Red Herrings

November 2, 2011

Online resources like the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography or Early English Books Online allow scholars, in the twenty-first century, to follow lines of enquiry without actually going to the library, which is a mixed blessing. Some things get lost when accessing early modern books online– marginalia, say, or Copernican hairs – and there are lots of ways in which these very useful internet resources can swallow time.


In 1685 the Royal Society summarised a French advertisement for an engine that neutralised burning and cooking odours

composed of severall hoops of hammered Iron of about 4 or 5 Inches diameter, which shutt one into the other: it stands upright on the middle of the Room, upon a sort of trevet [trivet] made on purpose.

The engine was tested with ‘the most fetid things’: ‘Coal soakt in cats piss, which stinks abominably’; ‘encense’, and ‘red Herrings’ (RS Classified Papers 3i f.65). Hooke was evidently using the phrase ‘red herring’ in a taxonomic rather than a figurative sense – he referred to it as a recognisable environmental pollutant.

The engine passed the test, neutralising the smell of the coal, incense and herrings, and dispersing the smoke so that ‘the most curious eye’ could not ‘discover’ it, ‘[n]or the nicest nose smell it’.

There is a recipe for red herrings in Kenelm Digby’s 1669 Closet, or Excellent Directions for Cookery, which promises to satisfy ‘the curiosities of the Nicest palate’. (Digby’s cookery, the preface says, is so excellent, there ‘needs no Rhetoricating Floscules to set it off’.)

Digby got his recipe for ‘Red Herrings broyled’ from Lord d’Aubigny – probably Charles Stewart, who was the eleventh and last Stewart Lord of Aubigny – his line was extinguished when he drowned aged 33, without an heir, in 1672 at Helsinger, better known to early-modern scholars as Elsinore.

The Oxford English Dictionary characterises a red herring, like a kipper, by its method of preparation: sense 1b. ‘A herring that has been dried and smoked’. The OED doesn’t list this literal red herring as obsolete or even archaic, but the most recent citations come from history books (the red herring as a bar snack in Georgian Glasgow and a delicacy in Rembrandt’s Holland respectively). My local fishmonger told me with some certainty that they’re not available any more. A red herring, he said, isn’t an actual fish.

The phrase is usually used today in a figurative sense, as ‘a clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question’ (OED sense 2). This meaning dates from the nineteenth century, but it derives from an older practice wherein hunters would deliberately trail red herrings, or other stinking things, to draw on their hounds. It seems that the practice, which was probably Medieval in origin, was still a common use for red herrings in the seventeenth century – Nicholas Cox explains ‘what a Train-scent is’ in his Gentleman’s Recreation of 1686:

the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of Necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the scent.


Using searchable online resources, several red herrings could be traced in different, now-defunct contexts – as an experimental subject, as a food, as a hunting accessory. But these fish were real as well as figurative. Digby’s recipe gave practical instructions on how to recreate the authentic early modern smell that Hooke had been working at eradicating:

My Lord d’ Aubigny eats Red-herrings thus broiled. After they are opened and prepared for the Gridiron, soak them (both sides) in Oyl and Vinegar beaten together in pretty quantity in a little Dish. Then broil them, till they are hot through, but not dry. Then soak them again in the same Liquor as before, and broil them a second time. You may soak and broil them again a third time; but twice may serve. They will be then very short and crisp and savoury. Lay them upon your Sallet, and you may also put upon it, the Oyl and Vinegar, you soaked the Herrings in.

The Rijksmuseum website explains that Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Ships in Distress in a Heavy Storm (c.1690) was ‘not intended as a depiction of a historical event’. Apparently Bakhuysen used to sail out to sea during different weather conditions and observe the colours of the sea and sky. Context slips away similarly in a description on the National Gallery website, in relation to his painting An English Vessel and a Man-of-war in a Rough Sea (1680s). There it is explained that ‘A preparatory drawing […] identifies the view as the mouth of the Thames at Deal, Kent, but the coast there differs from the drawing and is almost certainly imaginary’.

