This is an incredibly long entry, with a great deal of misinformation.
Here begins the account of fish. Fish, pisces, get their name, like cattle, pecus, from the word for grazing, namely, pascere. They are called reptiles because, when they swim, they have the appearance and manner of crawling. Although they can dive deep, nevertheless they crawl as they swim. On this subject David says: ‘So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable’ (Psalms, 104: 25)
[Of the whale] [They suffer in the same way, those who are unbelievers and know nothing of the Devil’s cunning, who place their hope in him,] bind themselves to do his work, together they will be plunged with him into the fires of Gehenna. The nature of this animal is such that when it feeds, it opens its mouth and breathes out from it a kind of sweet-smelling odour, so that when smaller fish scent it, they gather in its mouth. When the whale feels that its mouth is full, it closes it suddenly and swallows the fish. They suffer in the same way, those who are of limited faith, who succumb to the food of desires and enticements, they are suddenly devoured by the Devil as if they had been overwhelmed by certain scents Again of the whale Whales are beasts of huge size, so called because of their habit of drawing in and spouting out water; for they make waves higher than other sea creatures; the Greek word balenim [balein] means ‘to emit’. The male is called musculus; for it is alleged that the females conceive by intercourse.
Of the monster called the flying-fish. There is a sea monster called the flying-fish, which has huge wings. When it sees a ship under sail on the sea, it raises its wings over the water and tries to keep pace with the ship for three or four miles; when it fails to keep pace, it lowers its wings and folds them. The waves carry it, exhausted, back to its home in their depths. The flying-fish represents this world. The ship symbolises the righteous, who sail through its storms and tempests without putting their faith in danger or at risk of shipwreck. But the flying-fish, which could not keep up with the ship, represents those who at the start apply themselves to good works, but do not afterwards persevere with them and yield to all sorts of vice, which carry them, like the restless waves of the sea, down to hell. For the prize goes not to those who begin the race, but to those who stay the course.
Of dolphins Dolphins are known by that particular name or word because they follow the sound of men’s voices, or gather in schools at the sound of music. There is no swifter creature in the sea. For they often leap through the air over ships; but when they play beforehand in the swell and leap headlong through the mighty waves, they seem to foretell storms. They are correctly called simones. There is a species of dolphin in the River Nile, with a serrated back, which kills crocodiles by cutting into the soft parts of their bellies.
Of sea-pigs Sea-pigs are commonly called swine, because when they seek food, they dig under the water like swine digging into the ground. For they have what serves as a mouth around their throat, and unless they immerse their snout in the sand, they cannot gather food. The sword-fish is so called because its snout is pointed; it sinks ships by piercing them with it. Sawfish, serra, are so called because they have a serrated crest; they swim under ships and saw through their keels. The sea-scorpion is so called because it wounds you if you pick it up in your hand; they say that if ten crabs are bound with a handful of basil, all the scorpions around will gather at that place.
Of the crocodile The crocodile, cocodrillus, gets its name from its saffron colour, croceus; it comes from the River Nile, a four-legged creature, at home on land and in water, sometimes twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws. So hard is its skin that even if you struck it on the back with blows from heavy stones, you would not harm it. It rests by night in the water, by day on the bank. It hatches its eggs on land, male and female taking turns to guard them. Certain fish with serrated crests kill it by cutting open the soft part of its belly.
Its wolf-like greed for fish gives the pike its name, lupus. It is a tricky fish to catch. It is said that when it is finally surrounded by the folds of the net, it ploughs up the sand with its tail and, hidden, swims through the net. The mullet, mullus, is so called because it is delicate, mollis, and very tender; they say that eating it curbs lust; eating mullet can also impair your vision; men who often eat it give off a fishy smell. If you soak a dead mullet in wine, those who drink the liquor afterwards develop a loathing for wine. Another kind of mullet, mugilis, gets its name because it is extremely agile, multum agilis. For when it is aware of the way in which fishermen have set their nets for it, it does not delay, but pulls back, then leaps over the net, so that you can actually see the fish fly.
The ways of fish are countless, as are their species. Some lay eggs, like the speckled, large fish called trout, and leave them in the water to hatch. Water, therefore, gives the life and form and, a gentle mother to living things, fulfils this obligation as if she were obeying an immutable law. Other fish produce living offspring from their bodies, like the great whales, dolphins, seals and others of this sort; when they have produced their young and have, perhaps, a premonition that these are ever threatened by some kind of trap or in danger, in order to protect them or to calm with a mother’s love the fear of those of tender years, they are said to open their mouths and hold their young, without harming them, in their teeth, and also to take them back into their body, concealed in their womb. What human affection can equal the sense of duty that we find in fish? For us, kisses suffice. For them, it is not enough to open the innermost parts of their body, to swallow their young then bring them back whole, to give their offspring life once again with their own warmth, to breathe into their young their own breath, and to live as two in one body until either they have carried them off to safety or by interposing their own bodies, have protected their young from the threatened danger.
