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?

Shut seas and shipwrecks

August 12, 2009

Marchamont Nedham’s 1652 translation of John Selden’s Mare Clausum began with a defense of the book’s title.

Some readers, the text explains, have objected to the title of Mare Clausum being applied to a treatise on the dominion of the seas, because clausum and apertum were labels used by the Ancients to signify the seasonal navigability of the waters:

Every man know’s, that from the third of the Ides of November until the sixt of the Ides of March, or betwixt som other beginning and ending of such a kinde of winter-season, the Sea was, and was so called, heretofore Clausum Shut; as the rest of the time, or in the Summer-season, it was called Apertum Open, that is to say, more apt and convenient for shipping. According to which sens it was said by Cicero, while hee was in exspectation of Letters from his brother Quinctus; Adhuc Clausum Mare scio fuisse, I know the Sea hath been shut until now.

Acknowledging this meaning, the text continues to carve out an alternative:

But truly there is another and far clearer meaning of the Title. The simple sens of its terms doth denote, that the Sea is so shut up or separated and secluded for private Dominion, no otherwise than the Land or a Port, by bounds, limits, and other Notes and circumstances of private Dominion, and that by all kinde of Law, that without the consent of the Owner and those special restrictions & qualifications of Law, which variously intervene, vanish, and return, all others are excluded from a use of the same. For, most certain it is, that Claudere, to shut doth not only denote the mere simple Act of shutting, as wee say de Januis oculisve clausis of gates or one’s eies beeing shut, clauso agmine, or as it is in that of Lucan,·

Brachia nec licuit vasto jactare Profundo;
Sed Clauso periere Mari.—

(which is spoken of the Seamen’s beeing cover’d with the keel of their ship turned upward) but also it very often signifie’s that which is consequent either to a denial of the free use of the thing shut, as also the proprietie and Dominion of him that shut’s it;

The text refers to Book 3 of Lucan’s Civil War, and the section that describes a particularly horrible death among breaking boats and sinking corpses (as translated by Susan H. Braund):

While one vessel’s throng, too aggressive,
leans over the tilting side and leaves unmanned the section
free from enemy, by their massed weight the ship
was overturned and covered sea and sailors with its hollow keel:
they could not strike the vast deep with their arms
but perished in their ocean prison.

That this image (along with several others) is employed at the start of this treatise reminds me that though ‘free seas’ and ‘closed seas’ have now become standard terms in international law, seventeenth century readers would have understood them as texturised by a deep stock of literary, historical and judicial images of closed and openness – including this striking example of shutness as the fatal inability to find enough purchase to swim, and death in the ocean prison of a capsized ship.

I really liked a recent creative short piece in the Guardian (Country Diary, 2nd April 09) about The Burren in County Clare, Ireland. Sarah Poyntz always writes about the same place and this week did a particularly good job, bringing in mention of c. C8th poem The Voyage of Bran featuring the god Manannán mac Lir.

The poem, by an unknown author, is a voyaging narrative based in myth. It is worth thinking about what happens to the Irish language throughout the centuries, invaded as Ireland was by Iron age Celts, the Vikings and the Normans — and the English in the C17th. The Irish campaigns of Elizabeth, Cromwell and William of Orange meant the import of a new ruling class who spoke English.

In the early C19th, the Ordnance Survey cemented the Englished landscape as place-names were Anglicised from the original Irish for use in the project. This is explained further here>>

You can read a bit of Bran in Old Irish here>>

Jan-Louis Guez de Balzac’s published letters contain the following, written to the Lord Bishop of Ayre, presumably John Welsh, in 1622. It links the weather with Rome and the Pope. Welsh was a Presbyterian preacher who had been in exile in France, which had become increasingly hostile to Protestants in the early 1620s.

My Lord,

I Thinke you will neuer be weary of going to Cortege, and that you will for euer haue an apprehension of the Crepuscule all the dayes of your life; so it is, that you haue long enough caused the curtaynes of your Corroach to be drawne in presence of those of Cardinals; and that you may well be (ere now) acquaynted with the Court of Rome, euen from the Papale subiects, to those who desire to be admitted into the first degrees of sacred Orders. For my part, I should soone be weary in seeing daily one and the same thing, and in beginning the day from the first houre of night? What can there be so pleasing in the place where you are, that should deserue to stay you there? In faire weather the Sunne is dangerous: halfe the Yeare they breath nothing but smoake, and in the rest, it raineth so frequently, that it seemeth some Sea hangeth ouer the City of Rome. But it may be you take pleasure in seeing the Pope, a body ouer-shaken, and trembling with age and infirmities, who hath no other thing then Ice in his veines, and Earth in his Visage I cannot imagine how this obiect can affoord you any great contentment…