Early Modern Times – an ambergrisly tail

Early Modern Times - an ambergrisly tail

Dear readers,

Given the current rise in COVID-19 infections around the world, including in Canada, could our marine-mammal relatives provide clues to occurrences and even treatment? Early modern Europeans certainly thought so, as discussed in this recent Public Domain Review essay by Lizzie Marx, which recounts an ambergrisly tail.

The illustration above is of a beached sperm whale at Beverwijk, Netherlands, in December 1601 by Jan Saenredam. Many such whales were beached on the shores of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, which both horrified and fascinated onlookers, including artists and printmakers (the topic, incidentally, of an excellent 2019 EMSP Honours Thesis by Keenan Livingstone). The whales were either already dead and decaying, or in their death throes as they collapsed under their massive frames. We can only imagine the poor mammal’s thoughts in this picture: ‘Life’s a beach! I’m not feeling at all whale, so please leave me alone.’

The Dutch figures in this print observe and remark on the whale, but also poke and prod, reflective of the emerging scientific curiosity at the time. The spectators are clearly struck by its gargantuan size and oozing entrails, but also by the smell of the fetid corpse–as indicated by the handkerchief held by the nobleman at the centre, Count Ernest Casimir of Nassau-Dietz. Beached whales were considered omens of disaster, including the plague. In this print, there is an image on the upper right of Death, suggesting that this whale was a portent of the plague which struck Amsterdam in 1601-2. Given the association of this epidemic with bad air, as noted in the May 8 issue of Early Modern Times, the decaying whale’s stench was thus connected with the plague. In other words, the corpse smelled Amsterdamn-rotten, a cetacean-ister sign of that Le-vile-than disease, the blubber-onic plague.

And yet, the sperm whale was also linked to a way to thwart the plague. Due to undigested squid, the intestines of the sperm whale produce a substance called ambergris. When released by or extracted from a sperm whale, the scent of ambergris changes from an intestinal stench to an intensely aromatic fragrance. Early modern Europeans were not sure about the origins of this substance, whether animal or vegetal; but in any case, ambergris was highly valued not only as a perfume, but also as a food flavouring for the upper classes and even King Charles II of England. It was, moreover, used as a fumigant when mixed with balms against pestilential odours. Those sceptical about the anti-plague properties of ambergris complained, ‘you must be squidding’. Others saw ambergris as a remedy against ill-whale directed at these ‘monsters’: that the beached mammal’s last whale and testament was an act of goodwhale, such that during times of plague, where there’s a whale, there’s a way.

Early Modern Times will return on Aug. 21!

Simon Kow

Early Modern whale-to-power Studies Program

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