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Dolphins in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

Like just about everyone else on planet Earth who’s been lucky enough to see them, medieval people shared a friendly admiration of dolphins. Their smiling faces seem to have garnered them human respect, and curiosity enough for medieval people to study them carefully and share dolphin stories.

4th century dolphin mosaic from Halicarnassus, now at the British Museum - Photo by Carole Raddato / Wikimedia Commons
4th century dolphin mosaic from Halicarnassus, now at the British Museum – Photo by Carole Raddato / Wikimedia Commons

Naturally, dolphins would have been a frequent sight enjoyed by those living in coastal areas, and they were definitely noticed by mariners, with whom they shared the open seas. Sailors believed that the sight of dolphins racing and leaping in front of their ships was a sign of coming storms, and for this reason, it was unfair to kill them – they were only trying to be helpful. In his Otia Imperiala, Gervase of Tilbury tells the story of a sailor who, “out of youthful exuberance, wound[s] a dolphin with a javelin.”

As a result, the sailor’s ship is immediately caught up in a storm, when “a figure resembling a knight” approaches them across the sea, improbably “on horseback.” The knight demands that the young sailor make reparation by coming down into the sea with him. When the sailor reaches the bottom of the sea, “on a couch of costly furnishing, he f[inds] the knight whom he had wounded earlier as a dolphin.” Fortunately for his shipmates, the sailor heals the dolphin knight, and all is well again. “That explains why,” says Gervase, “ever since then, sailors have no longer attacked dolphins …. It would be unworthy to inflict pain on them, thanks to whom a warning is received of impending danger.”

While medieval people could be notorious for reading all sorts of meaning – especially spiritual – into various behaviours in the natural world (like the knightly chivalry of Gervase’s dolphins), sailors noticed that some of the dolphins’ antics weren’t just a part of some sort of arduous natural duty: they were playing. In fact, sailors made many correct observations about dolphins: that they were mammals, for instance, who nursed their young, as Thomas Walsingham notes in The St. Albans Chronicle, and that they tend to sick members of their pods, a fact confirmed by modern research (please note that medieval sources don’t determine which type of dolphin they mean; as a result, this information is from National Geographic’s page on the bottlenose dolphin).

Walsingham also writes that dolphins live to be thirty years old, which is a pretty good observation, considering how difficult it must have been to track individuals and pods. (Modern science has determined dolphins live an average of forty-five to fifty years, according to National Geographic.) He says that this information has been determined by cutting off their tails, although he doesn’t elaborate on how that works. (As a side note, scientists can determine a dolphin’s age by counting the rings in its teeth, much like dating a tree.) Medieval people noticed the sounds dolphins make – “their voice is a cry like a human being,” says Walsingham – and correctly surmised that they used these sounds for communication between themselves. The St. Albans Chronicle also contains sailors’ suspicions that dolphins breathed air: “Men say,” Walsingham writes, “that they do not breathe in the water, but breathe their vital breath only in the air above the sea.”  Walsingham doesn’t get every detail correct, however. He states that their dorsal fins are “prickly” and retractable. In his defence, he probably had never seen a dolphin up close.

Dolphin depicted in the British Library MS Arundel 66 f. 37v
Dolphin depicted in the British Library MS Arundel 66 f. 37v
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Some people, though, did experience the joy of close contact. Walsingham recounts stories (most likely taken from Pliny; White notes these stories in The Bestiary, p.200) of Mediterranean boys who befriended dolphins, training them with pieces of bread, and riding them. All of these stories had tragic endings, though, with the dolphins inevitably perishing as a result of their great love for their human friends. In 1392, Walsingham wrote, a dolphin swam up the Thames “right up to London Bridge” on Christmas Day, probably, he notes, in advance of coming storms. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, “The dolphin was seen and pursued by citizens, but it was caught, though with difficulty, and then brought back to London. Many were amazed at the sight of its huge body, which was, in fact, ten feet long.” It seems that neither dolphins nor humans have changed their nature much over the centuries.

Perhaps a little too wild and too connected to a pagan past to fit comfortably within the Christian theology which so often informs medieval animal stories, dolphins were nevertheless a source of continual fascination for those who were lucky enough to share space with them, just as they are now. For more information on medieval ideas about dolphins, check out The Medieval Bestiary’s dolphin page.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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