Blessings for Fishes

More from the 11th century Benedictiones ad Mensas: The first part of a series of blessings for fish

Mainz cathedral. The building was heavily altered and restored, but part of it dates to the 11th century. Ekkehart IV would have seen its walls being built. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons

39 We eat these cooked fish blessed with the cross

Hos pisces coctos cruce sumamus benedictos

40 Bless these fish, you, who mingles them with such waters (i.e. cause them to exist)

Hos benedic pisces qui talibus ęquora misces

41 May his Holy Spirit flow over all that lives in the water

Pneuma sibi sanctum perfundat aquatile cunctum

42 May the whale from the sea (this may refer to stockfish) be blessed a thousand times with the cross

Sit cruce millena benedicta marina Balena

43 May the Danube fish Huso be a flavourful food

Danubii piscis sit Huso saporis in ęscis

44 May the mighty salmon be a proper and healthy food

Salmo potens piscis sit sanus et aptus in ęscis

45 May a powerful blessing move the word into the pike (gloss: salmon)

Fortis in Esocem mittat benedictio Vocem

46 May the Alamannic Illanke be excellent and repel evil

Illanch pręcellat alemannicus et mala pellat.

47 May the pike that is the same in all waters be a delicious food

Omnibus unus aquis sit Lucius ęsca suavis


47a May the cross render the char healthy by its mighty power

Crux faciat sanam virtute potente Rubulgram

48 May the cross make the gravid burbot develop sweetness

Crux faciat gravidam fungi dulcedine triscam

49 Bless, O God, the rare and too costly lamprey

Lampredam raram nimium benedic dee caram

50 We eat the trout blessed many times with the cross

Multiplici troctam cruce sumamus benedictam

51 Bless all kinds of trout, you, who are above all

Omne genus Troctę benedic super omnia macte

52 May the salt herring be a good food

Sit salsus piscis bonus Almarinus in ęscis (gloss: harench)

53 May the fish thus bitten by salt be all sweet, o God

Sit dulcis prorsus piscis dee sic sale morsus

54 May the cross make the lampreys (literally: nine-eyed eels) agreeable

Anguillas gratas fac crux novies oculatas

55 May the holy cross bless the swimmer upon this dish

Fercla superstantem signet crux sancta natantem

56 May He who created it extend His right to the eel

Mittat in anguuillam dextram qui condidit illam

This list is extensive (the second half will follow later), and I think it presents a good argument why the Benedictiones are a useful source. The text depends on Isidore of Seville’s 7th century Etymologiae in parts which is not surprising. That encyclopaedic description of the world was used widely as a teaching tool for Latin vocabulary, so the fact itself is not surprising. The question is whether the Benedictiones describe the reality of their time and place, or whether they are copying the literary setting of a different author. Looking at the fish in the Etymologiae (XII.6), we find that Ekkehart IV certainly did not merely copy his resource. Isidore’s list of fish is extensive and solidly at home in the Mediterranean. There is very little overlap, and the Benedictiones feature many names that do not show up here. Also, the fish it mentions – to the extent that we can identify them with certainty – is plausible for a location in the Alps or Southern Germany. It seems that the author blessed what he knew.

The blessings unfortunately do not contain much information on preparation or seasoning, but even the list itself is worth having. Entries #39-41 do not refer to any fish species. #40 makes a reference to Creation when it states God ‘mixes’ fish into the waters of the world. However, we meet an identifiable fish in #42, and our first problem.

Balena usually means a whale. This is not controversial or complicated. However, none of the translations I have found so far reads it as that. Cornel Dora renders it as Stockfisch, which would be dried cod from Scandinavia. This is a conjecture based on the idea that stockfish is more plausible as a trade good eaten in St Gall. Keller suggests stockfish or tuna in his commentary, the latter because its size led to considering it a whale. Neither is entirely implausible, though the elkkeventh century is early for a bulk trade in stockfish. However, there was a trade in salted whale meat from the French and Spanish Atlantic coasts. We cannot exclude the possibility that this, in fact, means what it says.

Other fish are less mysterious. The Huso, German Hausen (Huso huso), mentioned in #43 is the Beluga sturgeon then still found in the Danube. This fish was considered a delicacy and traded over long distances. #45 is only slightly confusing. While esox is Latin for a pike, the manuscript includes a German gloss here that renders it as lahs, salmon. Keller adds that esox and salmo also described salmon at different stages in their lifecycle. Illanch in #46 refers to a very local fish, the Illanke. This is most likely Coregonus wartmanni, a whitefish species native to Lake Constance specifically and the mainstay of local fisheries. The name rubulgra in 47a, however, is obscure. Dora suggests char (Salvelinus umbla) as a guess based on plausibility and the association with the colour red in its German names. Trisca in #48 similarly is a cognate of Trüsche (Lota lota).

The lampreda in #49 could be specifically the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) as opposed to the freshwater lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis), which could explain the complaint about the price. Lampreys in general were high-status food, but transporting preserved ones from the coast to the shore of Lake Constance would have raised the price considerably. The freshwater lamprey would then be the ‘nine-eyed eels’ mentioned in #54. Lampreys are known as Neunaugen in German today, and the distinction between the sea and freshwater lamprey is sometimes made by referring to them as Lamprete and Neunauge respectively.

Entry #52 again presents us with an unclear name, the piscis Almarinus, but a German gloss clarifies harinch, herring. Trade in salted Baltic herring (Clupea harengus) is attested archeologically by the eleventh century, and that must be how they reached the Alps. Entry #53 could also refer specifically to salt herring, though it may mean salt-preserved fish more generally.

Taken together, while many of these fish are not local species, all of them were plausibly available in the region either caught or preserved as trade goods. This is not modest fare, but modesty is far from the author’s mind anyway. We need to remember that both the Abbey of St Gall and the Archbishopric of Mainz, the two plasces where Ekkehart IV lived and worked, were at the heart of the rich and eminently political church establishment that supported the Holy Roman Empire. Abbot and archbishop were imperial princes – the former recognised as Fürstabt, the latter numbered among the seven Electors in later years. They deployed luxury as a tool of politics, if nothing else.

The Benedictiones ad Mensas were produced by Ekkehart IV of St Gall, most likely initially written during his tenure as head of the Mainz cathedral school between 1022 and 1031, but expanded and revised until his death in St Gall in 1057. They are a collection of blessings to be spoken over food. Written in short rhyming couplets in Latin, they are unusual in their attention to the diversity of foods and preparations. This is not a serious work of theology or medicine, but an intellectual diversion, playful verse meant to show off a broad vocabulary and facility with Latin. That is what makes them very valuable – they give us a glimpse of the mental horizon of a senior cleric of the 11th century at the table.

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