Some subjects have signs of fixed place. A View across a River near Dordrecht (?) – to carry on using the galleries’ titles – depicts a ship flying the Dutch colours against the backdrop of a town that ‘seems to be Dordrecht’. Another painting, Dutch Men-of-war entering a Mediterranean Port (1681) is described thus on the NG site:

The man-of-war on the left flies the Dutch colours and has the arms of Amsterdam on her stern. Another man-of-war in the right middle-distance carries the flag of the States-General and a plain red ensign. Other small vessels are visible and fly Dutch colours. The view is probably imaginary, but the galleys show that a Mediterranean scene is intended.

What do we mean by probably imaginary in relation to paintings? Do we mean that the painting was not created at the site of a real scene, or that those exact visual circumstances never occurred? What constitutes an ‘event’? Is an ‘historical event’ something that is supposed to appear as a set of sensory effects not saturated in an index of experience, as Bakhuysen would have had of the sea if he regularly sailed in storms?

Polish fish

February 19, 2010

In a passage in his History of Poland (1698), in a paragraph subtitled ‘monstrous fish’, Bernard Connor explained:

Dr. Conner, in his Memoirs says, that it was reported when he was in Poland, that the Year before he came thither a Barbel Fish was found in the River San, at Velasco, an Estate of the late Queens, which was above 4 Polish Ells long, which is better than 8 Foot of our measure, and near 3 Foot broad, and weighed at least 200 weight. He says that the same Species of Fish, of this largeness, are very common in that River, and one was reported to have had an entire Skeleton of a Man, suppos’d to have been drown’d some time before, found in his Belly, together with a Knife and Sheath. This Fish has no Scales.

In addition to this formidable and monstrous fish, there were fish that could be used as meterological tools:

He says likewise, that there are Fish in Lithuania which are made use of to shew the change of Weather: For this purpose they are to be put into a Bottle, where they will make a sort of squeeking noise when the weather is to alter.

Connor also found that there were in Poland ‘a sort of Hogs with uncloven-Feet’.

Connor (1666-98) was an Irish Catholic physician who lived much of his life on the continent. He had occasion to visit Poland after being made supervisor of the sons of the crown chancellor of that country. He became personal physician to King Jan III Sobieski.

Around 1600, Spanish novelist Mateo Alemán wrote about Guzmán de Alfarache, a rogue or picaro who gets into bad scenes to the point that his life gradually deteriorates. Guzmán’s life can be read as a moral parable but I am really interested in this text for Guzmán’s method of perambulation, that is wandering.

Once, wandering, he meets an attractive woman:

I went wandring vp and downe the City, and hauing little money, and much care, it was my happe to meete with a rare piece of Nature, an admirable Beauty; (at least in my eye, howsoeuer in other it might be otherwise)

In another instance Guzmán notes that ‘There did daily passe by the doore many haggard-Hawkes, youngwandring Lads, much about my yeeres and growth; some with money in their purse, others begging an almes for Gods sake’. He hopes that he ‘might not (as many others) be punished as a Vagabond, and runne the censure of a wandring Rogue’. One night he has an accidental encounter with a woman when they are both naked, and remarks that upon seeing him:

[The woman] suspected that I was some Phantasma, some Hob-goblin, orwandring Ghost, and letting the light fall out of her hand for feare, she gaue withall a great schriche.

As the story progresses, and Guzmán descends further down the social ladder, the wandering gets more sinister:

How often haue I accused and condemned my selfe, when begging in the Church, mine eye hath beene wandring and rouing about? and chuckt and hugg’d my selfe, with the delight and pleasure that I haue taken therein? Or to speake downe-right English, and to declare my selfe more plainely, feeding mine eyes greedily on those Angelicall faces of your finest Ladyes, whose Louers did not dare to looke vpon them for feare of being noted

Wandering like a ‘Masterlessehound’ gets him into bad company:

I wandred vp and downe at mine owne pleasure, (as my fancie did lead me) thorow the streetes of Rome. And because in my prosperity, I had purchased some friends of mine owne profession, they seeing me vn-prouided for, and that I went vp and downe like a Masterlessehound, here one would inuite me, and there another

At another point he proclaims ‘todo lo nueuo, aplaze: See what is newest, that we still like best. This rule, holding more especially in such as I was, who had spiritum ambulatorium, a wandring humour of mine owne, and was a great louer of nouelties’.