Which fisherman seeing this, even if he were still able to catch the fish, would not give in to such a display of duty? Who would not marvel and stand amazed that nature has preserved in fish a quality that is not found in men? Many men, acting out of mistrust, driven by malevolence and hatred, have killed their children; we have read of others, women, who have eaten their own children in times of famine. The mother thus becomes a tomb for her infants. To the spawn of the fish, however, the mother’s womb is like a wall; she preserves her harmless brood by turning her innermost parts into a sort of fortress.
The different species of fish, therefore, have different habits. Some lay eggs, others produce living, full-formed offspring. Those who lay eggs do not weave nests like birds; they do not go through the bother of a long process of hatching their young; and they do not have the trouble of feeding them. The egg has been laid, and the water has reared it on what is, in effect, her own natural bosom, like a gentle nurse, incubating the egg quickly so that it becomes a living thing. For, given life by the constant touch of its mother, the water, the egg disintegrates and the fish emerges. How pure and unspoiled this process of generation is, involving, as it does, no creature outside that particular species.
For male fish know nothing about adulterous contacts with fish of other species, like the females with whom they copulate. Species of donkeys and mares are created by interbreeeding with the special intervention of man, or in the other way, when horses mount asses; in the context of nature, these are truly acts of adultery. For undoubtedly, what is done in a natural context by interbreeding is more significant than what happens in a personal context by injury. O men, you bring these things about as an agent of adultery between animals and you consider a hybrid animal more valuable than one which is pure bred. You interbreed different species and mix the seed of one with another, and frequently you force animals unwillingly to take part in intercourse which is forbidden, and you call this ‘industry’; because you cannot interbreed among men, in such a way that the mixing of two species can exclude the creation of offspring, you take away from a man what he was born with, you take the virility from a man, you destroy his sex by cutting off part of his body and you create a eunuch, so that what nature denies in man, your presumption achieves.
As to how good a mother water is, think about this. You, O man, have taught the denial, separation, hatred, crimes, of fathers against sons; learn what is essential to that relationship. Fish cannot live without water; they cannot be separated from the company of their parent; they cannot be parted from the services of their wet-nurse. If this should happen, it is their nature, when separated, to die there and then. What can I tell you about the quantity and density of their teeth? For creatures that live in water are not like sheep or cattle, whose teeth grow in one part of the mouth, but every part of their mouth is armed with teeth, and if they are slow to chew their food and swallow it, it can be washed down and dissolved by the flow of water from their teeth. Their teeth are close-set and sharp, so that they can cut food quickly and consume food quickly, and swallow it without delay or hesitation. In short, they do not ruminate, that is, chew the cud. Only the scarus is reported to be a ruminant, chewing on everything that it takes in by chance, habit or purpose. It is a fact that fish cannot escape violence from their own kind, and wherever there are smaller fish, they become the subject of the greed of more powerful fish, so that a weaker species is the prey of a stronger.
There are many, indeed, which feed on vegetation. But among fish the smaller species is the food of the larger; in turn, the larger fish is seized by an even stronger one, and thus the predator becomes the prey. Thus it is the way among fish that when one devours another, it is devoured by a third, and they each end up in the same belly, since each has been consumed by its appropriate consumer, and together in the same entrails is a twosome, one of them preyed upon, the other avenged. Among fish this aggression grew deliberately, just as it did in us, for it did not start in nature but in greed. Or because fish are given for man’s use, but are also given as a guide, that we might see in them the vices inherent in our own ways, and heed their example; lest the stronger should swallow up the weaker, he should be shown what harm he might suffer at the hand of one even stronger. So, he who harms another, ties a noose for himself. And you, you are the fish that attacks the entrails of the other, you overpower the weak, you pursue the believer down to the depths. Take care lest, while you are in pursuit, you meet one who is stronger than you, that he who can defeat your snare does not lead you into another and that your prey is preoccupied with his own danger, before he witnesses yours.
The escarius is so called because, they claim, it alone ruminates its food, esca; other fish do not. They say it is a clever fish. For, caught in a pot, it does not try to break out with its forehead or try to stick its head through the wicker sides, but with rapid blows of its tail loosens the rear entrance of the pot and thus swims out through the back. If by chance another escarius sees it struggling, it seizes the captive’s tail between its teeth and helps it to break out.
