More Blessings for Fishes

Yet more from the 11th-century Benedictiones ad Mensas, completing the list of fish:

The abbey of St Gall today, courtesy of wikimedia commons. The buildings are all Early Modern.

57 May a piece of such a large fish among our foods be blessed

Pars tanti piscis nostris benedicta sit ęscis

58 May God not permit this perch to lack sweetness

Non sinat hanc percam deus in dulcedine parcam

59 Let us eat this cooked fish blessed with the cross

Hunc piscem coctum cruce sumamus benedictum

60 O Creator, let this cooked roach be blessed

Hunc rubricum coctum factor fore fac benedictum

61 Here is roasted fish, may he who suffered on the cross bless it

Piscis adest assus, benedicat eu[m] cruce passus

62 May he who created all foods make the crawfish nourishing

Cancrorum vescas faciat qui condidit ęscas

63 May the fish blessed by the power of this cross be agreeable

Piscis sit gratus crucis hac virtute notatus

64 May the fish that were peppered with welcome eagerness be agreeable

Pisces sint grati grato studio piperati

65 May the fish peppered with the sign of the Lord be agreeable

Piscis sit gratus signo domini piperatus

66 Eat, brothers, this fat wels catfish that was imprinted with the cross

Hanc Walaram crassam fratres cruce sumite pressam

67 May the cross of the Almighty meet all those small fishes

Pisciculis tantis crux obviet altitonantis

68 Under the cross, may the goby and the chub be free of illness

Sub cruce febre sine sit crundula cum capitone

69 May God bless thousands of small cooked fishes

Milia coctorum benedic dee pisciculorum

70 May the flesh of the beaver fish be blessed with health-giving voice

Sit benedicta fibri caro piscis voce salubri

71 May the triune God bless all permitted things that swim

Omne natans trinus licitum benedicat et unus

72 May this fine piece of sturgeon be among the gifts of the Holy Spirit

Pneumatis ex donis pars hęc bona sit Sturionis

There is less trouble interpreting the fish named in the second part, though some identifications are not entirely certain. The perca of #58 is likely the European perch (Perca fluviatilis), though it could also refer to the ruffe (Gymnocephalus pernua). Both are known as Barsch in German today. The poetic point hinges on the similarity between percam and parcam (sparse, poor).

The crundula and capito in #68 are identified speculatively. Dora explains their association by the fact that the chub (Squalius cephalus) was caught using the goby (possibly Gobio gobio, though this may also refer to one of the native gobiidae species) as bait. That is possible, though gobies, despite their small size, could also have been cooked and served. In medieval times, quite small fish were eaten.

The sturio sturgeon in #72 is probably Accipenser sturio, the European Atlantic sturgeon, or possibly the Adriatic sturgeon (Accipenser naccarii) as opposed to the more prized Beluga sturgeon referenced in entry #43. Atlantic sturgeons were found in both the Rhine and the Elbe at the time, but they did not range as far inland as St. Gall. If they were actually served there, it would be preserved by salting or smoking.

#64 and 65, almost parallel in structure and wording, are also interesting. The fact that a separate passage on peppered fish exists suggests that the use of spices was known, but not universally practiced even by the wealthy. St Gall was a rich monastery, but fish served with spices was unusual enough to attract notice. The epic poem Waltharius which may date to the 10th or 11th century includes a subplot where the hero catches fish in the wild to survive and eventually has the opportunity to present his catch to the king. The fish are prepared with spices (pigmenta, line 440) by the cook which is clearly special treatment fit for a ruler. As an aside, Ekkehart IV is also associated with this text and was at one point identified as its author or editor. I am not sure whether #65 means that a cross was somehow literally put on the fish with spices or – in my opinion more likely – they were blessed with the sign of the cross after seasoning, thus peppered under the sign of the cross. Spices were certainly special enough to be used in that kind of ritual, though.

In a similar suggestion of actual table ritual, the word pressam in #66 used suggests that something, perhaps a cross, was actually imprinted on or pressed against the fish. The European or wels catfish (Silurus glanis) can be very large, so this is not implausible.

The word altitonans in #67 literally means “thundering from on high” and was a byname of Jupiter that was adopted as a descriptor of God in Christian parlance. I rendered it as “Almighty” for clarity.

Finally, the closing line of this section refers to the beaver. This animal was widely classed as a fish for purposes of Lent, so it is not surprising to find it here. The specific addition of piscis – the ‘beaver fish’ rather than simply the beaver – suggests that the author may not be entirely convinced by the conceit.

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. Theyare 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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