The sea monk is a fictional animal described in various medieval and early modern animal books. He is first mentioned around 1200 by Alexander Neckam. Subsequently, various sightings of the sea monk have been documented, including a specimen said to have been sent to the King of Denmark around 1550. Illustrations of the sea monk can be found in various works of the 16th century, for example in Conrad Gessner’s Fish Book. In modern times, sightings of the sea monk were attempted to be interpreted by confusion with other animals. Japetus Steenstrup interpreted it as an octopus in 1855, more recent interpretations assume, for example, anglerfish, sea angels or seals.
The first mention of the sea monk is in the late 12th or early 13th century in Alexander Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum, which states in the chapter on strange fish that “other fishes remind one of monks”. A more detailed description was given by Albertus Magnus in De animalibus, he also first mentioned sightings in the British Sea. Albert’s student Thomas of Cantimpré included the sea monk in his Liber de natura rerum.
In the German-speaking world, the sea monk is first mentioned by Konrad von Megenberg in his Book of Nature, a translation of the Liber de natura rerum. It is listed here alongside numerous other “sea wonders” such as the sea dragons or the sea cattle. According to Megenberg, the head of the sea monk resembles a monk’s tonsure, but he has a fish-like nose and a non-human-like face. The sea monks would have the peculiarity of attracting humans by jumping and playing, but then pulling them under the water and eating them. According to Monika Schmitz-Emans, the sea miracles described by Megenberg are at the same time allegories of human attitudes, character traits or occupations, the sea monk is therefore a parable of the dazzler who lures people into disaster under false pretences of piety.
Sporadic sightings of sea monks are described in the Middle Ages and early modern period. In 1187, one was captured near Suffolk and, according to legend, held in a castle for six months. However, he took a favourable opportunity to jump into the sea and escape. There were other alleged sightings on the Norwegian coast and in the open waters of the North Sea.
In the mid-16th century, King Christian III of Denmark sent drawings of a strange sea creature caught in the Øresund to Emperor Charles V. Numerous illustrations of the sea monk in various animal books probably date back to these drawings. Japetus Steenstrup lists a total of eight mentions for this period, among others in the fish books of Pierre Belon and Guillaume Rondelet as well as in Conrad Gessner’s fish book (1558). In Gessner’s book, the sea monk was described together with the sea bishop and provided with illustrations. Gessner also lists other mythical creatures in his books, such as the phoenix or the unicorn, but he usually leaves their existence open. He lists the sightings of the sea monk with critical detachment.
In the Fish Book, the Sea Monk is depicted with a human-like face and clothing made of scales reminiscent of Catholic monks. As in the medieval descriptions of Megenberg, his head is tonsured. Shortly after Gessner’s fish book, the sea monk was depicted again – again together with the sea bishop – in François Deserps’ costume book(Le recueil de la diversité des habits qui sont de present en usage dans les pays d’Europe, Asie, Afrique et les sauvages, 1562). Here the figure appears stockier, the face shows a grimacing, shark-like grin, and the clothing appears more human-like than in Gessner. According to Pommeranz, these changes could be anti-Catholic in motivation, similar to Lucas Cranach’s depictions of the papal and monk’s calf.
Even after the 16th century, the sea monk was still described several times in books and, due to the high reputation of early modern naturalists, was also thought to be a real existing creature, among others in Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa (1697 ) or in Robert Chambers’ Book of Days (1863/64 ). In 1855 Steenstrup tried for the first time to explain the sightings of the sea monk scientifically by a confusion with an octopus.
Possible scientific interpretations
Steenstrup interpreted the sea monk as an octopus in 1855. According to him, both the surviving body shape of the sea monk and other details would roughly correspond to an octopus. He interpreted the coloring of the head, reminiscent of a tonsure, as an ink sac. Although this interpretation is still widely accepted, in more recent times other animals have been brought into play as candidates, including various species of anglerfish, also known as monkfish in English. Also referred to as monkfish, and often confused with the anglerfish, is the sea angel, which looks remotely similar to a monk and would better match the described size of the sea monk than the squid typically found in the North Atlantic. Another possibility would be seals, which often resemble monks as well and are common in the North Atlantic. Dried and taxidermied rays (Jenny Haniver), which are often fashioned like mythical creatures, could also be mistaken for dead sea monks, though this is not an explanation for specimens sighted alive. In any case, a clear explanation of the phenomenon of the sea monk cannot be given in view of the sparse tradition.
- C. G. M. Paxton and R. Holland Was Steenstrup Right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Øresund., in: Steenstrupia 29(1), 2005. pp. 39-47.
- Johannes Pommeranz: Das Tierbuch von Conrad Gesner, in: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Georg Ulrich Großmann und Christine Kupper (eds.): Vom Ansehen der Tiere (= Kulturgeschichtliche Spaziergänge im Germanischen Nationalmuseum, vol. 11). Germanisches Nationalmuseum Abt. Verlag, Nuremberg 2009, pp. 58-70.
– Collection of images, videos and audio files
- Monachum repræsentat piscis alius. In: Alexander Neckam: De naturis rerum. II,25 De monstruosis piscibus. (online– Internet Archive).
- Albertus Magnus: De animalibus libri XXVI rerum. XXIV,I, 85 Monachus maris. (online– Internet Archive).
- C. G. M. Paxton and R. Holland: Was Steenstrup Right? A new interpretation of the 16th century sea monk of the Øresund. In: Steenstrupia 29(1), 2005. pp. 39-47.
- Franz Pfeiffer: The Book of Nature by Konrad von Megenberg. The first natural history in the German language. Stuttgart 1861 (reprint 1962, facs. G. Olms, Hildesheim-New York 1971, 1994), p. 239 Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
- Monika Schmitz-Emans: Seetiefen und Seelentiefen: Literarische Spiegelungen innerer und äußerer Fremde (= Saarbrücker Beiträge zur vergleichenden Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft). Königshausen u. Neumann, Würzburg 2003, p. 53.
- Johann-Daniel Herholdt: Beschreibung 6 menschlichen Missgeburten mit 14 ausgemalten Kupfern. Together with an appendix on medical superstition. Bing’sche Schulbuchhandlung, Copenhagen 1830, pp. 83-85.
- Conrad Gessner: Fischbuoch. Zurich 1563, fol. 105. “Diser Meermünch soll sich an dreyen locten erzeigt / an dreyen orthen gefangen seyn worden.”
- Johannes Pommeranz: The animal book by Conrad Gesner. In: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Georg Ulrich Großmann and Christine Kupper (eds.): Vom Ansehen der Tiere (= Cultural History Walks in the Germanic National Museum. 11). Germanisches Nationalmuseum Abt. Verlag, Nuremberg 2009, pp. 58-70.
- J. J. S. Steenstrup: Om den i Kong Christian IIIs tid i Øresundet fanget Havmund (Sømunken kaldet). In: Dansk Maanedsskrift. 1, 1855, pp. 63-96(babel.hathitrust.org).