that at sea makes them only moderately laden and perfectly fit to sail. Pliny declares seawater, heavier by nature, can withstand heavier loads. I would say, as is widely known, there are many more kinds of living creature in the sea, where it is more fertile, than on land. It is reasonable to hold to the Roman opinion (Pliny), that whatever exists in any other part of nature also exists in the sea – where you also find things which do not exist elsewhere. This is why poets present Venus as born of the sea an, why they make sea gods fertile and the parents of many children (Plutarch).

The sea owes a gratitude to the salt with which it is suffused, even to its depths. The sharpness of it awakens lazy Venus with its tickling. In men, nature locates one of the vessels for generating sperm next to the left kidney, so it can drain away sourness and the irritations of sexual desire, which like a bitterness under the skin creates an itch (Nemesius Philosophus).

The sea indeed draws fertility from above, from the fruitful skies and rains. Pliny and Aristotle declare rain to be good for fish, with one or two exceptions. I would argue that wind does not further increase the sea’s fertility.

Since fresh water draws in the strength of such grasses as grown in it, would it be surprising to find that the sea, which has much salt dissolved in it, also draws strength from the plants and grasses which grow in it, and in as much profusion as we see on land – and that this might be sufficient to feed some kinds of fish. The strength of earth alone is enough to nourish such as Thrissae, Cyprini, etc., which live just on mud and get fat in fish ponds where there are hardly any grasses. How can we therefore deprive the sea, with all that it holds, of the capacity to nourish?

This doesn’t contradict Theophrastus in saying the sea is ‘without food’ (On the Reasons for Plants): he’s describing land-based plants, which need to be irrigated with fresh water irrigation (Pliny). What of the many trees or plants nourished beneath the waves? Undoubtedly, fresh water is contained within the sea: Aristotle (Meteororology) has demonstrated that it can be filtered out by means of wax vessels. Aelian has also argued that fish are nourished by the sea, agreeing with Aristotle, Democritus, Theophrastus and Empedocles. Pliny meanwhile identifies particular benefits to be found in salt water, which helps to bring out the sweetness in and improve the fertility of radishes, beet and cunilae.

Theophrastus (c 371 – 287 BC), philosopher and Father of Botany

Pliny and Theophrastus both write that palms and gum trees grow in salt water. Theophrastus adds that certain plants are better nourished in it: with palms some measure of salt is advantageous and some herbs and vegetables – cabbages, rue, colewort – turn out better for being irrigated with salt water. This same argument is found in Androsthenes’ account of Tylum, an island in the Red Sea unusual for its running salt water, which nourishes trees and other kinds of plant more than rain water: so much so that immediately after rains, its farmers direct the streams away from their fields.

These and other plausible arguments for the sea’s nourishing powers could easily account on their own for the herring’s food, were it not that it has innards just like other fish, the intestine being held mostly in its upper parts, curving in to a point around which many blood vessels are joined. And it is not always empty, but often filled with food. I have often counted more than sixty tiny fragments of sea onion in one fish, many already in the process of being digested. I have not found their intestines to be swollen in this way after spawning, but rather half full of roe – that of other fish or their own – sometimes flowing with the white juices of fertility.

For this reason, along with Aristotle writing on egg-laying fish, I believe herrings are savage towards their children, especially when, exhausted by making love, they find harder food difficult. For at the time of spawning (the words are those of this most valued author), the females follow the males and eat their seed, striking the belly with their noses, encouraging them to deposit their seed more quickly and in greater quantity. At the time of birth, the males follow the females, eating the eggs they lay with their teeth, the succeeding generation of fish emerging from those that remain.

After spawning, the fertilised eggs ripening quickly, herrings feed on stronger foods – moss, algae and the finest gravel – enabling belly size to increase significantly. As Dr Tulp says, herrings mature swiftly – Aristotle and, subsequently Athenaeus, say the same of other fish, especially those living in the Black Sea.

Having considered all of this, I believe the erroneous accounts of the herring’s permanently empty intestine have spread because it is never salted without being gutted. From this some people were persuaded that they had no intestines, only that silvery tube which the common people call its ‘breath’ and which is always empty. This has happened because there are no inland supplies of fresh herring.

Concerning the boiling of herrings

For the purposes of eating, herring may be boiled quickly, roasted, salted or smoked. Depending on the different kinds of seasoning, each method grants certain qualities and forfeits others.

Some cook them in water after adding a small amount of salt: this is the commonest method and none the worse for that. If it’s taken from the fire whilst still boiling and vinegar is added, it tastes good and is beneficial for health. The best food for man is simple, too many flavours being harmful and seasoning destructive (Pliny). Fish should be cooked simply and modestly seasoned, especially rock fish – there should be no over-elaborate gratification of the senses (Athenaeus).

Drawing on this – and particularly on Athenaeus’ thoughts on rock fish – Galen considers fat, slow and hard fish are best served with mustard and oregano, but not plaice, sole or delicate, sweet-flavoured fish (amongst whose number I count the herring). The inherent virtues and the rare pleasures afforded by these fish are not improved by fiddling and fancy tricks, which neither please without seasoning nor nourish without the prospect of harm.

Most suggest that herring boiled in the above manner should be served with a sauce of vinegar and horseradish. Its subtleties, easily lost, are held together by vinegar and the fish’s juices are absorbed by both. Sharp and salty flavours are used rather than seasoning. Although Athenaeus says that this in itself is a kind of seasoning, Aristotle says the use of Attic vinegar provides complementary flavours, when a food is too sweet and would over-nourish. Nourishment, he argues, should come from sweetness or simplicity or a mixture of the two.

Drawing on this, Ibn Sina writes, You should moreover know that sweetness detracts from nature as it nourishes and that, as it matures, it corrupts the blood. Drawing on Celsus and arguing on the same lines, Oribasius tells us, when the spleen and the liver are blocked, we should avoid sweet foods, as the richness produces a yellow bile which adds to the obstructions. Ibn Sina says the same.

You may, however, decide to add wine to the water, after the manner of the French who live by the Rhine: there’s no loss to the wonderful taste of the fish, as the abundant juiciness of a herring does not dry up. Some add butter or a small quantity of Zanzibar pepper, arguing that this counteracts the strength of the liquor and strengthens the stomach.

Some cook herring with cream: it provides a delicate taste, but is less healthy, as too much liquid with fish makes it go off quicker. Beware of preparing it with milk, which goes off quickly, even though this usually happens through the addition of herbs. Ibn Sina, Indian experimenters and others have argued that milk should not be eaten with vinegary things and fish should not be eaten with milk either, such chronic diseases as leprosy deriving from this.

On account of its greasiness, I wouldn’t advise grated cheese with that most delicious of fishes, the herring, even though Oribasius sanctions a little fresh and fragrant goats cheese. Greasiness in fish is not good, even though, as I recall, the Italians defile many of their dishes in this way – notwithstanding the fact that the Sicilian, Archestratus, the Hesiod of fine diners, condemned the practice, Athenaeus quoting him as saying:

They know not how properly to prepare fish,
Those who destroy it with the evil application of cheese.
They do not even know how a good fish should be seasoned,
Those who bring about its utter ruin with a cheese stuffing.

Herring should be placed in boiling salted water. This is the practice adopted by the best cooks. For good reason, this is the way prescribed by doctors. Oribasius declares that fish so prepared are more moist, retaining their own juices. Ibn Sina agrees. It is even better, he says, if the water is first brought to the boil and they are then thrown in. Isaac Israeli declares, If any fish is to be cooked, the broth should first be brought to the boil along with some small herbs, the fish then added to the bubbling liquid: it is tastier and it is better for the blood.

Overcooking reduces the moisture: Aristotle points out that this is a danger with boiled fish. Herring should therefore be cooked over a quick, hot fire. The results are easier to digest and the inherent sweetness is not lost to the water which surrounds it.

Herrings should not be boiled in too much water, lest the exquisite flavour is diluted by the excessive liquid. With stronger tasting fish it’s good to pour on lots of water and, when that has boiled, to throw it away and start again with fresh. This allows it to cook further, reducing any heaviness of flavour – see Galen and Athenaeus, both of whom dictate this for cuttlefish, octopus and other fish. The flattering, fiery heat applied with liquid acts as a cleanser.

It is also worth saying, fish should be eaten hot, the simmering pan just lifted from the fire. This counteracts the fish’s cold-blooded nature, whilst strengthening our own warm-bloodedness. Doctors recommend eating hot food and drinking hot drinks when the stomach has taken a chill. Ibn Sina says fish is improved in combination with heat: he seruously disapproves of cold fish. He argues that fungal growths occur when fish is stored in damp places, even though it may not be observable even for a couple of days.

Santes Adoynus and Mattioli both agree with him, as does Paolo Giovi – with particular reference to bream cut into pieces and dressed with saffron and ice. Pietro d’Abano (About Poisons) says, Once cooked and preserved in containers, especially those which have lids, fish develop poisonous, life-threatening qualities.

Just sticking with the dictates of flavour, however, as with other fish, the herring is tastier hot than cold, when a sense of our own mortality hangs over them. Gluttons, of course, will always prefer their herrings hot. This is clear in the case of Ulysses of Anaxandridae in Athenaeus’ Feast Wisdom. He introduces a fisherman boasting of his skills:

With reverential speed, the fish is snatched from the plate,
Or in a flash it disappears from the pan.
What other art, my good man,
So burns the mouths of young men?

And Philoxenus, the greatest glutton of all, who wished the gods had given him the neck of a crane, so that the pleasures of food and drink might be extended (Athenaeus, Aristotle): he would eat with his cooks and caterers so everything was piping hot. And that sorry glutton Pithyllus ate wearing gloves and long sleeves so he could always pick the hottest foods (Athenaeus). With the Romans also you found this pleasure in very hot food. Seneca writes, They eat their mushrooms burning hot, quickly seasoned, almost smoking. And again, What? Do you think any corruption thus transferred from fire to mouth will be rendered harmless in the gut?

According to Aristophanes, in The Archanians, braziers were once put next to the tables, people taking such pleasure in hot food. Seneca again gives us this, His train of cooks carry fires across the dining room. The kitchen comes to the dinner because luxury dictates that no food may cool and nothing may burn a palate already blistered.

It is true that in Plautus’ The Parasite Physician it says muraenas and conger eels should not be heated because, they are much better eaten cold, but he is not talking of freshly-cooked fish, which is much better hot than cold. He’s saying the following day they should not be re-heated, as it does them no favours.

For those who find it hard when meal times are postponed, there is a way of serving salmon – cooked the day before, flaked and kept in its juices so it does not go off – but it’s not good. Salmon is much better cut into chunks and brought hot from the fire, not least because this makes it kinder on the digestion.

There are those who cut apples into small pieces and add them to herring with vinegar, serving it with bread. This novelty has its pleasures, but fresh herring is best of all.

To quote Seneca, They taste of the sea itself, such subtleties of flavour held in the tender flesh, soft and moist, so prone to rapidly going off. This is why the Romans, so wise in the arts of luxury, kept fish alive in water for months: they could cook and serve them to guests as soon as catch them. It was a beautiful thing and it delighted diners. Seneca confirms the picture, The fish swim in a pond: what’s brought to table was caught beneath it. And he gives us more along the same line, Libertines’ stomachs have come to such a pass, they cannot eat a fish unless they have seen it swim.

People talk about the rich colours of a rainbow mullet as it dies, but this can also be said of other fish – it is important to serve them as fresh as possible. That most knowledgeable arbiter of delicacies writes:

The parrotfish swimming in Sicilean seas
Is brought alive to the table.

