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Mid Atlantic Frogs? July 10, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


Beachcombing has visited before the kamikaze Irish monks who explored the north Atlantic in the early Middle Ages refusing to steer but trusting the winds (‘God’) to take them where they would. Today he wanted, instead, to focus on an Irish encounter in the vast expanses of that ocean with a group of tiny but fearsome beasts.

[Cormac’s] ship blown by the south wind drove with full sails in a straight course from land towards the region of the northern sky, for fourteen summer days and as many nights. Such a voyage appeared to be beyond the range of human exploration and one from which there could be no return.

And so it happened, after the tenth hour of the fourteenth day, that there arose all around them a terrible thing, such as no one had ever before seen, exceedingly dangerous small creatures covering the sea; and these struck with terrible impact the bottom and sides, the stern and prow, with so strong a blow that they were thought able to pierce and penetrate the skin-covering of the ship. As those that were present there related afterwards, these creatures were about the size of frogs, very injurious by reason of their stings, but they did not fly, they swam. They were a terrible impediment to the oars as well…

[Unde contigit, ut post decimam ejusdam quarti et decimi horam diei, quidam pene insustentabiles undique et valde formidabiles consurgerent terrores; quaedam quippe usque in id temporis invisae, mare obtegentes, occurrerant tetrae et infestae nimis bestiolae, quae horribili impetu carinam et latera, puppimque et proram ita forti feriebant percussura, ut pelliceum tectum navis penetrales putarentur penetrare posse. Quae, ut hi qui inerant ibidem postea narrarunt, prope magnitudinem ranarum, aculeis permolestae, non tamen volatiles sed natatiles erant; sed et remorum infestabant palmulas.]

The Irish were terrified and most perturbed and weeping prayed to God, who is a true and ready saviour in times of trouble.

So the Irish have been blown out from the coast of Ireland or possibly Scotland for ‘fourteen summer days’ to the north. Estimates have varied but seven hundred miles seems reasonable given a light ship, a sail and a full wind. The Irish monks had, in short, come close to or even entered the Arctic Circle.There is no reference to land. They were presumably in the deep ocean.

As to the ‘frogs’ what were they?

It is unlikely we are dealing here with a fantasy: the Irish life from which this comes is one of the more ‘historical’ productions of Irish hagiography and was written well within living memory, though it does have occasional folkloric elements.

Nor are we dealing, Beachcombing would say, with a species unknown to science. Rather there is here a confused encounter with some quite conventional animal.

Naturally, there has been much speculation as to what the beast in question is. Some suggestions are simply lunatic given the location of the Irish on the map when they got blitzed, including flying fish!

Others are in the right part of the world but do not particularly correspond to the description: Greenland mosquito anyone!

Others are credible enough but were animals that were known on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, animals that would not have scared the Gaels: e.g. juvenile dolphins.

Beachcombing has not the foggiest. He will just note that the fact ‘they did not fly’ seems out of place: does this mean that they jumped out of the water and this had to be explained? The Irish, meanwhile, fixed their attention on ‘the stings’ because they were worried that the leather sides of their curragh – the monks did not use wooden vessels – would be pierced. Could these ‘stings’ be noses of some sort? Rereading it again now does the reference to ‘stings’ explain the comment on their lack of flying? Stinging animals fly??

Any solutions to this unsolved medieval problem: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


10 July 2011: Open Sesame write in: ‘Interesting, you jest about flying fish (for obvious reasons) but perhaps we have here a shoal of fish that was jumping on the surface, perhaps a fish that looks rather unusual? What I don’t understand is how an animal that is the size of a frog (essentially square) can have a sting or protrusion. I can’t think of any animal of this type. Can you?’ NO! Thanks OS!

11 July 2011: Invisible is ready to substantiate Open Sesame’s suggestions, ‘I was thinking of a Great Weever or stingfish as a possible candidate for the frog-sized creatures that frightened the Irish. They have a spur or crest on their heads/back that is very venomous. They also have a very froggy face and often have lichen-like bumps and nubs on their faces and bodies, possibly making them grotesque enough that they were not recognized as fish. The Lesser Weever primarily lurks in the shallows, but the Great Weever can be found in deeper waters. It is normally not found further north than the southern part of the North Sea. Weevers do not have swim bladders and sink if they stop swimming. If the creatures seen by the Irish were Weevers, perhaps the group was swept away from some shore and was struggling to keep afloat or perhaps they were in a feeding or mating frenzy. But they may be too large to be an attractive choice. Or could they have been an out-of-place shoal of stingrays? The pelagic stingray (Pteroplatytrygon violacea) is found as far north as Newfoundland and the North Sea. And it migrates. It moves by flapping its ‘wings’. The trouble is, it is not very froggy in appearance, although certainly gelatinous, especially en masse, They also grow to be about 2 feet wide, much larger than a frog. Their stings are an obvious threat. Perhaps there is another, smaller species. The impeding of the oars suggests a smack of jellyfish, but could they be found that far north? Of course there is also the possibility that something really random happened – like a school of monster fish from the abyss (think viperfish with their big fangs) being hurled to the surface by undersea volcanoes off Iceland. What are the odds? All of this speculation requires so many unusual/special circumstances that it seems unlikely that the mystery will be solved at this remove.‘ Thanks Invisible!

13 July 2011: Peter Wadhams, a Prof at Cambridge writes in with the following thoughts ‘I am sure that the description was of something real, as accounts of strange wonders in other reports of Irish monks’ skin boat voyages (e.g. Brendan – I see you have illustrated your article with the Brendan replica) usually refer to real phenomena e.g. mountain of crystal in sea = iceberg etc. I wonder if this collection of ‘frogs’ could be a group of young horseshoe crabs, limulus polyphemus? The shape is right – their carapace has a brown horny and slightly knobbly texture which resembles the skin of a frog, and it might be that small young creatures are green rather than brown (I have only seen adults, which grow to about 2 ft long). The case really rests with the ‘sting’. This is clearly not a mouth or jaw (i.e. not a viperfish) but something which they can poke into leather and make a hole. The horseshoe crab has just such a sharp protuberance coming out of its rear end, and a group of such creatures (they are not really fish, nor are they crabs, they are a very primitive group related to spiders) could easily have frightened the monks into thinking that their boat was about to get holed. The only trouble is that horseshoe crabs live on the seabed in shallow water, and also their normal range extends up the Atlantic coast only as far as the east coast of Canada. These monks may not have been heading due north, which would have put them into Icelandic waters, but maybe NW into NE Canadian waters, and it is possible that they reached a shallow bank and disturbed a group of young crabs that were bottom feeding and surfaced around them.’ Thanks to Prof Wadhams!

14 July 2011: Ailsa offers, meanwhile, an interesting minority opinion: ‘The Mid Atlantic ‘Frogs’ experienced by the intrepid Irish monks, could they have been some sort of crustacea? Maybe attracted to the boat by the ‘smell’ of the hide’. Thanks Ailsa!!

20 July 2011: Tacitus writes in with one of his posts on a fishing expedition. Enjoy the picture of the fish splashing out of the water: did the Gaels sail into something like this? Thanks Tacitus!