A Jenny Haniver is a ray or a skate which has been modified and subsequently dried, resulting in a grotesque preserved specimen. Jenny Hanivers were created to look like devils, angels and dragons and became popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some writers have suggested the sea monk may have been a Jenny Haniver.
One suggestion for the term was "jeune de Antwerp" (the French call Antwerp, Anvers), that is "young girl of Antwerp." British sailors "cockneyed" this description into the personal name "Jenny Hanvers."
For centuries, sailors sat on the Antwerp docks and carved these "mermaids" out of dried cuttlefish. They then preserved them further with a coat of varnish. They supported themselves by selling their artistic creations to working sailors as well as to tourists visiting the docks.
It is not difficult to imagine how these fakes originated, since the underside of the head of a skate, ray, and chimaera crudely resembles a human face. With a little embellishment, these fishes can be transformed into a monster. First, the mouth and the tissue on the sides of the mouth are manipulated to give it a more human appearance, and artificial eyes are inserted into the nostrils. The pectoral fins are clipped and pulled to the side to give the impression of two arms and a devil's cape. For skates and rays, the legs are fashioned from the appendages on the pelvic fins of male fishes, whereas in chimaeras, they may be produced by splitting the tail into two "legs" and a spiked tail. Finally, after careful drying, a Jenny Haniver results.
Natural histories of the 16th Century broke into a rash of stories about marvelous fish shaped like men.
- The earliest known picture of a Jenny Haniver appeared in Pierre Belon's De Aquatilibus in 1553. It shows the "sea monk" captured in Norway, a creature in scaly but clerical garb with a human face, a monk's shaven crown, vague appendages for arms and a fish's tail. It lived three days, the author averred, uttering lamentations.
- Konrad Gesner in Historia Animalium vol. IV (1558) warned that these were merely disfigured rays, and should not be believed to be miniature dragons or monsters, which was a popular misconception at the time.
- Hieronimus Cardanus (a sixteenth century Italian mathematician and physician) described them:
- "two-footed creatures with very small wings, which one could scarcely deem capable of flight, with a small head . . . like a serpent, of a bright colour, and without any feather or hair."
- One funny story is that the proud owners of a fake Hydra in Hamburg were showing off their prize to Linnaeus (the famous naturalist who invented the zoological classification system still used today.) He very quickly pointed out that it was a fake made of snakeskins and bird claws. The owners became so angry with him they threatened prosecution, and Linnaeus had to leave the city.