And Plutarch writes, We dine on the shore today, today we dine on the shore. And if I may say so, the idea of dining on the shore is very pleasant: a rich variety of fish and new wine!

In Greek, Acte is shore or ‘region by the sea’. Thus, Virgil, in the Aeniad writes:

But far away, apart on the lonely shore,
The Trojan women weep for lost Anchises.

Acte, here, is said by Apollodorus to be Attica, because much of that region is by the sea. And Pliny writes, From the narrows of the Isthmus Hellas begins, called Greece by us. Attica is the first part of it, called Acte in antiquity.

Heliogabalus never ate fish by the sea, only serving the range of seafood when he was far inland. A monstrosity of a man, for his banquets everything had to be rare and expensive. He always ate his fish cooked in in a blue liquid that preserved its colours (Aelius Lampridius).

But I digress. Returning to boiled herring: no herbs, no spices, only salt and that in moderation: this offers cold and moist food for the body – as does fish generally (Galen, Paulus Aeginetus, Actuarius, Ibn Sina, Isaac Israelites, Simeon Sethus). Herbs for the relief of gas, vinegar for strengthening the stomach and preserving the softer parts of the fish: Galen has sanctioned these flavourings and seasonings. And for the same reasons drink wine instead of beer with herring. As they say, Wine for the dead, water for the living.

As to Ibn Sina’s classification of fish in relation to their food qualities, considering its mildness, I’d say the herring is less cool than other species and that in its harmonious mixture of the elements it is as delicious as any. It’s the very picture of the ideal fish: tender, soft and delicate; blameless in taste and smell; neither foul nor slimy; a charmingly moderate richness flowing throughout. Its very nature is moderate (Actuarius). It is full of blood, which it releases richly when gutted. Galen categorises a fish’s temperament on this basis: those with much blood are warmer, those with less cooler.

Ibn Sina or Avicenna (c 980 to 1037 AD) Persian philosopher and author of The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine, a key Islamic authority

I’d describe the herring as a little more moist than other fish: quickly boiled it is quickly digested, departing via the bowels more easily than firmer fleshed fish. In fact, the salting of herring proves its inherent moistness: as I have said, drier fish do not take salt so well (Galen). On the other hand, nobody could rightly say, as von Schoneveld does in his About Herring, that its flesh is so moist as to increase bowel movements.

I’d never deny its delicious pleasures to the delicate of palate. Far from it, I would dare to assert that in all its juicy happiness, a freshly caught herring (as found hereabouts in December and January) comes a good second to the noble-tasting trout, which spends its life in chilly mountain streams and is preferred to all other fish by Athenaeus. Our trout may be valued more highly for its oiliness and softness of flesh, but personally I’d place it second to the herring in the goodness of its juice.

Due to its delicate flesh, the herring is easy to cook, even with moderate heat. Digestion, taking place in the stomach and liver before the rest of the body is nourished, is easier with soft than with a firm fish (Hippocrates, Oribasius). It is of a good size, but doesn’t swell the stomach: easily digested, as Athenaeus writes of rock fish. It departs promptly from the bowel. It’s not recommended for athletes or those engaged in hard physical labour, because such light food does not provide sufficient nourishment. See al-Razi’s Compendium of Rules for Eating and Drinking): Food generating thin blood is better for the long-lasting preservation of health, but not advisable for those involved in sustained physical labour or the exercise of strength – they need the opposite.

Compared with the beasts of the field, herrings have thinner blood. The nourishment they provide is not over-rich. Passing through the body quickly, the nourishment is nevertheless very serviceable. The consistency of its blood is between the delicate and the watery – it does not clot when it pours from the veins and comes with about as much fat as that of a woodpecker. Galen argues that the nourishment from deep sea fish stands next to that of the best bread and partridges.

Proof of the herring’s special virtues

Having taken such care to explain the herring’s tasting notes, how should I proceed in proving its special virtues, if I’m to hold the attention of those who would vilify the Prince of Fish? Am I laying the wisdom of the finest natural historians before mere Epicureans?

The herring has a delicate, soft and flaky flesh: this is beyond dispute. I have established that it’s like the rock-dwelling fish, the properties of which were first outlined by Galen, writing on the benefits and dangers of a flesh’s natural juices (De Alimentorum Facultatibus, but see also Oribasius, Aëtius, Paul of Aegina, Cornelius Celsus, Avicenna and others). Nourishment from such food is both easily digested and extremely wholesome.

Galen writes, Flaking and softness are two observable qualities – where you have both you may eat your fill; where you have neither you must abstain; where you have one you may eat occasionally, where other foods are not available, but not to excess. Oribasius says the same. Cod is soft, but not as flaky as rock fish; mullet is flaky but not soft. Flesh is deemed flaky when the whole comes apart easily; flesh which isn’t easily separated by tension or pressure, bending as defined by Scaliger, is described as malleable.

Galen or Aelius Galenus (129 to c 216 AD) physician, surgeon and philosopher, here portrayed by Velaso Salgado (1906) dissecting a monkey

Those who’d defame the herring by calling it soft-fleshed need to justify themselves: where is the crime in soft flesh? Athenaeus, on the sea carp which is at the moister end of rock-dwelling fish, says they not only rebuild strength, but are more enjoyable to eat, whilst also improving bowel motions and the passing of urine. Galen, Orabasius and Aëtius similarly praise sole, turbot and cod, saying that, unless they’ve been badly stored, they’re good for those who don’t exercise, the idle, the mentally deficient and the ill.

The School of Salerno, on the health benefits of fish, suggests choosing larger specimens with soft-fleshed fish. I remember The Consul, the great Dr Cõlerus, reciting the lines:

If fish be soft,
Lift large ones aloft!
With hard-fleshed fish
Choose small for your dish!

Isaac Israeli agrees. Avicenna writes, The smaller is chosen from among the hard-fleshed fish; the larger from the soft; with adult hard-fleshed fish too much juice can be consumed and it is safer to stick with the dryness of the young. Doctors often prescribe goat, which is not too moist when young, as opposed to young lamb, which is full of mucus, whilst mutton from an old sheep overflows with excrement-productive juices (Galen, Orabasius, Avicenna). Large fresh Herrings are astonishingly tastier than small ones: they don’t become too dry; they don’t spread their qualities too thinly. This doesn’t hold with cured herring from Bergen and Scotland, where you should choose those not quite fully grown.

In praising soft-fleshed fish, I don’t mean malakia, as described by Aristotle, Athenaeus or Oribasius – the fish Pliny describes as soft. There are species which don’t have scales, aren’t rough skinned or shelled, but soft-skinned like humans – octopus, cuttlefish, squid, etc. They are soft-skinned but with hard flesh and they’re difficult to cook, bringing little of their own salty juices to the pan. Oribasius, Aëtius and Galen all say that, raw, these are juicy, but the older they are, the tougher and the harder they are to cook.

Athanasius says they arouse desire through producing wind, which he considers necessary to increase lust. Personally, I think it is generously salty juices which excite the genitals, slow flowing like a woman’s: experiment shows that shellfish which have spawned can provide a substitute.

The next proof of a herring’s virtues can be found in where it lives. Doctors say fish of the ocean deep are better for you than river fish – and far more so than lake fish (Hippocrates, Galen). Unless they are smelly or too oily, sea fish have a delicate taste (Oribasius, Avicenna). Cornelius Celsus says deep sea fish are lighter in flavour than those of the shallows and should be preferred to the same species from estuaries or lakes, especially muddy ones (see also Aëtius, Galen, Actuarius and Isaac Israeli).

Fish living in the open sea are more tender, due to the exercise of wind and tide, the search for food and escaping monsters. Idleness makes the body slothful, increasing its storage of waste. With strong and energetic movement, all that is superfluous passes through and is evacuated. The great Seneca tells an interesting story of an artificial lake, 250 cubits long and 200 wide. Taking ten or even twenty days to clean, each time it was full of frogs, filth and rotting vegetation. Fish of so many kinds were all fat and sticky and so slippery they couldn’t be held. And cooked, they couldn’t even be eaten, they smelt and tasted so vile.

In the vastness of the ocean, the rich availability of purer foods produces juicy, tasty fish. Estuary fish and the fish of stagnant lakes, nourished in mud, can be unpleasant and less healthy than their deep sea counterparts. Isaac Israeli suggests this could be because the sea is warmer and less dank, having the effect of drying out the fish’s own harmful dankness .

Take our own cyprini, which we call carp, even though it’s not the true carp, which is peculiar to Italy’s Lake Benacus and I think, according to Cassiodorus, also to be found in the Danube: it’s not in the first rank of fish, even though it can be be soft and delicate-flavoured. When it’s at its best, in autumn and winter, it’s true it may be served at the top table at Lübeck weddings, but in spring and summer it’s salmon, second to none for delicacy of flavour, and sturgeon, a favourite of the Romans during the Second Punic War. In the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus, Sammonicus Serenus says it was brought to the feast by garlanded servants to a flute accompaniment – And Martial writes:

Send sturgeon to the tables of Athena!
Let rare gifts adorn the feasts of the gods!

Our own countrymen prefer it to fish from Hamburg. But with a wild sturgeon from a lake there’s a slimy quality that detracts from its delicate virtues: it’s less active and feeds on mud. Those that escape into the River Trave from storm-damaged fishponds: caught later they leave the rest behind for taste. And the same may be said of pike perch and other such fish. Caught in the Trave, they’re milder flavoured and more wholesome. The best are caught, not far from Lübeck, in the upper reaches of the Trave, where the waters from Lake Ratzeburg enter, having come down so quickly along the River Wakenitz, drawing on all that richness of the soil and carrying such abundance of food.

Demonstrating that a herring’s value lies in its distinctiveness

The proof of the herring’s exquisite virtue lies in that very taste with which that of so few fish may be said to compare and upon which its own fame stands. A foul taste says something is bad for you (Galen, Isaac Israeli, Avicenna, Hippocrates, Oribasius): in the same way, let the herring’s proven pleasures speak to its glory. People talk of the delicacy of its flavour – unless, of course, someone has simply eaten too much. This can spoil the taste for any food; can lead to a distaste for food altogether. Free from any unsavoury smell, every inch of the herring’s delicious flesh is tender, juicy and soft. Tasty moistness spreads throughout. This is virtue.

Ibn Sina particularly points to this. You should know (these are his very words) food which tastes better is better. Healthy appetites are naturally drawn to that which is sweet. I refer you also to Galen’s critique of the severe diets Hippocrates recommends and to Aristotle’s opinion that Everything is nourished by sweetness, either individually or together.

The virtues of the herring, however, are not a constant at all times and in all places. Here in Lübeck they are at their best from late autumn to the middle of winter. At this time, however they’re cooked or smoked, the taste is particularly pleasing, but they’re not as plentiful: fishing is hindered by storms and high winds and as that best authority on natural history, Aristotle, observes, fish hide when it gets too cold.

Lubeck in 1641
Lübeck in 1641

He also argues for the quality of most fish in the winter, suggesting, Some may be caught as they retreat to warmer places, if the seas are unusually calm or at a full moon, when they leave their hiding places to feed. Aristotle says all fish are at their best when about to spawn, the juice used in spawning is at its most abundant throughout their bodies. As the tubes which held its milky juice and eggs are drained (fish, as the Philosopher tells us, have no testes) a herring’s flesh becomes flabby and dry. It is not juicy. It is less delicate. Those of a refined palate will tell you it’s the same with pike perch and other fish.

