Search Results for: vox piscis

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The Bookfish

Vox piscis: or, The book-fish contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market, on Midsummer Eue last, anno Domini 1626.My blog has gone through a few names and iterations. My favorite name for it is The Bookfish, which I take from a 17c book, Vox Piscis (1627). I included the image in the Folger show in 2010 and discussed it in an MLA paper in early 2011.

The image is my underwater emblem for oceanic writing:

The book’s preface names it “a living dumbe Speaking Library in the sea” (Vox Piscis, 17), calling out to England “like another Jonas…out of the belly of the Fish” (34).  This ocean-text captures the alluring fantasy of a truly maritime literary culture.  Perhaps we don’t want to write from fish’s bellies, or even pretend to do so.  But real wisdom emerges from human encounters with the slimy deeps, if we are willing to go down there after it.

The blog is also sometimes called “Blue Humanities Blog.” You can find it either by going to www.stevementz.com or to www.stevementz.com/blog.

 

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a living dumbe Speaking Library

Now that I’ve retitled the blog — though I still like “Blue Humanities Blog” & may add it back in as a sub-title — I should explain the Bookfish just a bit.  Here’s what I had to say about it at MLA a few weeks ago —

Conclusion:     The Bookfish

That’s a fairly grim conclusion, and I don’t want to leave us floundering in dark waters on our voyages back toward the spring semester.  Instead, I’ll invoke one last maritime image that Shakespeare never saw but which draws out the promise of maritime symbology in his works, and perhaps also the value of maritime literary studies.  The last image on your handout is The Bookfish, also titled Vox Piscis, published in London in 1627.  It’s a favorite of mine, and it’s visible in the “Sermons and Prayers” section of the website for the Folger show from last summer (www.folger.edu/lostatsea).  If you can see on the small reproduction – the actual sextodecimo volume isn’t much bigger – it’s a codfish with a book in its belly.  This book represents the symbolic opposite of Wright’s legible and physical ocean surface; it’s a visual representation of the wisdom that comes up from the bottom in the human-ocean encounter.  The story begins off the coast of King’s Lynn in June 1626, when some fishermen catch a codfish and bring it to the Cambridge fish market.  To the surprise of Dr. Joseph Meade of Christ’s College, the fish when cut open has, as the picture shows, a tiny book in its belly, bound in sailcloth and covered with digestive “gelly.”  Down at the bottom of the North Sea, amid darkness and ooze, lay a volume of divine wisdom, penned by the Henrician martyr John Frith nearly a century before.  The oceanic pedigree of the Bookfish, even more than its textual contents, underwrites its theological truth.  Stories of holy relics returned from the deeps by sea creatures are common in coastal cultures, but the arrival of this fish in the early seventeenth-century suggests that maritime symbology was important for emerging religious polemic in England.  The story seems unbelievable on its face.  It’s barely possible, I suppose, that the tiny book fell overboard, was swallowed by a scavenging cod, and then discovered at the Cambridge fish-market, but it seems much more likely that Meade, who in 1626 was engaged in writing about apocalyptic events, invented the cod in order to use the ocean the same way Shakespeare did, as a powerful and flexible symbol of cultural change. Who would not want to read God’s news straight from the fish’s belly?

I’ll close my talk today by suggesting that the model of the bookfish can influence our own intellectual projects.  While Meade intervened in theological debates in 1620s Cambridge, a nascent “oceanic turn,” which I’ve elsewhere called a “blue cultural studies” or a “new thalassology,” is currently insinuating itself into our discourses about English literature and cultural history.  In writing about maritime literature, we should take the Bookfish as a model.  The volume from the sea-floor represents a gooey and imaginative mixing of scholarly writing and oceanic reality.  The prospect of stuffing our manuscripts into the bellies of deep-sea fish as a protest against the crisis in academic publishing has an attractively Quixotic air, though it’s worth remembering that the Bookfish is, among other things, a masterly bit of marketing.  The book’s preface names it “a living dumbe Speaking Library in the sea” (Vox Piscis, 17), calling out to England “like another Jonas…out of the belly of the Fish” (34).  This ocean-text captures the alluring fantasy of a truly maritime literary culture.  Perhaps we don’t want to write from fish’s bellies, or even pretend to do so.  But real wisdom emerges from human encounters with the slimy deeps, if we are willing to go down there after it.

I found this image for the first time back when I was at an NEH Institute at Mystic in 2006, and I included it in my Folger show and also in its opening lecture.  I do love that Bookfish.

Down there at the bottom of the sea, it’s my model for writing.