Jenny Haniver and I just met. I was vaguely aware of her existence, but I’d never made her acquaintance. Like so much in my life, I found her through books. I first heard of her via an obtuse reference in a French work on fish from 1551. We were formally introduced in the pages of a rather spectacular and unusual 17th century text, Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo. Ever since Jenny and I met, I seem to be seeing her everywhere. Maybe she was around before, but I just wasn’t aware, or maybe she’s following me. Anyway, you’re probably wondering who this Jenny Haniver character is, yes?
“Draco alter ex Raia exsiccata concinnatus” by Ulisse Aldrovandi. Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo. California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL666.O6 A42 1640
Maybe not who (or what) you were expecting? Meet an early depiction of what is known as a Jenny Haniver: a ray or skate that has been cut and shaped by hand, and then dried in order to fabricate another creature altogether. They make several appearances in natural history texts from the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed, they appear in some of the earliest zoology books. I first saw this plate several years ago, when I was looking through some early herpetology publications; Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum…, published posthumously in 1640, is one of the older ones in the Academy Library collections. It’s a fascinating work, filled with descriptions and illustrations of various snakes, as well as crowned serpents, winged dragons, and…that thing up there. I didn’t think much of this particular plate, figuring that it depicted yet another imaginary beast.
I returned to Aldrovandi after reading Pierre Belon’s L’Histoire Naturelle des Estranges Poissons Marins, avec la Vraie Peincture & Description du Daulphin, & de Plusieurs Autres de Son Espece, a work in which Belon comments on the practice of fashioning flying serpents and dragons out of rays. The next time I pulled the Aldrovandi, I saw the notation on the plate pictured above, which begins “Draco alter ex Raia” which tipped me off that Aldrovandi knew this specimen was a “dragon” crafted out of a dead ray. (Incidentally, I stumbled upon Belon’s reference while writing about his work for the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, where I am now a regular contributor: click here to read my musings on Belon for the BHL).
When I initially encountered Serpentum et Draconum… I was confused. Aldrovandi is known today as one of the first natural historians to stress the importance of direct observation and accurate illustration in scientific texts (rather than relying solely on hearsay and the work of others who came before). He was a scholar intent on seeing first-hand as many specimens as possible, dedicated to creating detailed, anatomically-correct illustrations to illuminate his descriptions. As we can see, he had no trouble revealing a hoax or a fraud when he saw one. Yet the same work that reveals this fraud is also full of winged dragons and many-headed hydras.
Of course, it is important to remember that while Aldrovandi did travel, he could not go everywhere. In addition to specimens, he collected illustrations and paintings, which he used to formulate his descriptions and in his teaching. Some of his specimens were mere fragments, such as bones, horns, skins, and feathers. It is not too difficult to imagine how certain specimens, along with the descriptions of predecessors, could have led Aldrovandi to include these dragons alongside animals he had seen with his own eyes. I’ve been batting this around a lot for the last week or so, this interesting book so full of contradictions, a mix of closely observed first-hand accounts, known fakes, and fantastic mythical figures. It’s enough to make me work on my Latin.
Incidentally, the name “Jenny Haniver” is a puzzle all its own. No one knows exactly when the term came into use, or what it’s supposed to mean. The closest to an accepted explanation is that Jenny Haniver is actually “Jeune d’Anvers,” or “young girl from Antwerp” in French. Some speculate that the practice originated in Antwerp, and since some Jenny Hanivers are crafted to look more human than beastly, it’s a plausible theory. Here’s a photograph of a Jenny Haniver from the Canadian Museum of Nature that has more of a human appearance than Aldrovandi’s.
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