Love is responsible for loss of moisture in most living things. Aristotle, again, tells us that creatures age quickly after the production of their seed. According to Avicenna, Sexual pleasure drains the very substance of life; the greater the pleasure the weaker one becomes. The parts most used become cold, natural heat is lost, manliness dies, etc. Of little worth, it’s hardly surprising to find that spent herrings bring no pleasure to a refined palate.

The virtues of the herring are likewise not a constant from year to year. Fishmongers and salters observe this in other fish as well. Fish generally live well in rainy years: it’s no only that there is more food, but also that they rejoice in the rain water, just like those things which the earth brings forth: we see this too in reeds and vegetables grown in lakes. In a good year for men, fish also do well. This is what Aristotle teaches us and, as the most learned man in every respect, his authority must always be held in high regard. According to Pliny, When Alexander the Great was filled with a desire to know the nature of animals, the study was assigned to Aristotle. Several thousand men across the whole of Asia and Greece were ordered to obey his commands: all those who lived by hunting, fowling and fishing; all those who cared for game reserves, fish ponds and aviaries. In this way, the knowledge of no living thing was to be denied him.

The variation in herring according to location makes for considerable variation in price. In relation to this we must draw on the spirit of Archestratus, as Athenaeus remembers him. His energetic, gastronomic investigations shone their light across the known world. For those who commissioned his travels, he wished to be precise as to where the best foods were to be found.

Schleswig herring tastes the finest of all, although Stralsund herrings aren’t in any way inferior. Next in quality are those from Rostock and then the ones from Wismar. Lübeck herrings come last because of the barren nature of the sea bed. Most sea creatures here – prawns, cod and mackerel for example – are smaller and thinner. Olaus Magnus may be right when he says a distance of only two or three miles may separate better fish from worse. Undoubtedly herring from Norway or the Straits of Denmark and especially those from the German Ocean, off the coast of Britain are the very best of all. Salt pickled they have the most refined taste.

As Celsus says, A deep sea fish is lighter of flavour than one from shallow waters. If our herring’s detractors were to summon one of these before the court fresh, still dripping sea water and not yet spent, I have no doubt but that, in the revelation of its delicacy, they would instead become defenders of its honour.

Aristotle notes these differences in fish, according to their place of origin. It would be wrong to deny how, from region to region, there can be so much difference in plants and animals – in their health, fertility and the delivery of offspring. Thus it is with fish: their greatest differences derive from place, not only their size and vitality, but also their spawning and giving birth. The same species will spawn more often in one place and less in another.

Proving virtue in the herring from the evidence of its fins and scales

As proof of the herring’s virtue, those things of which I shall not speak include its middling size. Of the doctors who indicate quality in a fish on this basis, Avicenna is probably the most important. He argues huge fish have hard flesh which is therefore difficult to cook.

Athenaeus, meanwhile, suggests the tiny ones, eaten complete with the bones, go off quickly and produce wind in the process of digestion. This is because digestion takes place in stages: flesh quickly, bones more slowly. In fact, with bones it’s not easy for them to dissolve completely – especially anchovies with the number they have – and the digestion of the one interferes with that of the other and, when flesh is on the moist side, this results in wind.

I am also not going to cite Athenaeus for the praise he gives to shoaling fish – such indeed as the herring (it’s actually to be found in the very same book, on the very same page). The herring, which can claim primacy amongst shoaling fish, brings such pleasure because of its moistness, which also makes it so suitable for pickling. Herring, in fact, is the best fish for pickling.

No. As final proof of the herring’s virtue, I offer its fins and the scales with which it is covered. It is these very features which The Divine Majesty offers as signs of a fish allowed to the people of Israel (Leviticus 11, 9-12 and Deuteronomy 14, 9-10). Doctors also look for these features in the fish they recommend most strongly.

The herring
The herring, a fish with fins and scales

As with cod and other species, the square dorsal and ventral fins enable the fish to move the waters freely and easily, stretching the bladder to its vertebral movements. The herring has two additional pairs of fins, however, enabling it to cover great distances, moving flexibly and quickly, when, for example, monsters threaten or it has to search further afield for food. Fins are granted to fish instead of feet (see Pliny): as I’ve already said, the Babylonian fish has actually been seen walking on them.

It’s beyond argument, that fish with fins and tails are awakened from torpor exercising them and, in doing so, expel waste matter. Any sluggishness of the flesh is drained. This is why doctors recommend them. See Galen: creatures which don’t exercise are full of excrement. See Celsus: the wild animal is lighter than the domesticated.

In delicate-fleshed fish, scales prevent harm from the collision with hard surfaces. Aristotle suggests, in this, they act like hair and that they are, in fact, formed in the same way out of the waste material from the final stage of the digestion. With cartilaginous fish, he similarly shows nature transferring its mineral constituents to form the roughness in their skin.

Actuarius writes about scales in his work on animal nutrition: Many choose fish with scales or bony exteriors – and I agree with them – because they are not over-moist. As a guide to good health, look for a little dryness in moist things, moistness in dry. Here, we should also note Isaac Israeli’s thoughts on fish in his book on diet: Fish with scales are better, because the scales indicate reduced moisture or water content: from the inner to the outer, nature pushes excess moisture into the production of scales. It is the same with animals: in the third digestive stage, nature entrusts to the exterior that which produces wool, hair and such like. The herring, with its delicate flesh so perfectly melting and moist, has thin scales, which are not excessive in number – in voiding dry waste materials, they are replenished.

Fish without scales or fins, which move by the snake-like wriggling of their bodies: the quality of their flesh is dull, rank, slimy and muddy. They present health risks because of where they live, because of their sluggish movement and because the waste from that final digestive stage of digestion is nor processed into scales. It is for this reason The Supreme Majesty wished His people to abstain from eating such fish. One can, of course, find other explanations for such divine mysteries in the work of Cyril of Alexandria and others, but I don’t need to refer to them here.

The herring’s delicate skin dissolves with fast boiling, but thickens in salting and smoking. This shows us no harm comes, in principle, from the Prince of Fish. There’s nothing in its flesh of the muddy, slimy or mineral, nothing from which a naturally thick, coarse or hardened skin could be made, nothing of the qualities against which doctors so rightly advise.

Concerning roast herring

Some would except the largest specimens, but roast herring is delicious and popular. It may be brought to the table and eaten simply with bread: without the ornament of other flavours (Nonius on roast meat); merely basted with butter. It’s even better for you than boiled. As Varro suggests, as it sweats and drips into the fire, the juices run through the flesh. Athenaeus argues for the health benefits of shoaling fish because their fats are liquefied.

Aristotle concludes roast fish retains moisture better than boiled. External heat draws internal moisture, lubricating any dryness. I agree with Oribasius and Vincent of Beauvais, that boiling draws this internal moisture out. Our friend Galen confirms this through the examples of garlic, leeks, onions, medlars and wild pears: acidity or bitterness leeches into the water of the cooking pot. I am with Aristotle: a greater juiciness is achieved through roasting.

Bust of Aristotle
Aristotle, an advocate for roast fish
(Roman copy of a lost bronze by Lyssipos)

Roast meat retains more of natural juice, even though the surface is hard and blistered from the embers – not that everything is better roast. With tougher or slimier fish boiling is better, because any harmful moisture is boiled out. Athenaeus again: using the milder heat effects a cleansing action on their moisture. Harmful moisture is dried into the flesh through roasting; tough flesh becomes tougher.

Roast herring, eaten on its own, is at its best hot from the fire. Athenaeus talks of fish served straight from the pan. He talks of mormyron and gilt-head bream hissing from the fire. His guest, Xenocles talks of fish served sizzling hot, whilst Alexis (in a discussion of unclean foods) describes a pig, roasted and juicy from the fire.

Some sprinkle a little pepper or ground cloves on roast herring. This doesn’t affect its virtues: for those suspicious of its moisture the spices absorb a little. The delicacy of herring isn’t easily spoiled and those with delicate stomachs aren’t challenged. A squeeze of lemon on roast herring only increases the pleasure of it – the flesh becomes even more tender; weak stomachs even less likely to be affected. A sauce of wine and Corinthian capers, whilst adding health benefits, will entice even the most jaded appetite.

The digestion of roast herring is easy, but slightly slower, because the heat of the oven has removed any wateriness. Evacuation also comes later. As Hippocrates notes, That which nourishes quickly is evacuated faster. This is attested not only elsewhere in Hippocrates, but also by Isaac Israeli, by Oribasius (quoting Xenocrates) and by Athenaeus on the subject of roast mullet. Along the same lines, Avicenna reports on slower digestion and excretion with roasts.

Personally, I am with Isaac Israeli in preferring herrings – especially larger ones – grill-roasted rather than fried in the pan. The oil or butter of the pan makes it more greasy, whereas in the oven excess oil is lost to the fierceness of the fire. Athenaeus says the same about mullet, which Celsus also says is more nourishing roasted than fried.

Unique though they may be, the joys of freshly roast herring can go off quickly when cold. Doctors warn against the dangers in covering it hot and placing it for several days in a cold, damp place. Fish kept in this way can take on harmful qualities, producing symptoms normally associated with poisonous mushrooms.

See al-Razi on the subject: When fish is roasted and kept, when cooled, in a damp places, it can provoke violent responses, such as usually come from bad mushrooms. He also writes, Cold roast fish, a day or two old, can have the same effect as mushroom poisoning. The harm probably comes from wrapping it hot from the oven, rather than allowing it to breathe for a while. See also Avicenna and Al-Zahrawi on cold roast fish, as well as Ardoynus on poisons.

From my own experience and observation, these dangers affect all cooled fish, but mostly those with inherently harmful juices, such as live in muddy or stagnant places or are lazy and inactive – and those which haven’t come fresh to the oven. We all know the dangers of rot and decay that can come from a few days damp storage.

All the writers I’ve mentioned here suggest that anyone suffering from food poisoning should be encouraged to vomit and given wine with pepper and other known remedies for mushroom poisoning. For those specifically having eaten rotten roast fish, Ali ibn al’Abbas (Complete Art of Medicine) advocates hot water, honey and salt to encourage the vomiting, then plain wine with pepper, birthwort, socrita or Tincture of Diamoschus, mixed with cumin and mountain oregano flavoured water. I would suggest juniper wine, flavoured with red berries or cinnamon and white turmeric.

A review of conflicting evidence

Let us commend this noblest of fishes! Lined up against us, we only have the common herd telling us herrings are bad for you and they are false witnesses. As Tacitus has it, On the side of the mob there is neither judgement nor truth. For Boethius it’s barely worth mentioning, In pursuit of their pleasures the people are neither discerning nor constant.

Shall vox populi be arbiter on this, the most delightful of foods? Which voice from among them would we even consult? Would Dr Grakius allow them to determine his eating habits – or anything else? Of course, among them one may find sound judgement. There are, among the people, those who recognise true value. But there aren’t many: most are mired in popular fallacies, degraded by poverty and self-indulgent. Let them taste something better, they will think it best. Are they concerned with what is good for them? Do they care about those with delicate constitutions?

If the good doctor were to be swayed by such common judgement, would he not be like the man, criticised by Socrates (as recorded by Diogenes Laërtius), despising the common coin, except when it comes in piles. In that same book, Socrates famously advises: Judge not virtue by the wisdom of the people.

As we search for the truth, we must steer a course away from the popular voice. What could be worse than leaving a herring’s worth – or our own – to the speech of fools? Listen to the great Aristotle, Many are astonished, few understand. Philosophy tells us, going with the winds of popular opinion is not worthy of the wise and is a disgrace among the learned. I came to Athens, said Democritus, and nobody recognised me. As Cicero says, A serious man, in talking of his own glory, has already laid it aside.