The echenais is a very small fish, six inches long, which gets its name from the fact that it holds a ship fast by sticking to it; although the winds roar and the storms rage, the ship stays still, rooted, it seems, in the sea, immobile. The fish does this, not by holding the ship back, but simply by sticking on to it. Latin-speakers call this fish mora, because it forces vessels to stay in one place, thereby causing a delay, mora.
Eels, anguille, get their name from their similarity to serpents, angues. They are born from mud; for this reason, if you catch an eel, it is so smooth that the harder you grip it, the quicker it slithers away. They say that in the River Ganges, in the east, there are eels thirty feet long. If dead eels are soaked in wine, anyone drinking the liquor develops a loathing of wine.
The lamprey, murena, is called by the Greeks mirinna, because it twists itself into circles. Lampreys, it is said, are of the female sex only and conceive from intercourse with snakes; as a result, fishermen catch it by calling it with a snake’s hiss. It is difficult to kill a lamprey with a single blow from a cudgel; you need to beat it repeatedly with a stick. It is a fact that the life-spirit of the lamprey is its tail, for when it is beaten on the head, it is difficult to kill; but when it is beaten on the tail, it dies at once.
The name of the poilippus means ‘many-footed’, because it has a large number of coiling legs. It is a clever fish; it makes for the fisherman’s baited hook, catches hold of it by entwining it in its limbs, and does not let go until it has nibbled round the bait. The torpedo is so called because it numbs the body of anyone who touches it when it is alive. According to Pliny the second, if a torpedo from the Indian sea is touched by a spear or rod, even from a considerable distance, the muscles of the fisherman’s arms, even if they are very strong, grow numb, and his feet, however fast they run, cannot move. So great is the power of the torpedo, that even its breath has this effect on the limbs of the body.
The crab also plans a series of tricks to acquire food. For it has a taste for oysters and sets out to feast on their flesh. But because seeking food means looking out for danger, the more difficult the chase, the greater the danger. The crab’s quest is difficult because the food is enclosed within two very strong shells, for nature, acting in accordance with the will of the Creator, has furnished the softness of the flesh with walls, so to speak, nourishing and warming it within the shells in a bosom-like cleft, and the oyster spreads its flesh out as if in a valley. As a result, all the efforts of the crab come to nothing, because it has not the strength to open the closed oyster. The crab’s quest becomes dangerous if the oyster shuts its shell on one of the the crab’s claws. The crab resorts to strategy and works on the idea of setting a trap, using a new kind of trick. Because all kinds of animals yield to pleasure, the crab watches out for the time when the oyster, safely out of the wind and lying in the rays of the sun, opens its double-shelled prison in order to satisfy its inner longing for some fresh air. Then the crab, stealthily inserting a pebble, stops the oyster from closing its shell and, finding what was shut now open, it inserts its claws in safety and feeds on the flesh inside. In the same way, therefore, there are evil men who, in the manner of the crab, deceive others by stealth, and bolster their own incapacity by a degree of cunning; they enmesh their brothers in deceit and feed off another’s troubles. Be content with what is yours, and do not grow fat on the misfortunes of others. The right food is the sincerity of innocence. The man who has his own sense of worthiness cannot waylay others; he does not burn with the flames of avarice; profit he regards as loss of virtue and an incentive to greed. Therefore, blessed is poverty if it teaches a man to know truly the worth of his possessions; it is preferable to any treasure, for ‘Better is little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. Better a dinner of herbs where there is love, than a dinner of fatted calf where there is hatred’ (see Proverbs, 15:16-17). Let us use our intelligence, therefore, to seek grace and attain salvation, not to deceive another in his innocence; and let us use the examples of sea-creatures to the advancement of our salvation, not to endanger others.
