Histoire Naturelle des Poisons (Paris, 1785)

Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière des Poissons: Troisième Cahier.
WEGENER, P. 1785 
Presented by Thomas Phillips, 1847 (PHI 00326)

This book was produced by the Academy of Science in France, which was established in 1666 and granted royal status by Louis XIV in 1699. It represents the work of some of the best scientists in Europe at the time and demonstrates the contemporary drive for knowledge and for a greater understanding of the world and how it worked.‌Plate LXXXVII illustrates Lophius Plscatoplius, or in common parlance, the sea devil.

It consists of a top down view of the creature along with a cross section and a view of the creature's underside. The illustrator is unknown but given the books’ prominent origin, the representation is almost assuredly truthful in its reproduction of the specimen. This plate shows how leading academics and scientists began to discover the world around them through the acquisition and study of various creatures. It is the study of both new and old creatures but through a scientific medium giving standard representation to the creatures they encountered and reliable knowledge of the natural world. No longer confined to myth and speculation there is documented proof of what is out there.

Although this work has been scientifically and faithfully reproduced the description of this creature is more fanciful owing to the beliefs of the day. The spiky profusions outlining both the body of the fish, and its fin tips, have been interpreted as slightly demonic, earning the fish the name of the Sea Devil. Religion played a large role in the lives of people in the eighteenth century and underpinned current understanding of how things worked or came to be; it is within this context of eighteenth century thought and religious beliefs that the creature came to be so named.

The fish shown here is a good example of the recording and cataloguing that took place in this period, to the best of the author's abilities in terms of method and reasoning, for them this was the Devil in the deep blue sea.

Chris Tovey

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