Not that we should not be concerned with glory. Virtue’s shadow yet falls on those who would not acknowledge it, says Seneca. And Cicero, All good deeds seek daylight. But back to Seneca, Let us be firm in scorning the approval of the masses. As great Aristotle argues, No theatre is greater than the knowledge of virtue. And back to Seneca, who quotes Epicurus’ words to a colleague, I am not writing to the many, but to you: we are audience enough for each other.

But, of course, The voice of the people is the voice of God… I’m not saying this cannot be – where the people employ sound reasoning, virtue and prudence – but it can also be the Devil’s voice. Consider the Athenians and their foolish expulsions of Solon (see Valerius Maxiumus, Diogenes Laërtius and Plutarch), Militiades (Herodotus and Justinian) and Themistocles (Thucydides and Plutarch). The Carthaginians expelled Hannibal (Livy, Scipio Africanus’ eulogy on Hannibal), whilst the Romans expelled Scipio Africanus (Livy and Valerius Maximus). Do I need to mention more recent examples?

Let us refute the people’s authority! There is no shortage of discerning witnesses who will to testify to the herring’s subtle delights, to a special quality rare amongst fish. I call upon the honest good taste of my hosts, here, in the North of Germany! Accustomed to the most delicate of foreign fish dishes, might they find our own a little bland, a little coarsened by rough northern waters, by exclusion from the sun’s warming influence? No! On the contrary! Relishing a certain northern pride, we hear them praise the pure pleasures of a herring. I don’t think I need to quote the words of our own celebrated doctors, whether in the works of Daniel Sennert, Caspar Hofmann or Boudewijn Ronsse.

So, why is it that people dismiss the herring? Abundance, I repeat, is the only reason. As in the domestic arena, availability leads to rejection. Value is rarity, rarity value, Cicero says. For this fish it is as elsewhere – and as Tacitus tells us, Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And Martial (Book 4, epigram 29):

Rarity brings pleasure: the first apple tastes sweeter;
The rose in winter deserves its price.

Spring herring: on sale every day and from so many boats, it is dismissed as fit only for the poor and unfortunate; it is neglected through abundance – unless maybe it is redeemed by the smokehouse. Along with the rest of the catch, languishing in the summer sun, withered and spent in the pursuit of love, it is less than at its best: Leave them for others! Go to Hamburg, however, or Luneberg: nobody there would dream of denying the exquisite pleasure of a preserved herring in winter.

And so it was in Athens. According to Athenaeus, Chrysippus categorised anchovies as cheap food, fit for beggars. Born of the foaming waves, as the rain falls, says Pliny, quoting Aristotle. Travel to other cities and even second rate anchovies are prized – and pricy with it! The anchovy called Anchoia by the Italians: salted, they’re highly prized by our own epicureans – the heads are taken off to get rid of the bitterness, because the salt gathers there – yet where they’re caught, they think nothing of them. It’s the same with our own prawns and shrimps: in our neighbouring states, they love them, but here they’re cheap, especially in the autumn when they’re in season.

That delightful fish, the salmon, claims its place at the most splendid or our banquets and wedding feasts – as Ausonius describes it, doomed to grace some noble table. Meanwhile, in its abundance, they turn up their noses in Hamburg: it’s served to servants and even they complain if it happens too often. Fresh eels, soft-fleshed, delicate and succulent, they’re so rare in Upper Germany they fetch four times the price and only go to the great houses. Of course, I’m not talking about the slimy eels, the oil of which has gone rancid. I won’t mention Athenaeus’ praise of eels – or my own, which can be found in my Purple Book.

The idea herrings are bad for you, bringing on the fever, is nonsense. They are a sign of God’s providential love for us. They can be despised for their abundance, but as Pliny argues, There is reason in fertility. He doesn’t confuse fertility with excess.

Herrings are abundant here in the spring, when malarial fevers and epidemics are rare. Brought about in the build-up and spread of bile in the body, such diseases are common elsewhere in spring and summer, particularly inland. But there’s something really important we’re missing here. Fever may be brought on by herring, but through eating too many – or, more commonly through bad preparation. This is where the accusations against our noble fish come from. Let’s consider Pliny, here: Nothing in excess; excess is always harmful, especially for the body. And Cicero: Each to his own, but too little is better than too much.

And in a stomach already inflamed, herring can be corrupted in the agitation of the excess heat and bile. Eat too much old or badly cooked herring, lacking in salt and seasoning, yes, it may make you ill. Due to their very delicacy, they can soon go off. But don’t refuse them on this account: the same’s true of other quality foods.

Take milk, provided by Mother Nature to all of us at birth: it’s the best of foods (Galen, Oribasius, Aëtius, Actuarius, Avicenna), but it soon goes off, as Avicenna admits. What diseases might come from bad milk – or from it curdling in a sick stomach? Hippocrates, Galen and Theophilus Protospatharius, they all prescribe milk for headaches, fevers and rumbling stomachs, but Paul of Aegina says it can bring on headaches, inflame intestines and lead to kidney stones.

Oribasius argues that it curdles in cold stomachs, vaporises in a warm ones and is therefore bad for the fever. It can damage the kidneys if you’re prone to kidney stones, he says, and can cause obstructions in the liver. For Actuarius, on the other hand, it’s bad for congestion and causes constipation in those whose stomachs curdle it into cheese. With curdled milk, according to Avicenna, the symptoms can be the same as those you get with poison: chills, a weak pulse and breathing difficulties, nausea, giddiness, fainting and, potentially fatally, jaundice. You might like to compare his thinking on sour milk with that of Aëtius, Actuarius and al-Razi.

Take eggs, especially the chicken’s: they’re recommended by doctors (see Galen, Aëtius, Oribasius, Paul of Aegina). There’s nothing like them for feeding invalids: they’re not too strong, but they’re nutritious. Pliny says this. Hippocrates says they have a strengthening power, because they act like milk, nourishing the chick and generating the living creature. Avicenna says they strengthen the heart, arguing they’re better than anything else at breaking things down, reducing blockages and purifying the blood. Eggs are transformed quickly into blood and leave little by way of residue. They promote circulation, the blood running smooth and clear and directly to the heart.

Eggs kept overlong, however, are disgusting: they rot on the inside. The freshest of eggs, badly prepared in the saucepan or fried, are rejected by these very same learned men, who blame them for biliousness. They spoil easily and are suspected in malaria and other conditions. It’s from this we get the popular belief that new eggs cause fever. Most foods can get blamed for diseases, but eggs have a reputation here.

For Pliny, only oysters restore the stomach. Celsus counts them among the treatments for a bad stomach. The tenderness of the flesh means they’re easily digested – or purged as Galen has it, according to Paul of Aegina. He has both Galen and Oribasius arguing for raw oysters in the nourishment of the weak.

Celsus, however, sees the same oysters easily spoiled in the stomach. Easily digested is easily spoiled, their delicacy overwhelmed, as Athenaeus suggests, by the stomach’s heat and bile. For this reason, Galen and Oribasius suggest shellfish for sensitive stomachs: the flesh is harder and more difficult to digest, but therefore less easily spoiled by the bad humours of the liver or the stomach lining. Avicenna suggests hard-skinned food for weak stomachs: calves’ feet, pigs’ feet, goats’ feet, rice, etc. For fiery stomachs, Athenaeus recommends neck meat or the sinewy meat from around the horn. Soft-fleshed food, he says, is better for those of a weaker disposition.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus (portrait)
Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Greek philosopher, C2nd

In the same way, herring, though not harmful, should considered easily spoiled in dry or bilious stomachs. It is, sadly, in these circumstances, it can bring on fever. Sea fish from rocky habitats and lamprey caught from the shore – both of these go off easily. Both Athenaeus and Celius quote Diphilus of Sifnos on how small fish, even when not inherently slimy, will go off easily. In On the Virtues of Simple Medicine, Constantine the African, monk and physician at Monte Cassino, writes, Over moist or easily digested foods go off easily in the stomach.

Perhaps this lies at the heart of Dr Grakius’ sufferings, after eating that herring. As Valerius Maximus observes, Innocent bystanders are accused, simply because they’re there when someone dies. Our herring, in a stomach already sick, bilious and prone to flux, becomes rotten. Diarrhoea is a common outcome in such circumstances.

I would never counsel such delicate food as herring on a fiery or bilious stomach. It’s absorbed and going off in next to no time. Avicenna argues against such foods after hard physical exercise. They will putrefy. But as the popular saying goes, There’s nowt off in a fresh herring. The common people deal with the risks generated in own hungry stomachs by eating herring with plenty of black rye bread: it slows down the digestive process.

Roast or boiled, herring goes down easily. Light on the stomach, no problem to digest, it travels rapidly through the bowels. It’s delicious and it’s good for you – with or without bread – provided you are healthy and have no adverse reactions to fish. It’s strongly recommended where lighter diets are required and can be safely given to the inactive, old, mentally ill, sick and convalescent. Galen suggests fish in all such cases as well as for the generality. Oribasius agrees and Symeon Sethes confirms the matter: Such fish are good for the unexercised, the feeble and convalescent. Fish is demonstrably beneficial in such cases.

Oribasius adds, that soft food, breaking down easily, is good for you because of the quality of juice it encourages. He recommends delicate, but firm-fleshed fish, such as grouper or turbot. For fevers, Galen suggests rock fish, deep-sea cod, sole, skate, pike or mullet; for epilepsy, rock fish and fish of the open seas; for pleurisy, a barley water made with rock fish or cod.

Plutarch is in agreement: The fruits of the sea, quite apart from the pleasure they bring, are least likely to do harm; they’re full of flesh, don’t weigh upon the stomach, are easily digested and passed. Zeno, Hercules, Crato, they all stand as witnesses: due to its lightness, above all else let fish be given to the sick. When my own daughter was just ten years old and seriously ill with a contagious winter fever, I allowed her a large herring (those deep sea ones are the best) boiled and served with a little vinegar. As Celsus says, Soft foods for soft heads, moderate foods for the moderately healthy, the strongest foods for the strongest constitutions. Galen, Oribasius and others agree.

Concerning herring preserved with salt

Gentle Mother Nature! Could she have a grudge against us, providing the noblest of fishes in shoals beyond computation, but with a flesh so delicate it goes off at the drop of a hat? Ah! If it weren’t for salt!

Salt holds our herring’s soft and juicy flesh together. It grants resilience, enabling trade with distant lands; providing meals the whole year round. Pliny quotes Homer, the fountain of genius, It is in Salt’s nature to bind bodies, drying and holding, protecting the dead from decomposition, to endure the centuries. He quotes him again, from The Iliad: He sprinkled him with the divine salt.

As Plutarch explains, this preserves the body. Homer’s thoughts are often referred to, as amplified in Eustathius’ commentary:

In myth, the salt Achilles inherited was a gift from Nereus at his father’s marriage. If he sprinkled it on food, it would make it so attractive even the grief-stricken were persuaded to eat. Look also in The Odyssey at Helen’s potion, which she mixed into the bowl of wine and made all who drank it happy. Nereus’ salt had a divine power over all who ate it, but there are those who describe common salt as divine, either because it’s placed on the table as a symbol of friendship and goodwill, or because a sprinkling of salt makes most things last longer.

From this authority, we may say that offering guests salt, as a sign of mutual goodwill, is longstanding. Just as the sun’s heat solidifies it out of different tides and currents, so should the minds of guests find agreement, coming together in convivial conversation. It is from this we get Plutarch’s proverb, Salt and cumin are intimate friends.

