“Bad to the bone”? The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales

“Bad to the bone”?  The Unnatural History of Monstrous Medieval Whales

By Vicki Ellen Szabo

The Heroic Age A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 8 (2005)

Orcas attacking a whale, from Carta Marina (1539).

Abstract: The image of the monstrous whale pervades most medieval textual traditions on cetaceans, but historians have not explored the impact of these cultural perceptions on the use of whales in the medieval world. This paper considers how concepts of the monstrous whale impacted, if at all, the use of whales in the medieval North Atlantic.

Introduction: . . . it is a risky business catching a whale. It’s safer for me to go on the river with my boat, than to go hunting whales with many boats. . . . I prefer to catch a fish that I can kill, rather than a fish that can sink or kill not only me but also my companions with a single blow (Ælfric, tr. Swanton 1993, 172).

The fisherman of Ælfric’s Colloquy expresses what was surely a commonly held medieval perception of cetaceans as aggressive and dangerous creatures, but also lucrative and, for many, well worth the dangers of pursuit. Cetaceans were seen in the medieval world as creatures to fear and avoid, but also creatures of enormous value. This complex impression of cetaceans as creatures to fear and admire was not unique to medieval people. The earliest Near Eastern and Classical descriptions of cetaceans depict whales as forces of nature, great “fish” to be battled with and, with fortune, overcome; they were not simple fish to be caught and consumed. Clearly, these perceptions of whales as dangerous are based, in part, on observation and experience; to encounter a whale at sea must have been simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. A breaching whale could easily capsize a small medieval craft, while a defensive or harassed whale could inflict serious damage to a boat or an entire fleet.

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