Mermaids are slippery creatures. At home in a surprising range of contexts, they have figured in the visual, oral and written cultures of every continent and epoch since the dawn of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the creative outputs of Medieval Britain, where the figure of the sea-maid was indissolubly bound to an oceanic community identity.
Professor Sarah Peverley is writing a history of mermaids in the arts and cultural imagination of our early islands, which will map the place of these beguiling, and often deadly, figures in the national maritime imaginary, and explore our ancestors’ persistent reimagining of the mermaid’s mutable and elusive nature.
Mermaid sightings were commonplace in the Middle Ages. According to chronicles and speculum literature like Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia (c. 1215), the waters encircling our archipelago were home to a burgeoning population of seductive sea-maids with sleep-inducing voices and a propensity for shipwrecking sailors. But mermaids and their male counterparts also had a foothold on land, inhabiting the borders of richly illuminated manuscripts, swimming through the decorative stone and woodwork of churches, adorning images of the world like the Hereford Mappa Mundi, frolicking on royal embroideries, and parading across the heraldry of noble families like the Berkeleys.
In the ubiquitous animal compendiums known as Bestiaries, mermaids were often inseparable from the Homeric sirens, branded as allegories of temporal pleasures that lead men to their doom. Yet this ongoing link with the classical sirens also connected mermaids with man’s eternal quest for knowledge. Other texts developed this aspect of the sea-maids’ nature or furnished them with more complex guises, as witnessed in the fourteenth-century mystery plays known as the Middle Cornish Ordinalia, which feature mermaids in a positive light, using their hybrid bodies (part woman, part fish) to exemplify the two natures of Christ (part man, part God).
By situating British mermaids within their broader European context, but attending to subtle variations to determine how and why the creative and intellectual minds of the British Isles communicated, rejected, and reshaped Classical models of merfolk for different audiences, Professor Peverley hopes to demonstrate the centrality of the mermaid to our islands’ various identities – to think about what connects our submarinal agents to, or separates them from, those of our Western European neighbours – and to offer fresh insights into our ancestors’ relentless negotiation of topics like religion, monstrosity, gender, war, and authority. Beyond this, she hopes that the research generated by this project will help us to better understand our own relationship with the sea, its legends and its allure.