Salt is brought to the table as an invitation to eat, as if to say, Without salt, food brings no pleasure. This act delights the diners’ minds, as it does all pleasantly disposed members of society, because without pleasure there’s no joy in our dealings with each other. I believe Our Saviour had this in mind, when he told his disciples to carry salt, that is, to be exact in what they say and do. The sower soweth the word, Mark 4, v 14. And in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Chapter 4, v 4, he says, ‘Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt. In other words, he instructs us to speak handsomely, accurately, precisely and seriously, fitting our words to the subject and the moment.

Salt, yes, but not salty…as Cicero argues. Bad language and off-colour jokes are unworthy. I’m with Plutarch: too many drinking parties have foundered on rude or demeaning jokes and the angry responses they elicit. Where there’s no harm, jokes are a delight. They light up a feast, the perfect accompaniment to pleasure and friendship. As Persius says, After the guests come in, let them make their jokes about matters of the stomach, the friendly, jesting Macrobius calling these, the bites of a toothless beast.

Once, the salt on the table was revered. That fine scholar Adrien Turnèbe thought this came from the Greek sense of its sacred quality. The poet Lycophron describes salt as pure, that is, of the gods (as Eustathius explained). Arnobius of Sicca also asks, Do you not make tables sacred in placing salt upon them, along with the images of the gods? Festus notes that, the Vestal Virgins used brine in their sacrifices – salt, pounded and dried and then dissolved in water. And, as is said in both Leviticus 2, v 13 and Mark 9, v 49, Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. It is from roots such as these that we find Pliny’s thoughts on spelt and salt and the lines in Virgil’s Aeneid:

The heroes turned their gaze towards the rising sun,
sprinkled the sacrificial beasts with salt and meal,
marked their foreheads with a knife
and poured libations from cups on to the altars.

Herring is preserved in salt throughout the Baltic, that greatest part of the Cimbric Chersonese, Jutlandand in Scandinavia. The number of herrings caught there once beggared belief. Saxo Grammaticus writes in the preface to his history of the Danes, There are so many fish in the Sound that the ships can hardly use their rudders and one can catch them with the hand alone, without the use of any instrument.

Johannes Isaac Pontanus, describes the same phenomenon, calling Falsterbo an exceptional place for fishing. The buildings, put up there by the Hanseatic cities, still stand, although many are in need of a little repair – despite Lübeck’s order last year that this should be done and that a prefect be sent every year to keep things in good order.

People say the departure of the herring shoals was God’s punishment. Only a few there earn their living from fishing, now – although several thousand were employed in times gone by. According to Johannes Russus’ Annals of Lübeck from 1342, the people of Lübeck and other Hanseatic cities went in their droves to fish there, the ordinances granting them the right to pursue the fish trade throughout Scandinavia.

Traces of the herring trade can still be seen in other Hanseatic cities, but it started off, here in Lübeck, at the beginning of the Republic, with a gathering of merchants called the Noble Company of Travellers. That same organisation continues today under the name, The Guild of Scania Merchant Adventurers. In their hall, there is a painting of herrings being salted. Still visible in the plasterwork, is the Sign of the Three Herrings, which they used in the sealing of correspondence and when summoning the membership. Few are still involved in the herring trade, as the herrings no longer come there so much.

These days, the herring is found in the open waters of the German Ocean, towards the coast of Britain, where salt herring production is so much worse than that of the Dutch. According to the work on fish by Ulisse Aldrovandi and Conrad Gessner, herring supply in Heligoland is so high, they commit the crime of processing it into fertilizer, whereas, as stated in the Annals of that time, numbers had seriously declined on the Scania shore: God’s judgement on its licentious Herring Fair.

Johannes Isaac Pontanus says that the herring went from Scania to Norway. The Dutch jurist Theodorus Graswinckel says the same in his argument for the freedom of the seas, which he made against William Welwod’s Sea Laws of Scotland. In his Britannia, the erudite and reliable historian William Camden says that in former times these herring shoals swarmed around Norway. If we’re honest, none of Nature’s bounties are ours by right. God disposes according to His plan, which is as obscure to us as it is infinitely wise.

Camden, portrait
William Camden (1551 to 1623) author of Britannia

Norwegian herring salting is better than that of the British. They produce something comparable to the Dutch barrels. The largest herrings come from Bergen. They are even larger, I think, than the ones from the coast of Scotland: huge. firm-fleshed and popular with the common folk, who make use of every part of them.

Our own herrings, along with all from the Southern Baltic, aren’t suitable for salting. Dr Nicolaes Tulp says it is the same with the inshore herrings caught at Enkhuizen – they’re good eaten fresh, but lack flesh and become stringy and dry when salted. The herrings from the seas around Great Britain, salted by the Hollanders and the Zeelanders: these are the best. The Dutch fishermen stay there throughout the summer and autumn, feeding the gulls which following the fleet and all of Europe besides. First, of course, as Selden writes in Mare Clausum, they have to acquire a licence at Scarborough. Here in Lübeck, we still call these Flanders herring, because, in the days before Dutch independence, the jurisdiction and reputation of the salt herring trade lay with the Holy Roman Empire and the County of Flanders. Now both lie with the Dutch authorities and the fishermen of Holland and Zeeland. The world moves on and only the name remains.

By public decree, the Hollanders and Zeelanders may not plunder the herring shoals until St John’s Day – 24th June by the new, Julian Calendar – by which time the fish have become sufficiently mature. The Dutch fishermen catch, gut and salt the herring at sea, bringing them back to their home markets laden to the gunnels.

Dr Nicolaes Tulp writes to say that, off the Shetlands, herring is caught between 1st March and 24th June, not for human consumption, but to use as bait for the larger cod or cabillaud. He also remembers that:

Towards the end of this period, but still before the designated date, when it is a little more mature and therefore better, it is caught and sold as Gros Haring. When the sun rises on that day dedicated to St John’s Day, great effort is made to catch the mature virgin herring known as Maatjes Haring. This goes back to 1163, when catching such fish began around our own Zeeland. Scientific experiment proved that fish which had clearly migrated, were smaller and more delicate than they were, ten days later, on St John’s Day, as reckoned by the Gregorian Calendar. Herring matures very quickly. As the roe develops, the fish swell and become firmer-fleshed, but it does not enjoy this praiseworthy state for long. In September, after depositing their eggs on the sands of Dogger Bank, they deteriorate in quality, becoming thin, their market value dropping – although the fishermen continue to catch them up until 1st December or St Andrew’s Day.

The Dutch take the most care in the curing, gutting the herring and adding sufficient salt, both tossing them in it and carefully turning them so that it can penetrate deeper in to the flesh. By this thorough salting, the fish visibly dry, making them more compact for barrelling. Salting the herring at its freshest prevents the harmful effects of the air. It’s the opposite approach to that of housewives, who lay the herring aside for a few hours before salting, thinking it softens the flesh, but by the time she thinks it’s tender enough, it’s on the edge of going off.

If a herring goes red when brined, it means that it has been salted too late or that the salt was applied without due care: it’s already beginning to decay, the fibres of the flesh breaking down. Sophisticated palates spurn such herrings.

According to Schoock, every Dutch port has inspectors, who check the correct procedures are being followed. Having been salted at sea, the herring is brought back to the home port, where it’s cleaned and re-salted and called Herpatten. This is done in publicly accessible places. The herring is checked and coopers take a note of the poor barrels, enabling separation according to quality, the Patten graded by the inspectors as Onsunberen, Kuitssaten, Wansouten or Melehtieten herring. This is how they come to us in Lübeck.

The salted herring isn’t sold for at least ten days, allowing the brine fully to alter it from its raw condition. No one is allowed to offer it for sale until this time has elapsed. Only after the ten days, when the colour has changed and that ripeness of flavour we love so much has been achieved, is it considered fit for consumption. This is said by both Tulp and Schoock.

The first of the new season, those which I’ve already said are known as Maatjes haring, are highly prized. Our dear friend Taubman refers to their fine flavour in his commentary on Plautus’ Captivi. The best fetch three or four times the price of fulls or spents. Who among the healthy would refuse them? Those fortunate enough to get their fill send them far and wide as presents to friends, all the more valued if they arrive before the rest of the season’s catch comes in. The tables of the great will not refuse such celebrated salt fish. If I may borrow a line from Ausonius’ letter on shellfish, These are admired even on the tables of Caesar!

Dr Tulp describes how, in some places the brined herring is adorned with green garlands and brought to the crossroads where it is displayed and ceremonially eaten.

In Lübeck, the Guild of Scania Merchant Adventurers holds its Founders’ Day Banquet in mid-March, around the time of the ancient feast of Bacchanalia. All of the city’s gentlemen are invited and served herring of the first salting. It is taken from the barrel two days earlier, desalinated and marinated in wine, the saltiness washed away so it can absorb the new flavours. The majority of guests are surprised to see such common food brought in amongst the other fine dishes, especially as, by this time of the year, having spent so long in the brine, it has lost much of its delicacy.

Drawing of Scania Merchants' Hall
The Hall of the Scania Merchants, Lübeck

Plutarch says Rome’s Censors served goose first at a feast. Even though, as Petronius points out in Satyricon, it would have seemed a luxury to the common people, it was a sign of thrift. Pliny, of course, celebrates the vigilance of geese, which saved the Capitol when the dogs had betrayed it with their silence.

There is sound reason behind the College’s old custom, however. Those about to drink should first eat something familiar: it may not be fancy, but it enables them to better tolerate the alcohol, as the great Aristotle himself says. However good the food, he suggests, it’s less easy to digest that with which you are not accustomed. Daphnus, furthermore, quoting Heraclitus of Tarentum in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae, declares that food we only eat occasionally can be spoiled by wine and make you ill.

Either way, sharp and salty appetisers should always be served before the main meal. As Plutarch argues, These encourage us to seek out other dishes, enabling us to eat them with greater attack. Further on, he suggests, Salty things moderate the consumption of both food and drink. Sharp, bitingly salty foods, whilst they may irritate the stomach, nevertheless encourage the bowels and are evacuated along with the wine. This lies behind Athenaeus’ advising such foods for those about to drink. Foods which bind should not be given, he says. They stop up the bowels and delay the passage of wine, which, in turn, leads to hangovers.

Perhaps, the most important reason, however, is that, here in our blameless city of Lübeck, our ancestors, who were simple men unfamiliar with luxury, wanted to celebrate their founding trade with the least expense and the greatest ease and with food which encouraged their guests to drink. This example of frugality, sustained throughout the years, has been handed down to their descendants today.

Unless I have been blinded by my shining love for this city, it seems to me that it is more constant, faithful, pious, charitable and richer in virtue than any of its neighbours, because luxury came only late; because it has accustomed itself to abstemious thrift for so long. As that great judge of morality Livy says in his Preface to the History of Rome, whilst luxuries were rare, so was greed. And as, quoted everywhere, Julius Caesar Scaliger says of Lübeck:

At the edges of the world, who could think
Sweet Justice fashioned laws so strong,
Such works of art, such works of ink,
Where pure unconquered hearts belong?
See Justice ascend in astonishment:
She thinks of Heaven and is content.

A freshly salted herring slips down easily, even if it takes a little longer to pass than a boiled one. It is good for you. It can be eaten raw, in all its natural fishy juiciness, because the salt softens and ‘cooks’ the flesh. Salt, being of the element Fire, can aid to digestion, as Pliny confirms. It is kind to the stomach, eases discomfort, cleanses the system and rouses sluggish bowels. It often appears restorative, as the appetites of the sick are reawakened and find new strength.

