The Curious Career of the Cambridge Book-Fish

Of the various vegetable hawkers, meat sellers, poulterers and pastry vendors crying up their wares the morning of June 23, 1626, the loudest outburst issued from a fishmonger. Her shout was not, however, one solicitous of traffic but expressive of surprise; for in the stomach of one cod, sliced, salted and ready for sale, she spied a prodigy so arresting as to bring the shoppers of the great Cambridge market stampeding to her stall: a small book wrapped in sail cloth.

“I saw all with mine own eyes, the fish, the maw, the piece of sail cloth, the book, and observed all I have written,” remarked one eyewitness in a letter, who hastened to add that he observed “not the opening of the fish, which not many did, being upon the fish-woman’s stall in the market.” Indeed, the fish-woman was alone with the cod for some time. It was she “who first cut off [its] head” and noticed that it seemed “much stuffed with somewhat.” Having aroused curiosity, it was duly searched and the contents “found as aforesaid.” Yet lest there arise any suspicion of funny business the eyewitness adds, “He that had had his nose as near as I yester morning, would have been persuaded there was no imposture here without witness.”

Whether an imposture was indeed pulled off remains a matter of speculation. It was determined, however, that this curious find, which was “much soiled, and covered with slime,” was penned by one John Frith, an adherent of the “reformed religion.” Condemned for his heretical beliefs, Frith composed his text while imprisoned in a fish cellar in Oxford. His was a mostly solitary confinement, his cellmates having succumbed to “the impure exhalations of unsound salt fish.” One supposes that just before his removal to the Tower of London, where in 1533 he was burned at the stake, Frith slipped his work into one of the fish that shared his quarters.

Frith’s book, a duodecimo volume of religious treatises, endured this second confinement for almost a century, commingling matters of the spirit with decidedly less wholesome vapors. Upon its fortuitous discovery, authorities at Cambridge commissioned a reprint. Rechristened Vox Piscis, or The Book-Fish, it featured a frontispiece depicting emblems of that fateful market morning — a stall, a cod, a knife, and a book.

A summer meal of salted codfish ought not to encourage schisms. Folks of all confessions will enjoy this recipe for salted cod with egg sauce, which appears in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769). After all, they have far less at stake than did poor John Frith.

Salted Cod with Egg Sauce

To dress a Salt Cod.

Steep your salt Fish in Water all Night, with a Glass of Vinegar, it will fetch out the Salt, and make it eat like fresh Fish, the next Day boil it, when it is enough, pull it in streaks into your Dish, then pour Egg Sauce over it, or Parsnips boiled and beat fine, with Butter and Cream; send it to the Table on a Water Plate, for it will soon grow cold.

To make Egg Sauce for a Salt Cod.

Boil four Eggs hard, first half chop the Whites, then put in the Yolks, and chop them both together, but not very small, put them into half a Pound of good melted Butter, and let it boil up, then pour it on the Fish.

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