Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Man Who Lived in the Sea

A story from De Nugis Curilium ('Courtiers' Trifles') by the twelfth-century Latin writer Walter Map, royal clerk and sometime Archdeacon of Oxford. This work is a jumble of stories pulled from a wide variety of sources – classical literature, folklore, court gossip, and historical tales characterised by his editors as "a 12th-century version of 1066 and All That" – all told with witty self-awareness and a kind of satirical wink. This is how he describes himself:

‘I set before you here a whole forest and timberyard, I will not say of stories, but of jottings [‘non dico fabularum sed faminum’]; for I do not spend time upon cultivation of style, nor, if I did, should I attain to it. Every reader must cut into shape the rough material that is here served up to him, that thanks to their pains it may go forth into the world with a fair outside. I am but your huntsman. I bring you the game, it is for you to make dainty dishes out of it.’

So make of this little story what you will, but be aware that Walter Map probably thought it just as silly as you do:

‘Many are alive who tell us that they have seen at sea that prodigy, great, nay, surpassing all wonderment, I mean Nicholas Pipe, the Man of the Sea. For long periods, a month or a year, he would frequent the depths of the sea with the fishes, without breathing the air, yet unharmed; and when he was ware of a storm by foresight, he would forbid ships in harbour to go out, or bid them return if they had gone out. A real man, he had nothing non-human in his form, nor any defect in his five senses, but was gifted, over and above his humanity, with the aptitudes of fish. When he was going down into the sea to make some stay there, he took with him pieces of old iron torn from carts or horses’ feet, or worn-out utensils: I have never yet heard the reason of this. In one respect only was he inferior to mankind and like the fish, that he could not live away from the smell or water of the sea; when he was taken some distance away from it he would run back to it as if his breath failed him. William, king of Sicily, heard of all this and was anxious to see him, and bade him be brought to him, and while the men dragged him by force he died in their hands, owing to his separation from the sea. Though I have read or heard of things not less marvellous, I know of nothing that resembles this prodigy.’

De nugis curialium, trans. M. R. James, iv.13.

Amusingly, there appears to be a children’s book about this story!

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