Boudewijn Ronsse also observes this. It’s why salt is commonly known as The Healer. The Dutch are not without reason when they say, As the sun disperses the clouds, so herring chases away disease. In his Medical Observations, Dr Tulp remarks that doctors have fewer patients when herrings are in season. In the same book he tells the remarkable story of a pregnant woman, who craved salted herring so much, she ate a total of 1,400 before coming to term and had no stomach problems at all. She’d have eaten even more, but began to worry about the baby.

But back to my praise of the herring… Food needs salt to whet the appetite – and salt is suitable for all foods. This special property amongst seasonings was understood by Pliny in his Natural History. In his discussion of drinking Plutarch calls salt the food of foods and its sweetener, as it is vital in making things palatable. Pliny judges it the most outstanding of seasonings – Civilized life is impossible without salt—it is so essential it also gives its name to the most powerful of mental pleasures: wit, merriment and relaxation are all referred to as salt, salty or salting. Plutarch says the same.

Let’s give thanks to salt for its transformational attractions! As Pliny notes, in the vast consumption of the Romans, huge quantities of salt were used in different ways. They ate their oysters raw, without garlic, but with a little salt and pepper: a glutton’s favourite, charming all palates with their sweetness – in the words of Ausonius, So delicate, that juice: are its waters mixed with a hint of salt? And salt herring is eaten almost raw, without fancy seasoning, just the skin removed, revealing the silvery flesh beneath. No spiced or herbal distractions, just that salty allure and its natural sweetness, unmatched by any other fish. On the subject of fancy sauces, Xenophon famously notes, they are attractive only to decadent minds, softened by luxury: genuine hunger does not stand in need of artifice. Athenaeus echoes his thoughts.

Some prefer onions with salt herring, to stimulate the taste buds. Sometimes they soak the onions in water first to reduce the sharpness. In Upper Germany salt herring is preferred in a sauce of oil and pepper. Caspar Hoffman, the most distinguished doctor of our times, praises this recipe. Others sprinkle a little vinegar on top, to strengthen the stomach, reducing the onion’s sharpness without lessening its pleasures.

Those who wish may finely chop their herring, after careful filleting, serving it with oil and Cretan oregano – pot or hop marjoram, which our countrymen call Spanish hops. They sprinkle a little vinegar at the last moment. This is an elegant way of serving herring and cunning chefs have been known to use it as a way of freshening up anchovies on the edge of going off. This seasoning was well known to the ancients and has been passed down to our own times. As the Athenaeus quote goes, Even mummified flesh loves oregano. Erasmus on proverbs has much more on this.

Some fillet salt herring and grind the flesh with onion and apple and sprinkled with oil and vinegar. Ulisse Aldrovandi thinks there is no better way of serving fish and I’m with him on this, surprised such an easy, healthy and delicious dish is practically ignored in Germany – after all, we have no shortage of freshly pickled fish. I combine carefully filleted and finely chopped salt herring with a slightly larger quantity of chopped apple. I add a little bit of onion at the last moment – the timing is key – along with a small amount of oil and vinegar. This is a dish to revive weak or lazy appetites. Sharpness is softened in the combination, taking away any potential harmful effects. Some prefer adding a pepper salad to stimulate the palate and to encourage the desire to drink, but this is putting taste above health.

With salted herrings less may actually be fully consumed, because they are less easily digested than fresh ones, the flesh being made firmer by the brine, as Galen notes. A man may eat fresh herring and add a few grains of salt to bring out that desirably savoury quality, but too much of salt’s sharpness, however pleasant in principle, may inflame the stomach and liver, generating evil humours. Diphilus Siphonius, quoted by Athenaeus, suggests, Salted meats produce fever.

Herrings from the season’s first salting are as full of taste as they are of delight. There is a subtle richness in their soft-fleshed delicacy. Nothing compares to the sweetness of a herring salted on the cusp of maturity. The adults, however, recover flavour after the decay caused by spring spawning: feeding revives them and their sexual organs are refilled, so they begin to swell again. As Aristotle says, Fish are at their best when about to spawn.

Summer approaches and the herring’s flesh becomes firmer, as, buffeted by the waves, the fish makes its journey onwards. Less tasty raw, at this time, they are more often boiled and roasted. Their much-praised subtleties of flavour almost disappear, that richness reduced by their continuing migration. Galen notes, probably on the basis of eating the fish of estuaries and bays, that those from clear waters have little or no richness. The sweet and dewy richness that permeates the flesh of herring swollen with spawn is used up in procreation, that much sought after taste flowing out along with the eggs and milt. Aristotle comments on the level of sexual activity in some fish, particularly the Maena. As spents, even Scottish and Norwegian herring, notwithstanding their wonderful size, taste foul.

Our fellow countrymen call herring caught in the summer brandhering and like them a lot. In the autumn, there are different opinions on salting them and a divergence from the celebrated Dutch method, but they’re commonly referred to as either good or half good, no pleasure being taken in the spents, which are even despised by the peasants and the lower classes. All of them are generally soaked before boiling or roasting, to get rid of the saltiness – but that’s the same for all salted foods, Athenaeus recommending that this should be done until the water runs c;lear and the smell has gone. Plautus writes wittily on soaking and prostitutes in Poenulus:

Sister, please consider: we are thought of in the same way as salt fish. There’s no relishing of the prospect, no sweetness, unless it’s given a good long soaking, several even. It smells and is so salty you’re loth to taste it: just like us. Women of our class lack taste and elegance, unless someone’s providing the dressing and is prepared to spend the money.

According to Plutarch, Chrysippus thought salt fish became sweeter when soaked in seawater: Cooked in seawater, Salt fish becomes sweeter. Dalechampius says the same in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. Is this just Nature’s way, like associating with like? Is it that the seawater enters the salty flesh, attracting salt to it, which then dissolves into the liquid? Or does the heat of the boiled seawater enable it to penetrate further and dissolve the fish’s saltiness more effectively?

Addressing the question of whether and why salt might be drawn out more quickly by salt water than fresh, we need to look at the properties of what is being dissolved and separated through the application of heat and water. That which is clear cannot be clarified. It is harder to clarify where it has been easy to dissolve. That which is forced into solution is more easily separated. The complex cannot transition easily in the process of clarification, whereas simple things, composed of smaller elements, can. Fresh water is thin, salt water thicker: the one penetrates easily because of its thin nature, but clarifies with difficulty, the other penetrates less easily because of the size of its elements, but may clarify more effectively. We can take our pick as to which one achieves purification more quickly.

Herring preserved in brine is available to eat, raw, roast or boiled, all year round. Those from the early part of the year are not of the best quality, as they haven’t yet recovered their remarkable virtue. Feeding and exercise, however, make for better eating, as Aëtius says. A little seasoning, as Cicero argues, improves our address to hunger – and, given the pleasure of eating salted herrings, who can doubt their nutritional value? According to Hippocrates, enjoyable food and drink, even if not fresh, is preferable to the freshest that isn’t: a little of what you fancy is better for your health and happiness (Avicenna and al-Razi). In the opinions of Galen and of Theophilus Protospatharius (in his commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms), the stomach’s rejection of unwelcome foods can lead to sickness, wind or an unsettled stomach. In order to obey dietary laws it is important to want to do so. Polybus thinks all citizens able to manage their own their own affairs should address themselves to their own diets according to Galen’s thinking. Servants, of course, have to eat what they’re given – anyone living in dependency lacks the freedom to think of their health in this way.

Even if showing no sign of fermentation, by the new year, herring salted the previous summer is not going to win many prizes. Preserved in brine, it eventually begin to take on the qualities of all things salty. According to Avicenna, all fish are cold and wet, but through salting they become hot and dry: the longer they have been salted, the hotter and the drier. Based on this understanding, Celsus places all salted flesh amongst the foods with harmful juice. Oribasius says sea fish kept in salt are a pleasure to eat, but have harmful juices and, alien to the stomach, soften and disturb the bowel. On the other hand, Athenaeus, quoting Diphilus, says, whether originally from the sea, rivers or lakes, salt fish gives little nourishment and only a little juice, but they are hot and therefore good for the stomach, moving the bowels and arousing the appetite.

I shall say nothing on fish that has turned yellow. Its moistness has become putrid; the brine begins to dissolve any desirable qualities. Great care can be taken preserving herring in brine and Vincent of Beauvais thinks, salt herring is fit for human consumption longer than other fish. I think, nevertheless, the older ones should be avoided, as they may be rotten inside. There are those, of course, perhaps from some inner flaw of the stomach, who like rotten food. I am with Plautus, however, A fish is no good unless it is fresh.

Dr Georgius Horstius, of blessed memory, thought oysters should be marinaded in milk, whilst Herring milt should be soaked in brine, cooked in wine, sprinkled with pepper, ginger and mace, adding a little sugar and butter. He didn’t think they approached the delicacy of oysters, but, if oysters could not be found, the winter-enlarged contents of the male herring’s genital tubes, taken before they have been expended in love’s labours, should be cut up, put in boiling wine and butter and seasoned like the oyster. Cooked in this way, on an open fire, he thought it considerably better than eating an oyster’s shell – if not as enjoyable as the oyster, itself.

Salt herring boiled in brine is easy on the stomach, its saltiness lost equally well in fresh water. It is eaten with a sprinkling of plain vinegar and, for those who wish, a small amount of chopped onion. Others prefer a mustard sauce to strengthen the stomach against any looseness or troublesome cramps caused by the richness of the flesh. In writing of salted purple fish and others from the River Nile and its marshes, Oribasius quotes Xenocrates ordering a coating of mustard for oily fish, because if eating a lot, it allows the fish to swim to the top of the stomach. Finely chopped apple is a very tasty addition to boiled herring, cooled and sprinkled with vinegar.

The skin and flesh become drier with roast herring, whether sun-dried or smoked over a little sawdust. It becomes harder to digest than when boiled, as I have said above on the subject of fresh herrings. The repeated belching it can generate confirms this. People can become sick, eating freshly smoked herring. The fish holds its original virtue, but can’t be recommended indiscriminately to the infirm, or to those with headaches. Serving it hot enhances the taste and along with other strong foods it can slip down easily when you’re drinking – especially if your stomach is still suffering with a hangover from the previous day. Ausonius says the same of pike every day he finds himself, hot from drinking scented steaming toasts.

You have to be careful that herring is not cooked too slowly, allowing its oils to drip too much through the delicacy of its skin, on to the coals beneath, the flesh becoming dry and tasteless. When cooked on a fiercer heat the skin contracts more quickly, hardening it and better preserving its natural goodness. To ensure this, they put plenty of charcoal under the griddle, keeping it hot by continuous fanning, so it blazes up. The fish doesn’t need much cooking, as it’s been salted and smoked for several days – this, of course, is not the method for roasting fresh herring or any other fresh fish. Athenaeus quotes the common saying, Salted food is baked as soon as it is shown the fire. Hippocrates says, The fattest and greasiest foods are cooked most quickly. Oribasius quotes Rufus of Ephesus in his suggestion that fatty flesh should be roasted over a lively fire, dry flesh over a slow one.

Roast herring, hot from the fire, should be eaten with mustard to ensure slower digestion. It helps in the prevention of wind. Athenaeus thinks roasts are better hot and Antacaeus advocates salted, oily flesh being served piping hot. Many find that wine complements roast herring, softening its effects, like cooking food in beer, although, when the sharpness of the wine-dissolved salt gets into the liver, it can cause inflammation.

