Noos of Your Fish

This is another post about one of the more entertaining findings I’ve come across in the course of my research. The previous two concerned Captain Zachary and Richard Chiles. Chiles had a rather unfortunate encounter with ‘an ape munkye or baboone’ and, strangely enough, this too mentions an ape, or rather a number of them.


John van Kessel, ‘Monkey among fruit’, 1660s

First, let me give a bit of background to this example. It comes not from my Ph.D. or postdoc research, but from the heady days of my undergraduate dissertation, the first substantial piece of research I did. At least, it felt substantial at the time. There’s also a cautionary tale here, or possibly more than one. Like all of my undergraduate work, the dissertation was based on handwritten notes, in this case kept in a single notebook (a practice I continued into my master’s studies until, sick of transcribing my own terrible handwriting, I made what seemed to be a huge leap and started taking notes straight into MS Word. For more on that, see this post). The problem is that, while I still have my M.Phil. notebooks, I have no idea where the undergrad book is, or of it still exists, and I never made an electronic copy.

Naturally, since then I have learned to know better, and to keep anything just in case it turns out to be useful. I doubt I would ever have returned to these notes, except for this one thing which I didn’t even use in the dissertation, but which stuck in my mind. I vividly recall sitting in the Hugh Owen Library in Aberystwyth, finding this and then laughing about it for almost a whole week. My fellow students of the time will vouch for this – which just goes to show that I clearly led an extremely diverting existence as an undergraduate.

Anyway, on a whim I decided to find it again. Luckily, everything is on the internet these days. I could remember that it was a Camden Series volume, with letters from the Verneys, a gentry family whose remarkable papers survive in the Claydon Estate archives. A quick search revealed that this volume is on the Internet Archive. I wasn’t sure I had the right one, and searching for ‘apes’ and ‘fish’, two details of the story I remembered, returned no results (the second cautionary note: beware of trusting text-searches too readily). I then searched for ‘merchant’ and, to my great joy, found the letter I remembered, from Sir Edmund to Ralph Verney, dated 19 January 1636, on page 167. Having delivered sufficient build-up, here is the story, which itself provides the third cautionary tale:

To requite your noos of your fish, I will tell you as good Value of an a tale from hence, and as trew. A merchant of Lundon that writt to a factor of his beyoand sea desired him by the next shipp to send him ” 2 or 3 apes.” He forgot the “r,” and then it was “2o3 apes.” His factor has sent him fower scoare, and sayes he shall have the rest by the next shipp, conceaving the marchant had sent for two hundred and three apes. If yourself or friends will buy any to breede on, you could never have had such choyce as now. In earnest this is very trew.

The images which occurred to me when I first read this are still there in my mind. The diligent factor, or merchant’s agent, patiently collecting 80 apes from as many suppliers as he can find, always thinking about how pleased his master will be with him. The merchant dumbfounded on the Thames dock when the ship’s master explains just what is waiting in the hold. The desperate race to persuade all his friends that what they really, really need to keep up with the latest fashions is a pet ape. Just as good is the dry humour of the editor in the volume’s marginal guide: ‘Value of an “r;” a cargo of apes’.

I don’t know if this is as ‘trew’ as Sir Ed maintained, but I don’t really think that matters. It’s a wonderful vignette of the rumours and misinformation that early modern merchants must have contended with; and, like the letter discussed in a recent post by Laura Sangha, gives us a relatively unusual moment of early modern people sharing jokes with one another.. It was also, as far as I can remember, my first real glimpse of just how unexpectedly colourful, and fun, historical research can turn out to be.

I don’t recall ever finding out what the ‘noos of your fish was’, though. I bet it was something good.


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