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The dictionary defines wandering as ‘travelling from place to place or from country to country without settled route or destination; roaming. Often in plural, sometimes denoting a protracted period of devious journeying’, which serves as a useful contemporary reminder that deviousness isn’t always with malintent, rather it can mean simply ‘departing from the direct way; pursuing a winding or straying course; circuitous’. Now people celebrate city walkers and deviators, like Ian Sinclair, who wend their own way through a place, but in the early modern period we see wandering linked to vice, and the potent menace of having nowhere particular to go.

It has often been noted how the first images of Earth from space drastically changed our perspective of the planet. But a similar perspective was imagined by Richard Bentley in the eighth sermon he delivered against atheism in December 1692.

In the tenth section of the sermon Bentley responded to a quotation from Lucretius, who had — amidst an apparent description of the inhospitability of the planet — advanced the contention that ‘in no way for us the power of gods / Fashioned the world and brought it into being; / So great the fault with which it stands endowed’ (On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Sir Ronald Melville, book V, 197-9).

Bentley responded to this by beginning:

some men are out of Love with the features and mean of our Earth; they do not like this rugged and irregular Surface, these Precipices and Valleys and the gaping Channel of the Ocean. This with them is Deformity, and rather carries the face of a Ruin or a rude and indigested Lump of Atoms that casually convened so, than a Work of Divine Artifice. They would have the vast Body of a Planet to be as elegant and round as a factitious Globe represents it; to be every where smooth and equable, and as plain as the Elysian Fields.

He continues to ask upon what grounds men structure these objections and complaints about the earth, and it is here that he asks the reader to imagine, via mathematics, how the earth would look if one viewed it from space. He first imagines the horror of viewing the dry ocean from space, and how marked it would be from normal land. Secondly, he images the ocean bed to appear as normal land if it was covered with vegetation. He imagines how a man would not be able to distinguish the middle of the ocean from normal earth if this were so:

Why, if we suppose the Ocean to be dry, and that we look down upon the empty Channel from some higher Region of the Air, how horrid and ghastly and unnatural would it look? Now admitting this Supposition; Let us suppose too that the Soil of this dry Channel were covered with Grass and Trees in manner of the Continent, and then see what would follow. If a man could be carried asleep and placed in the very middle of this dry Ocean; it must be allowed, that he could not distinguish it from the inhabited Earth. For if the bottom should be unequal with Shelves and Rocks and Precipices and Gulfs; these being now apparel’d with a vesture of Plants, would only resemble the Mountains and Valleys that he was accustomed to before.

Because the contours of the ocean would be so subtle (i.e. like a large valley raher than a steep chasm), the man would not be able to note the difference. He would need to be carried up into the air:

So that to make this Man sensible what a deep Cavity he was placed in; he must be carried so high in the Air, till he could see at one view the whole Breadth of the Channel, and so compare the depression of the Middle with the elevation of the Banks. But then a very small skill in Mathematicks is enough to instruct us, that before he could arrive to that distance from the Earth, all the inequality of Surface would be lost to his View: the wide Ocean would appear to him like an even and uniform Plane (uniform as to its Level, though not as to Light and Shade) though every Rock of the Sea was as high as the Pico of Teneriff.

Bentley does allow for the possibility of such a perspective that would allow a view of the contours of an empty ocean, but, with that perspective not available, dismisses as futile the act of imagining it, and of following those imaginings to atheism:

But though we should grant, that the dry Gulf of the Ocean would appear vastly hollow and horrible from the top of a high Cloud: yet what a way of reasoning is this from the freaks of Imagination, and impossible Suppositions? Is the Sea ever likely to be evaporated by the Sun, or to be emptied with Buckets? Why then must we fancy this impossible dryness; and then upon that fictitious account calumniate Nature, as deformed and ruinous and unworthy of a Divine Author?