Concerning smoked herring

Let us not forget smoked herring, which regularly provides people with meals throughout the year. It is marinated in brine for several hours, the frugal favouring the improved preservative qualities this brings. When the eyes have changed colour herrings are hung in sheds, where they are hardened by smoke within a few days and will then keep for a whole year. As with other smoked fish, they’re tastier in the early months, however, and are popular with our citizens in the summer when other fish are adversely affected by the heat or through having spawned. At other times they are food for the poor.

They’re cooked in vinegar and butter – some also season them with mustard and butter, which strengthens the stomach and remedies any loss of flavour. This can be necessary because shotten herrings, lacking plumpness after spawning, are often used for smoking. The fatter ones are prized and, like the English sprat, are eaten uncooked, on their own or with vinegar.

The younger ones are better and are talked of in the same breath as salmon. The older the herring, the worse the taste, the more they should be avoided – unless, of course, we’re talking of people so hungry they’ll eat anything. As that commentator on Actuarius suggests, anything moist or delicate in them reeks of decay and after a day’s smoking the flesh becomes thin, dry and almost woody. The herring smoked in England is considered the best and is praised by Pontanus. We call it English buckling. Inshore herrings, caught and smoked near Enkhuizen, called Strand Botten or Enkhuise Botten by the Dutch, are unsuitable for salting.

Salt fish sellers place white herring with their cheaper wares and when they’re getting too old, they marinate and smoke them to extend their market life. The ones from Bergen in Norway are sold in large quantities as food for the lower classes and offer almost no pleasure at all. As said, the salting removes all virtue from the older herrings. They’re without question bad for digestion and worse as nutrition.

In order to produce the best and most pleasurable smoked herring one should choose the larger, livelier specimens caught in the late winter. They should be gutted and marinated in brine or salted for several hours, then covered and smoked for a few days. Lightly salted and smoked in this way, they’re split down the middle, basted with butter and gently griddled. The delicacy of taste compares with the finest salmon. To clarify, it tastes like salmon. I’m not proposing it as a rival to trout.

Fresh herring given in tithes is often brined and smoked for in this way for 24 hours over oak chips. Drenched in butter, they’re dined upon all winter and into early spring, almost indistinguishable from salmon. I remember, at Stralsund, particularly enjoying some like this from Schleswig – and the discriminating diners of Lübeck have them prepared in this way. They must be gutted before salting lest bile from the gall bladder, just next to the stomach, or indeed any waste in the stomach itself, should taint the flesh with bitterness. It is remarkable how often such a fundamental procedure can be neglected in the carelessness of some smokers.

Smoked in this way, herring is good, nutritious and, as said, on a level with smoked salmon for its richness of flesh. It needs to ripen fully in the brine and in the heat of the fire, all fishy moisture driven out, the pungency of the smoke permeating throughout: the combination of salt and wood smoke adds a very particular tenderness, giving it a new and not unpleasant flavour.

Artisanal smoking can add to the flavour of some kinds of grape. As Pliny notes, we have Tiberius Caesar’s authority for the quality it brings to wines from the burning heat of Africa. Pliny also comments on the smoky flavour of the wines from Narbonne. Columella advises that, if people want to age their wines, Storage is best above wherever the most smoke rises, the wine maturing more quickly as this enhances certain directions of flavour. Aristotle states, Arcadian wine is usually smoke-dried in the skin, so that it is concentrated when decanted. Aristotle, who, as Galen points out, also wrote on the function of breathing, further notes that in some regions full wine skins are hung above the fire, the skins hardening, as if salted, as the water evaporates.

The ancients also prized gammons, as we know from Aristophanes’ Wealth. In Athenaeus’ Feast Wisdom, Ameipsias is quoted saying they were served at the feasts of the gods. According to Varro, French hams were highly rated. Cerretanus writing on Cantabria says their hams are the best, as do both Martial and Athenaeus. Our own merchants, however, send large numbers of hams to Spain, almost every year. Westphalian and Brunswick hams are celebrated for their wonderful moistness and their special smoky cure. I’m talking about fresh hams, here. As Martial says:

Hurry! There is a new ham! Don’t worry, friends,
I wouldn’t be seen dead with an old ham.

Smoked herrings are harder to digest than boiled or roast fresh ones – the older, the harder. The delicate nostrils of some find the smell of roast herring offensive, but such people will react the same way to any fish. The fat in fish is less solid than in other creatures, dripping more quickly on to the coals beneath. But if the smell does offend, just think: the fish is all the better for it being removed. Its fat liquefied, the fish absorbs the charred flavours of its skin and exudes its smoky aroma.

Great care has to be taken with the ventilation of the fire, so they aren’t spoiled by too much heat as the smoking is pressed forward to prevent the herrings going off: this can happen if the smoking is too slow or interrupted. Care also has to be taken not to use rotten wood, as it can impair the smell of the fish and impart a taste of decay. Smoking mustn’t be drawn out, or the herrings harden as their natural juices evaporate. They darken, becoming unpleasant both to smell or eat. Their dewy moistness may briefly reappear when smoked longer. As already noted, Columella talks of wine maturing more quickly in this way: They achieve an early maturity through smoking.

Wood needs to be chosen carefully on the basis of its soot-producing qualities. According to Aëtius oak sawdust is thought to be best: the thinner the shavings the easier it is for the flame to catch. He also says that pine is unsuitable, because of the resinous flavour it gives to smoked foods. If pine is the only wood available, it isn’t easy to smoke hams or other salt foods properly. Theophrastus writes on the subject both in his Historia Plantarum and his work on Fire and says that because of its oiliness, pine smoke has less pungency and doesn’t preserve sharp-flavoured or earthy foodstuffs. Galen considers that, because its own smoke mixes the elements of Earth and Water, it gives the food an earthy smell.

Theophrastus, again, says one should avoid green wood, knotted wood, wood that has been shaken or is still damp: none of these are good for smoking. On the other hand, smokers sometimes sprinkle water where the wood flares up, because the flames burn the wood too quickly and produce less smoke. To produce the smoke, the heat has to be tempered when too strong, although doing this too often can spoil the herring, which withers, flakes and loses its flavour.

Julius Caesar Scaliger notes that the ancients called smoked fish Chalcides for their bronze colour – works of bronze, iron or other metals being called Chalcidica, because they were first made in Chalcis in that part of Greece called Euboea. There is more on this in Casaubon’s Commentary on Athenaeus. Personally, I think in Athenaeus’ Feast Wisdom the fish are called Chalcides because of their scales, which glisten like polished iron. As the poet says:

…before it fades
It glistens so, its shining face
Dares match the glory of silver.

According to Scaliger, the French refer to smoked fish as Sorez or Saur (from the Gothic), due to its blackness. In Lower Saxony, what we call Buckling is called saur. The learned Martinius says Buckling (from Bock) is so called for its goatish smell. The Dutch call it Bueckling or Beuckling, perhaps in grateful memory of Willem Beuckel, the first Dutchman to have thought of barrel-steeping. I have my doubts on this, however, because Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn notes an older Dutch custom of smoking herring rather than preserving them.

Willem Beuckel
Willem Beuckel(s), lithograph copy of a stained glass church window in Biervliet by Hilmar Johannes Backer, 1821

Willem Beuckel, also known as Beuckeld is said to have been the inventor of the Dutch method of preserving and barreling. He was a famous fisherman who died in 1347 at Biervliet. Even now, posterity cherishes his memory on account of his wonderful discovery. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V placed such value on Beuckel’s discovery that, together with his sister, Maria, Queen of Hungary, he visited the grave in Biervliet to pay his respects. According to Johannes Isaac Pontanus, Ludovico Guicciardini, Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, Pierre Berthius, Gerhard the Merchant, Schoock and others, he was celebrating not just the memory of Beuckel the man, but the benefit he brought to all mankind.

I will say nothing against him, except that fish salting goes back many centuries and salting herring predates Beuckel. The people of Lübeck and the merchants of other Vandal cities were fishing off Scania and salting the herring for quite some years: when Providence then bestowed this gift of nature upon the Dutch, I believe Beuckel was the first to teach them this method of preserving the catch. His particular invention was in storage improvement and enabling their export in jars.

For this benefit alone, however, the man deserves his happy place in posterity. He will not be any the less distinguished among the generations to come, particularly when writers come to praise his learning and his virtues. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam claimed kinship, that is to the Boekeldii. And lest we forget, that shining star and consul to our state, Martin Boekeliusi is an honourable member of that much-praised family, descending on his mother’s side. My friendship with him forbids me offering it any more praise, nor is this the place to do so.

On the medicinal and other uses of the herring

In order that nothing should be missed in this work of mine, I would like to reiterate the medical value derived from the herring. As Pliny says, Nature, our sacred mother, brings her remedies for mankind from every direction. I’ve already commented on the relief of nausea, stimulation of appetite, purging of the stomach and loosening of bowels. I’ve similarly commented on the salting of herring and the abundant production of juices. Salt, of course, is astringent: it dries. It’s not the salt itself which produces the abundance, but its encouragement of thirst and appetite. In addressing these, the body secures the necessary liquids.

A small piece of linen, dipped in the brine, is useful in treating snake and dog bites, but the flesh itself may be used to good effect. Paul of Aegina says the same of salt tuna and, together with Pliny, reports on the efficacy of salty foods for snake bites. If there’s no access to a cauterising iron or the means to drain the blood, it provides a swift and effective remedy for rabid dog bites.

Cornelius Celsus says salt can cure any animal bite, especially a dog’s. It needs to be lightly pressed in, the hand laid across the bite and tapped with two fingers, the cure completed by binding something salty over the wound. Meanwhile, salt herring, spread across the infected area, cures mange on the chest and is also recommended for ulcers, as, according to Dioscorides, is garum, the fermented fish sauce of the ancients.

Herring brine mixed with myrrh is good for bruises, whilst my own experience suggests it can also be used with chilblains or recent burns. It works for dysentery and for stomach ulcers. Gout in the hips can be treated with an injection by means of a clyster-pipe. Conrad Gessner praises it for the treatment of mouth ulcers, quoting Pliny. Combined with honey and corn, it’s an effective prescription for diarrhoea. It’s believed that the smoke from burning a herring’s head will induce births in the case of late pregnancies.

Gessner’s Nomenclature of Aquatic Animals 1560

Where there’s evidence of a fever brought on by eating too many herrings, it’s commony believed it can be dispelled with the ash of a burned one. According to Pliny, there’s nothing better than the ashes, when everything else has failed. Gessner says the dried heads of cured herrings, scattered on top and under the covers, can get rid of bed bugs. He also believes that urine retention in both men and horses can be addressed by the application of nine silver herrings. All of this will, of course, astonish those who believe only the expensive can be effective, but one should simply look at causes and effects. Pliny himself talks of how the common people may benefit from cheap and easily found cures in nature and of the remedies upon which even the poorest may dine day in and day out.

Alexander of Tralles notes salt herring – or salt food – as a traditional cure for quartan or mild malarial fevers; Aulus Cornelius Celsus sharp foods and cups of salted Greek wine with mustard. Luis Mercado’s The nature and cure of putrid fevers praises salt foods with quartan fever. I am not suggesting the promiscuous use of salt herring for fevers (there are different remedies where nausea and vomiting are involved) but for cases where they come from heavy and cold watery humours. And indeed for those brought on by constipation or congestion of the spleen – as can happen with a cold, wet humour.

According to Alexander of Tralles’ precepts, as far as possible patients in excruciating pain and unable to take food should avoid any salt herring-based drink in advance, so the treatment can be more effective when taken. Afterwards, they should be given as much diluted wine as they want. He’s a bit out of fashion, but due to the current spread of quartan fevers, I’m going to tell one of his stories. Given the nervous distrust the sick can have for salty foods, it may prove useful:

I knew a man suffering from a quartan fever, who was so liberated through this diet, it was like a flood from his bowels. That which he evacuated was so black and abundant, several people became afraid. Whether it was because the fever or the evacuations began to relent, optimism returned.