The urchin is small, worthless and contemptible – I am talking about the maritime kind – and is customarily taken by seafarers as a sign of a storm ahead or as a herald of calm weather. When it senses that a stormy blast is on the way, it seizes a good-sized pebble and carries it as a kind of ballast, and drags it like an anchor lest it is thrown up by the swell. Thus it saves itself not by its own strength but by using weight from another source to steer a stable course. Sailors seize on this behaviour as a sign of bad weather to come and take precautions lest an unexpected hurricane should catch them unprepared. What mathematician, what astrologer, what Chaldean can make sense in this way of the course of the stars, or of the motions and signs of the heavens. By what instinct has the urchin acquired this skill? From what teacher has it learned this art? Who interpreted such omens for it? Men often observe turbulence in the air and are often deceived, because frequently it disperses without a storm. The urchin is not mistaken; the significance of the signs it sees does not escape it. From where did this tiny creature get such knowledge that it can foretell the future, because it has no innate capacity to display such foresight. You must believe that it is through the kindness of the Lord of all things that the echinus. too, has received the gift of foresight. For if ‘God so clothe the grass of the field’ that we marvel, if he feeds ‘the fowls of the air’ (see Matthew, 6:26, 30); if ‘he provideth for the raven his food, when his young ones cry unto God’ (Job, 38:41); if he gives women the skill of weaving; if he has not left the spider, which hangs its open network on doorways, without the gift of knowledge; if he has given strength to the horse and loosed terror from its mane, so that it exults on the battlefield and laughs in the face of kings and ‘smelleth the battle afar off’ and says Ha! at the sound of the trumpets (see Job, 39: 19-25) … if these many creatures, who lack the capacity of reason, together with the grass and the lilies of the field, are filled with the wisdom which the Lord has dispensed, why should we doubt that he has also conferred upon the echinus the grace of foresight? For there is nothing that the Lord has not examined, nothing that has not been revealed to him. He sees all things, who nourishes all things; he fills all things with wisdom, who has made all things in wisdom, as it is written (see Psalms, 104:24). For this reason, if he has not neglected the echinus, if he has not left him out of his visitation; if he attends to it and instructs it in signs of things to come, does he not take care of you? Indeed he does, as he proves in his divine wisdom, saying: ‘If your heavenly father sees the fowls of the air and feeds them, are ye not much better than they? If God so clothe the grasses of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? ‘ (Matthew, 6: 26, 30).
The conca and concle are so called because they are hollow, that is to say, they empty themselves, at the waning of the moon. For the limbs of all the enclosed sea-creatures and shellfish grow at the waxing of the moon and empty when the moon is waning. For when the moon waxes, it increases a humour; when it wanes, it diminishes them. This is what physicians say. Conce is the name for those in the first state, that is, growing; but conclee are what they are called after they have shrunk – conculee, little conce, so to speak. There are many species of the conca, among them the pearl-bearing oysters called occeloe, in whose flesh a precious stone is formed. The authors of the book of the natures of living things relate that at night these creatures go ashore and are fertilised by the dew from heaven, for which reason they are called occeole, ob celestem. The murica is a sea snail, so called from its sharp point and rough surface; it is known by another name, concilium, because when you cut around it with an iron blade, it produces tears which are purple in colour, from which purple dye is made; from this comes the other name for purple, ostrum, because the dye is made from the fluid enclosed in the shell (in Greek, ostreon). The crab, cancros or cancer, is so called because they are shellfish, conce, with legs, crura; they are the enemies of oysters. They live on the flesh of oysters by extraordinary cleverness. For because they cannot open the oyster’s strong shell, they watch out for a time when the oyster itself opens the closed leaves. Then the crab secretly inserts a small stone and, preventing the oyster from closing up again, gnaws away its flesh. They say that if ten crabs are bound together with a handful of basil, all the scorpions in the neighbourhood assemble at that point. There are two kinds of crab, river and sea. The oyster gets its name from the shell which protects the softness of the flesh within. For the Greek word for ‘shell’ is ostreon. Musculi are small shellfish; oysters conceive from their milk. They are called musculi, meaning, so to speak, masculi, ‘males’. The tortoise, testudo, is so called because it is covered by the vault of its shell, in the manner of an arched roof. There are four species: land, sea, mud – that is, living in swamps or marshland; the fourth species belongs to rivers and lives in fresh water. Some relate the incredible fact that ships sail more slowly when they carry the right foot of a tortoise. Frogs, rane, get their name from their constant chatter, because they make a croaking noise all around the marshes where they breed, calling out in an uncouth manner with their peculiar sound.
Of these, some are called water frogs, others marsh; some are called toads, rubete, because they live in brambles, rubus; they are larger than the others. Others are called calamites, since they live among reeds, calamus, and bushes; they are the smallest of all, they are green, they are dumb, and they have no croak. Egredula are very small frogs living on dry ground or in fields, ager, from which they get their name. Some say that dogs will not bark if you give them a live frog to eat. According to Pliny, the names of the creatures living in water total one hundred and forty-four, divided, into the following species: monsters, amphibious serpents, crabs, shellfish, lobsters, mussels, polyps, flatfish, lizards, rockfish and those like it.