Fishy tales, part I

Woodcut image of a fish, 1569

On March 21st, 1587, a Jesuit priest called Thomas Pilchard (aka Pylcher) was executed in Dorchester, in Dorset. Contemporary letters and memoirs recount a series of remarkable occurences: the rope around Pilchard’s neck broke as he was hanging (a mark, for Catholics, of divine intervention), and instead of being hung, he was stabbed and then disembowelled by the hangman. Despite the groans and cries of the crowd, Pilchard remained calm and collected, and assisted in the process of pulling out his own bowels. A fellow Jesuit, William Warford, noted that all of those involved in the execution soon came to a horrible end, some after having been visited by a figure who looked like the dead Pilchard.

Pilchard is also credited with numerous conversions, including thirty in the two weeks between the time he was imprisoned and the moment of his execution. He had already converted William Pike (another fishy surname) when he met him on the road to London, and succeeded in converting another man who was executed alongside him. Both of these tales may remind us of biblical stories: in one case, the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus, and in the other, the sufferings of Christ on the cross, who is said to have assured one of the criminals suspended alongside him, ‘I tell you this; today you shall be with me in Paradise’. Although there are obvious parallels between the stories about Pilchard and these biblical antecedents, I am not suggesting that there is anything fishy about these accounts (although a very fishy conversion was to follow). Instead, Pilchard’s case offers an example of the way in which many early modern Christians thought about faith and religious experience using the language and frameworks offered by a number of pre-existing narratives — especially those contained in the Bible.

What were the most important stories of conversion in early modern Europe? How did people recognise their own experiences in accounts that they had read or heard since childhood, or shape their life stories to fit patterns they already knew? How did people take existing stories and make them relevant to their own circumstances? Did  individuals deliberately model themselves on biblical and other exemplars, or did these parallels emerge as their stories were told and retold? These are all questions we wish to try and answer, and we will be very grateful for any comments, suggestions, or tips.

One part of the story of Pilchard is particular puzzling: the puns offered by his fishy surname were literalized in later stories concerning his continuing influence after death. John Gerard reports that ‘An old prest there in prison … was suddenly wakened, and sawe his chamber full of light and a thinge like a fishe bigger then a man from which the light proceeded’. Four years later, a layman, imprisoned in the same place, and scheduled for execution, determined to die in the Catholic faith. When he was asked what ‘had moved him to that resolution, etc., he saide, “Nothinge but the smell of a pilcharde”‘. If this is a pun, it is a very serious one, invoking Pilchard’s role as a Catholic fisher of souls, as well as the symbolism of the fish amongst early Christians who worshipped in secret. The story opens up intriguing questions: how did tradition, imagination, and sense experience overlap for those who experienced conversion? What is the power of language? Was Pilchard’s name a convenient play on words, deliberately deployed in a range of stories, or did its fishy (and as Alison Shell points out, distinctly local) connotations drive the stories that were told about his death and posthumous influence?


The story comes from John Gerrard’s ‘Catalogue of Martyrs, 1587-1594’, Stonyhurst MSS, Anglia, vii, n. 26, and is printed in J. H. Pollen’s Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs, pp. 288-9. It is discussed by a number of historians and critics, including Anne Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535-1603 (2002), pp. 104-5; Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (2002), pp. 243-4; Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit (1984), chapter 2, and Alison Shell, Oral Culture and Catholicism in Early Modern England (2007), pp. 136-40.

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