Writing specifically on salty and hotterer foods, he recommends their use for day to day fevers and for chills to the liver and stomach which involve phlegmy coughs. Those with cold, wet humours will bear any amount of debilitating foods until the moment they become ill.

Alexander’s translator adds:

I myself have tried the use of salty foods on someone experiencing a bout of fever and bringing up phlegm and I agree about the salt fish (that which the Greeks call lakerda). I used garum mixed with the liquid from boiled leeks and he became miraculously stronger.

Personally, I’d recommend salt herring above other salty foods. It can’t be beaten for its virtuous qualities, for its easy digestibility or the sheer pleasure in eating it (see Galen on The Power of Foods).

In cases of chronic fevers, brined herring bound to the soles of the feet is highly effective. It’s also good for drawing out corns. Diluted brine relieves the pain of dental decay – seawater is recommended by Plutarch. Purging phlegm from the stomach, salt herring bound to the throats of cattle with pitch can be used to treat eating disorders. Herring brine applied to the nose, with cattle and sheep purges phlegm. In cases of equine collapse, where a mare can become thin and die within a matter of days, Columella recommends a fish sauce remedy.

Hooks can be baited with herring to catch cod, turbot and other fish. In their Hexamerons, both Ambrose of Milan and Basil the Great, not to mention Aristotle and Columella in their works, recognise the principle of using small fish to catch bigger ones. And with the fishpond in mind, Columella also recommends salt fish sweepings, whether for the fish themselves or the ducks. He notes how flatfish are more easily lured with a salty bait, because, with no teeth, they either have to suck things in or swallow them whole:

And so, with fishponds, it is appropriate to use the makings of fish sauce or over-salted anchovies or rotten sardines or any salt-fish guts. Due to the strong smell, there is no better fish food, because a flatfish will track down its food by scent rather than sight. Constantly lying on its back it does not easily see that which is above, on a level, to the right or left. When salt fish is dangled, it follows the scent and opens its mouth.

A vindication of the herring, its inestimable value and its primacy among fish, together with a eulogy upon this treatise

Due to its outstanding quality, we must believe in the herring as a gift from Heaven, a blessing from on high. As if it’s not enough as an object of wonder in itself, each year, like some perpetual breeding machine, the ocean pours forth its herrings in such incalculable profusion and in so many places! The like of it is granted to no other fish.

Beyond the needs of coastal folk, the herring feeds the whole of Europe. It’s cheap, it’s easy to prepare, it brings its benefits to all. A civilised life in rural communities would be impossible without it. There is not a day in the lives of farmers, artisans or anyone else, that passes by without a herring.

How could Catholics cope – particularly in the hunger pangs of Lent or where they lack their own supplies of fish? I know other salt fish are widely traded, but not in anything like its quantity: not with the economic importance of the herring. How many thousands of families depend on the work it brings? There are those who hunt the sea herds, those who catch and those who salt, those who are employed in all the other aspects of the trade.

Detail from Breughel's Fight Between Carnival and Lent
Detail from Pieter Breughel the Elder’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559) – Lent jousting with two herrings on his paddle

Schoock, in his book on the Dutch States counts more than 20,000 employed in Holland and Zeeland alone. Theodorus Graswinkel, in his argument against Borgo, for The Freedom of the Seas, writes of 2,000 Dutch ships sent out annually to the fishing grounds. And how many salt herring merchants find themselves unable, over and above their personal needs, to make an exact calculation of what they owe in taxes?

These things are reported by the English, by the Dutch and by others: see Camden’s Britannia, Selden’s Mare Clausum, Schoock’s work and Ulysses Androvandi’s Book on Fish. We know the great Anglo Dutch War arose from the question of sovereignty over the seas, the English declaring dominion in their own waters, the Dutch energetically fighting for maritime freedom and the interest of their own people. Seneca is on their side, as also, according to Athenaeus, is Phoenicides: The seas are held in common, the fish belong to whoever buys them.

Referred to by Plutarch in On the Intelligence of Animals, in his Laws Platoprays the young are not drawn to the fisherman’s life, because it provides work without strengthening exercise, without any need to broaden knowledge or enhance agility. I wouldn’t want to take anything from the praise of hunting – celebrated in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Hunting with Dogs, in Plutarch’s Intelligence of Animals, Galen’s Exercise with a Small Ball and Pliny the Younger’s letter on the subject to Oppian – but I would disagree.

In all of these works, hunting is like war: it simultaneously exercises body and mind, bringing pleasure and profit in equal measure. But there are can be contests with sea bass, with conger eels or wrasse. The hunting of fierce animals on land encourages audacity, courage, mental agility in the laying of traps, strength in the speed of the chase and the aptitude for hard work, but there are also lasting benefits to pursuing creatures of the sea. In far-flung locations, on rough and tempestuous seas, the body is strengthened, taught to endure hard work, to bear heat, hunger and thirst, to withstand storms, the cold and other dangers. And it prepares the young for naval warfare.

Let others praise other fish. Each to his own. But behold the virtues of one fresh herring and then note the numbers amongst which it came, so vastly more than those observed of any other fish in the world. Let them praise their other salted fishes: the breams, the mullets, the fish of the Nile, the perch, the carp, the sardines, the tuna, all the tasty parts of them and more, as they are praised by Galen, Oribasius, Athenaeus, Alexander of Tralles! Or let them praise the salt fish of our own times: the cod, the monkfish, the mackerel, the conger and the moray, the turbot, lamprey and anchovy and all those other fish which catch in your throat! None compare with the herring, whether in virtue or abundance.

If I may borrow a phrase from Athenaeus on the bass, the herring is a child of the gods. There are fish which beg for butter and oil, for precious spices and seasonings; for improvement. The herring stands on its own: boiled, roast, salt or pickled, its delicacy requires no ornamentation to persuade the unwilling. So long as it is fresh and not spent by spawning, to quote Plautus:

It has its own juices, its own delights: season it how you will;
Fried or roast, you may serve it as you please.

Even the salmon, unequalled for delicacy, yields before the herring’s majesty: not only does it approach that salmon’s exquisite flavour, it’s better for us. The salmon’s viscosity and over-rich oiliness has always been a cause of concern with doctors. Perhaps I don’t need to bring a price comparison into the equation – here or with other salted fishes. My advice: place your faith in the herring!

And if we add the Baltic herring to the scales, the sprats, pilchards and sardines. They’re all as tasty as any rock-dwelling fish. They’re all close relatives, as I think I’ve shown, and. be it in the vast seas of the North or in the Mediterranean, they’re all caught in such numbers. Preserved and sold by the English and the Dutch they’re often caught together with our herring. Galen himself testifies that they’re good for salting and Oribasius backs him up. They’re all blessed in the same way as the herring. Providence directs them all to our dinner table, even though, as salty appetisers, they all just get called anchovies in Lübeck, Hamburg and many towns far from the sea.

Discussing both the pilchard and the sardine, both Ulisse Aldrovandi and Rondolet consider them to be the same fish, differing only in age and size. In Italy the larger are called sards, the smaller sardines, in the same way we give different names to the salmon in its different stages – or the tuna, which has more stages than can be identified with precision. It’s all just a matter of age and size, as Basil the Great says of the fry, juveniles, tunny and tuna, of dolphins and whales, dogfish and sharks (see also Athenaeus and Pliny on this).

Since they have the same qualities and virtues as the herring, we may add the praise of Galen and Oribasius to the herring’s glory: they tell you the salted pilchard is the finest among all the salt fish they’ve sampled.

Referred to as sards and beating all other salt fish for soft-fleshed delicacy, the best come from Sardinia and Spain: for exquisite flavour, they’re even better than salt herring. Galen praises a tender salt fish. He condemns the hard or stringy; the salt fish like leather. And, just to be clear, along with Oribasius, he knows the difference between a pilchard and a juvenile tuna, whereas Pliny calls a deep sea juvenile tuna, sarda. Although both Pliny and Apitius write of sarda stuffed in the same way our own countrymen stuff herring.

Nature gave the herring all the gifts she bestowed only singly on other fish. This is why it claims the diadem of primacy. Its majesty has been asserted and proved on the solid foundations of respected authority. It should be crowned for benefits it brings to all – and on the basis of all that has been said in this brilliantly argued treatise; crowned, not only in the joys of each season’s first salting, when, as I’ve said, it’s received with green wreaths and garlands, but also in the garlanded portrayals we find in Lübeck’s Scania Merchants Hall and in all the other cities of the Hanse, where the dignity of the Emperor of Fish is affirmed.

O, most magnificent, noble, wise and generous Council, you are Lübeck’s greatest glory and this is all I wanted to say on the subject of the herring. Wherever it is discussed and in whatever detail, may any honour be yours for the patronage you have bestowed. May I particularly mention Dr Dornius, who’s been away on important business, but who supports all your encouragement of the literary arts and has been very supportive of my efforts. May any fame accruing to these devoted and humble efforts stand as public monument to your noble name and the difficult work you undertake on behalf of the state. If any increase to your glory might come through me, may it forever be echoed in this trifling book.

If it brings you pleasure, I am happy. Your approval of my judgement and literary skills will, as Xenophon says, lift my soul – and it would be a guarantee of the pleasure of others.

May those who draw benefit from this treatise bear in mind it’s you who publish it. I dedicate it to your celebrated renown and everlasting honour. Without that, it must sink into oblivion. Any delay in the appearance of this light-hearted work is due to my efforts at accuracy, to doubts and uncertainties which have taken weeks to resolve.

The herring swims in the depths of the sea. That is its nature. Hidden there, I couldn’t always study its every aspect directly. I crave your pardon for any errors. Even the most faultless among us will make mistakes, but, in the immortal words of Ausonius’ Letter to the Emperor Gratian, I have tried not to do that which is blameworthy.

Farewell and may good fortune attend you, my most noble lords! The safety of our state depends upon your safety and the will of God. May this state of affairs continue as long as possible!


Our herring, Neucrantz, made your own,
The brilliance of your mind has shown:
A fish, which we took for commonplace,
In glory, here, have you made its case;
In these few pages you sang its praises
And outlined just how fine its taste is.
To distant shores you spread its fame:
May this, your work, bring you the same.

Johann Heinrich Meibom


Developing this translation of De Harengo at times seemed like several steps too far. I could not have done it without the sterling efforts of my sister’s friend Ingrid O’Mahoney, who agreed, back in the early 2000s, to do a literal translation for me. There must have been times when she regretted offering to do it, but much as so many paragraphs and sentences presented me with seemingly impenetrable puzzles, I could not have done anything without it. Huge thanks to her!

As I made my way through the classic herring books, Mitchell’s The Herring, Its Natural History and National Importance, De Caux’ The Herring and the Herring Fishery, Samuel’s The Herring, It’s Effect on the History of Britain and Travis Jenkins’ The Herring and the Herring Fisheries, I began to make sense of what Neucrantz was saying (it was a brief mention in Samuel’s book that led me to The British Library and a photocopy of the Latin original in the first place). Big thanks to those great enthusiasts of herring studies.

I would also like to thank Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. The development of the Internet and of Wikipedia made tracking down and understanding the nature and rich diversity of the sources Neucrantz drew on.

Finally, big thanks to Paul Neucrantz: the more I understood him, the more I liked him. He may be largely forgotten, but De Harengo is a remarkable statement of the sum of European herring knowledge in the C17th.