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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Mermaid of Haarlem

The year 1430 was one of turmoil and strangeness. In France Joan of Arc was captured by Burgundian forces and burnt at the stake. Further to the north in the Lowlands, within the borders of what was then the Holy Roman Empire, terrible storms were raging. The gales were so strong that the dykes which protected West Friesland were breached, and the North Sea broke through and flooded the farmlands. But these storms were not all that visited the country. Among the many fish left stranded on the farmlands (if we believe the wondering [1]accounts written at the time) was a mermaid.

The mermaid painted by 19th-century English artist Annie Louisa Swynnerton. The artist was active in the Women’s Rights movement of the time, and her mermaid seems to embody those positive qualities of female empowerment, so different in approach to the winsome and youthfully-sweet mermaids painted by her Victorian male contemporaries John William Waterhouse and Herbert Draper. This mermaid knows who she is, where she is going, and how to get there.
A group of women gathering the stranded fish for an easy meal apparently discovered the unfortunate creature floundering in the shallow waters. Astonished (as well they might be), they somehow managed to carry the marvel to dry land, where she was eventually transported to the city of Edam (presumably by boat to the western coast of the Zuider Zee - see my map below), and from Edam to the city of Haarlem.

The mermaid’s journey. Following her capture in the flooded farmlands of Friesland, the mermaid was taken first to Edam and then to Haarlem. The coastlines are those of the 15th-century, before the extensive land reclamation from the sea of later centuries, with the names of the then-Lowlands provinces shown in green. The Zuider Zee is now a large lake known as the Ijsselmeer, and reclaimed polderlands have diminished its size still further.
The Mermaid of Haarlem, as she became known, was provided with good Christian clothes with which to suitably cover her heathen nakedness, and seems to have settled down to this new life away from her watery home. She also seems to have adapted her diet to one of cooked meat, and was taught to spin yarn, and to pray and to make the sign of the crucifix. In short: the mermaid was provided with the essentials for a life in the Christian community in which she now found herself.

This portrayal of Mary Magdalene reading by Rogier van der Weyden is contemporary with the mermaid’s story. In Mary’s resigned features and in her dress of the artist’s period and place we might glimpse a vision of how the mermaid could have appeared during her new life on land. Unable to read, the mermaid could only have looked wonderingly at the unfamiliar pictures in such scriptural texts. The inset shows a small personal crucifix of the type that would have been presented to the mermaid.
But these outward trappings of her surroundings do not seem to have erased her essential nature. Apparently she always retained a longing for her watery home, and every attempt to teach her even the essentials of human language resulted only in stubborn silence. How many years she spent as a half-reluctant member of her adopted community is not recorded, although we are told that on her death she was given a full Christian burial. Ah: if only we knew of her burial place! Would an exhumation reveal a marvel, or merely a prosaic disappointment?

Let us suppose (because it is what we would like to believe) that the story is true. Did the mermaid truly have some sense of Christian reverence when she crossed herself, or was she merely mimicking the actions of those around her? And how strangely alien and awkward the wearing of clothes must at first have seemed to her. And what apparently was her resistance to human speech might have been more to do with her inability to speak at all, for who knows the ways in which mermaids communicate with each other when swimming in their watery home?

Religions in Europe during the mid-15th-century. Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was still a century in the future, as was the reign of Henry VIII in England, whose rejection of Papal authority would shrink the borders of Catholicism still further. The Lowlands, yet to become the nation of the Netherlands, was part of the Holy Roman Empire, whose defined borders are shown here. The Iberian Peninsula was divided up into its own kingdoms, but Islam in the shape of Moorish culture and belief still had a foothold in the south of Spain. At this time the areas of the Ottoman Empire shown on the map had a majority Christian population ruled by an Islamic minority. 
Now let us suppose (because we also need to embrace prosaic probability) that the mermaid’s story, although perhaps having some basis in fact, was not what it seemed. In a [2]previous post I mention the likelihood of stories originating from something, which confronts us with the possibility that the ‘mermaid’ existed – but that she was not actually a mermaid. Such stories do not grow out of a vacuum, and perhaps the ‘mermaid’ was in reality a feral human. Significantly, no mention is made of the woman actually having that distinguishing feature of her kind: a fish’s tail in the place of human legs. She was not found swimming at sea, but rather was rescued from the flooded farmland. Her wild and naked appearance would have been enough for the mindset of the time to see her floundering in the watery shallows and think: ‘mermaid!’ Stories of such feral humans in Europe and elsewhere have been [3]documented, so to my mind this scenario is certainly a likely possibility.

A feral girl as imagined by contemporary Belgian artist René Hausman. The painting echoes such cases as the life of 18th-century Marie-Angélique Memmie le Blanc, known as the Wild Child of Sogny. Born Native American, Memmie came to France as a young girl and became lost in the French forests when she was nine, only to be discovered by villagers ten years later in a state of feral wildness.
How we interact with these feral humans confronts us, not so much with their wildness, as with our own civilized selves. Our first impulse is to clothe them, to teach them the rules of modesty and [4]shame which have filtered down to us from Eden. We next seek to make them, in whatever ways are necessary, adopt our own standards, beliefs and moral codes. In short: what we recognize in the mermaid’s story is the desire, however [5]well-intentioned, to want to change someone to be like us.

