Vox piscis: or, the book fish

On midsummer eve 1626, a curious incident occurred in the market square at Cambridge. A half-dissolved book wrapped in canvas was discovered inside the stomach of a cod fish caught that morning in King’s Lynn. The tiny sexto-decimo volume in question contained three theological treatises dating from the late Henrician period, one of which was Richard Tracy’s Of the Preparation to the Crosse, and to Death. In the context of ecclesiastical and political developments that seemed to threaten the integrity of English Protestantism itself, fervent Calvinists interpreted this strange incident as a solemn prodigy portending renewed persecution. Attributed to John Frith, the evangelical reformer martyred for his faith in 1533, all three tracts were republished with a preface by Thomas Goad, chaplain to George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury. Alluding to the biblical story of Jonah in the belly of the whale and describing the cod’s literary cargo as ‘a living dumbe speaking Library in the sea’, Goad argued that the fish was a divine warning of ‘ghostly dangers which may and doe on every side besiege us’. Harnessing the early Protestant past to criticise religious trends that were gathering momentum in Caroline England, notably the rise of Arminianism, Vox piscis was a carefully calculated piece of polemical antiquarianism. AW

Vox piscis: or, the book fish contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge market, on Midsummer eve last, anno domini 1626 (London: [Humphrey Lownes, John Beale, and Augustine Mathewes] for James Boler and Robert Milbourne, 1627), title-page.

CUL: Syn.8.62.103

Further Reading

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Vox Piscis: or the Book-Fish: Providence and the Uses of the Reformation Past in Caroline Cambridge’, English Historical Review, 114 (1999), pp. 574–606.

Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c.1590–1640 (Oxford, 1987).

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