Monthly Archives: May 2017

The sprat: a Swedish anchovy – or how to identify a fish from a book?


The April blogspot of fishtories discusses the Babylonina confusions regarding the naming of fish which one can find  in the early modern period as well as in present times.

“The term red mullet for example, can refer to both Mullus barbatus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus in British English, but only to Mullus surmuletus in American English. In Australian English meanwhile, the term refers to neither of these but to no fewer than seven species, none of which are related to the genus Mullus. Consequently, an Englishman going out to dinner in Australia, a country where he can speak his native language, will suffer from Babylonian confusion to the point where he’ll have no idea which fish is on his plate.”

The fishstories (aka Sophia Hendrikx) explain that similar observations can be made with regards to the sprat and Baltic herring in the early modern period.  In his Fischbuch (1563), Conrad Gessner called the sprat a ‘schmelzling‘ or ‘aphya’ . The the Baltic herring is named as  ‘membras’. Hendrikx discussed earlier  that the Baltic herring looks very similar to the slightly smaller sprat and both species are found in close proximity. Explaining that Gessner based his Fischbuch on the works of Aristotele, Hendrikx assumes that this fact led him to the conclusion that – if the sprat was Aristotle’s aphya – the Baltic herring, like the sprat a Scandinavian species, must be his slightly bigger membras, also mentioned by the classic author. These terms refer at Aristotle to the anchovy  a small, common salt-water fish or a similar small fish. In the second half of the 16t century, “the terms aphya and membras were commonly used to refer to the sprat and the Baltic herring”. Looking at the geographical research are of Aristotle one wonders, however, why he should have described these to species at all, since they do not (and assumedly did not) occur in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, tins of salted sprats are still today sold under the name ‘ansjovis’ in Sweden. Of course, “the sprat resembles the anchovies in its small size, and like the anchovies it isn’t often eaten on its own but is used to add flavour to a dish”, but it is still unclear when during the centuries, the sprat (or ‘skarpsill’) became the anchovy.

see also:

Sophia Hendrikx, What’s in a name? Mislabeling fish since the 16th century.  (2017)

Sophia Hendrikx, Spontaneously Generating Fish (2017)

Didi van Trijp, Something fishy (2016)