We resist that otherness which makes someone special, which makes them the unique individual that they truly are. We want someone to share our own beliefs, because that is a way of confirming to ourselves that the things in which we believe must be ‘right’. We misguidedly imagine that we can improve someone by persuading them to believe what we believe, and to think as we think. But is such persuasion a form of conversion, or a form of coercion? We might excuse the actions of her captors towards the mermaid as belonging to the attitudes of 15th-century Catholic Europe, but such attitudes persist. [6]Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who come [7]knocking on your door are in their intention no different from the goodwives of Haarlem who taught the mermaid how to make the sign of the cross.

A mermaid, as imagined in the 19th-century by Danish-Polish artist Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann. This mermaid seems sculpted from the very ocean. Serene and impassive, self-assured and yet detached from and seemingly-indifferent to us, her observers, she defies us to deny her existence.
Almost six centuries is a long time: long enough for us to wish that the story of the mermaid might just be true: long enough for us to hope that the story perhaps has a grain of substance. We seem to need mermaids and other fantastic creatures, but what also touches us about her story is the notion of exile. The mermaid of Haarlem was a stranger in a strange land. We need not ignore such differences in others. Strangers are not different from us, but are merely a different us. And it is a sad truth that, if ever we did discover a real stranded mermaid, it seems that the very last thing that we would do, the least likely thing that might occur to us, would simply be to promptly help her to return to her own ocean home.

My grateful thanks to Emma for allowing me to borrow substantially from her own post on this subject. Emma’s blog Sophia's Mirror can be visited here.

[1] This is the original story of the mermaid as described in a 19th-century journal, which itself is a copy of other earlier accounts. There is something unnerving about the account’s referring to the mermaid as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’: “So, also, the Mermaid reported by Johannes Hondius, as taken by some women in the meadows at Edam, in West Friesland, where it had been brought by the sea which entered through the broken dykes, during the great tempests in 1430. That Mermaid was taught to spin. Moreover, it was dressed in female attire, fed on cooked meat, had some notion of a deity, made its reverences when it passed a crucifix, lived some years at Haarlem (though it ever retained an inclination for the water), and was allowed at its death a christian burial; and yet all efforts to teach even that Mermaid to speak proved ineffectual. It is this Haarlem Mermaid only (though without her clothes) that is represented upon our signs and in our coat-armour.” ~ Abridged extract from: The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, vol. XV, January to June, 1823. London.

[2] Please see my post Renaissance Snuff.

[3] Please see Michael Newton’s title below.

[4] Please see my post Shame.

[5] And "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions" - a pearl of wisdom that apparently originated in the 12th-century, and was therefore even current in the mermaid's day.

[6] Formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is their  own preferred title, but which, it must surely be admitted, is not one which trips readily off the tongue. Hence: Mormons, after the father of the angel alleged to have appeared to their founder, Joseph Smith.

[7] Please see my Pocket Guide to Proselytizing.

Michael Newton: Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. Faber & Faber, 2002. Michael Newton’s commendable and sympathetic book documents various cases, and critically examines both the discoveries of such cases and the attitudes of those into whose care they are received. Spanning several centuries, the author demonstrates that social and scientific methods might change, but basic attitudes do not, with inter-departmental social welfare rivalries, the quest for scientific accolades, and academic concerns often-enough taking precedent over simple human compassion.

The painting by René Hausman appears on the flyleaf of the hardcover edition of the graphic novel Laïyna, written by Pierre Dubois and illustrated by René Hausman. Published by Dupois in France, 1987, and published in Belgian and Dutch editions the same year. The book was subsequently re-issued in the Netherlands under a different title, although only the first edition features this painting. Hausman’s loose watercolour style is unique in the genre, and positively crackles with life and energy.

The painting of Mary Magdalene by Rogier van der Weyden is in the National Gallery, London. The small 15th-century crucifix is in the collection of the Museum of London. All referenced graphic novels are in my collection.

I soon discovered that different maps of the period tended to conflict with each other, and a variety of different sources were used to create the two maps featured in this post. The map of Religions in Europe in particular needed a lot of deft rechecking, which is understandable when one considers the labile shifting political alliances of the time (and I swiftly jettisoned one map as reference which claimed a swathe of Europe for Protestantism a century before it happened!). Nevertheless I feel that my maps accurately depict what their titles claim. 

A Footnote: The title page of this 18th-century songbook (left) printed in Haarlem continues to get mileage out of portraying one of Haarlem’s most famous citizens, however fictitious she might prove to be. The translation is: “The entertaining OUTDOOR LIFE, or the Singing and Playing FARMER’S JOY, Enriched with the art of Singing, and for the ease of the Players tuned to the key of G.”


  1. Brother David...I will never understand why we feel it is necessary to change those who are not like us.

    I very much enjoyed your is deeply resonating.

    1. Thank you for your appreciation Phyllis. Why we try to change others is certainly an involved question. I think that much of it has to do with our own fear and insecurity. As I suggest in my post, I personally think that it has rather less to do with genuine altruism, and rather more to do with reassuring ourselves that we are 'right', and we 'know best'. With the question of religious belief and attempted conversion, I do feel that there is an unacknowledged sense that if we convert someone to our own beliefs (whatever they may be), then that gives us a sense of superiority, of 'we are right and they are wrong'. Human ego is a demon!

  2. What a sad story, truly. I like to think that I would have snuck her out, one moonless night, and returned her to the sea. Why is it we seek confirmation by attempting yo make others like our own self. The black wolf does not try to acclimate the beaver but ratherfinds a way to co-exist or so says my heart.

  3. Joss, I know that you would be one to have helped her to return. Your heart, I am sure, tells you true!


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