Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Barnacle Goose Tree

My business name, Barnacle Goose Paperworks, derived from my fascination with the story of the Barnacle Goose Tree, which I first read about in my work with rare natural history books at the Australian Museum Research Library in Sydney. I came across strange illustrations of trees with unusual fruit, usually overhanging water of some kind, on which swam ducks or geese. It wasn't too hard to find information on this phenomenon and I soon discovered that a fascinating story unfolded.

During medieval times it was noticed that the Arctic bird, the Barnacle Goose, arrived annually on migration in England and Scotland at about the same time much timber was washed ashore, the timber being heavily populated with goose barnacles. A legend arose, which continued from the 12th to the 17th centuries, that the geese had actually hatched from the barnacles.

Here Conrad Lycosthenes [1518-1567], in his volume Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, quæ præter naturæ ordinem, motum, et operationem, et in superioribus & his inferioribus mundi regionibus, ab exordio mundi usque ad hæc nostra tempora, acciderunt … Basil, 1557
illustrates barnacles growing on a tree (alongside some other wonders of nature which I'll write about another time). I'm sorry my illustrations aren't great but you can just see the geese in the water at the foot of the tree. This amazing book is a chronical of the known world, describing unnatural, strange and portentuous happenings. Beginning with the Garden of Eden the narrative follows chronologically to the year of publication, 1557. The book is illustrated with 1540 woodcuts, depicting comets, floods, fire, monsters, and pestilence of horrible proportions.

Just to put the Lycosthenes illustration into perspective, this is the full double page spread showing the terror and wonder of the seas. It always gives me a touch of satisfaction that the rather innocent barnacle goose tree made it into such an amazing depiction of wonders.

In this more complicated illustration Ulysse Aldrovandi clearly demonstrates the life cycle of the Barnacle Goose, not only showing the tree but the progression of the shellfish to the fully fledged goose. Illustrations such as this continued in the literature for centuries as did many other fanciful stories which sat quite comfortably alongside stories of actual fact.

At one time the Irish clergy were guilty of eating the flesh of the geese during their fasting periods on the grounds that the birds were not flesh, but having originated in the sea could be safely eaten as fish. The Church hierarchy was quick to put a stop to that. And the Dutch, thinking the English and Irish were very gullible, were quick to decry the whole story, insisting that geese hatched from eggs like other birds.


  1. Hope you had an eggy Easter!
    Knowing that you worked with rare books, I did wonder about the name and thought there was a connection with old maps/ manuscripts.
    Fascinating explanation here, Carol.

    And on a slightly different note...I'd like to pick your brain.Could you email me, please
    diane.patmore AT gmail DOT com

  2. How interesting Carol! I love the old illustrations/etchings from the book.

    I wonder what you do with the books you make, sell, gift them, or like me, stack them higher an higher in your bookcase?

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Di, as you now know, we've emailed.

    Dana, I occasionally sell them, often give them away and those I can't bear to part with get stacked on the bookcase. I'm trying to get geared up to make some books to sell but time is always a problem.

  4. What an interesting story & the illustrations are interesting as well.

  5. Well, I've never eard that story before, what a funny one! It makes me wonder how anyone could ever beleive it (and then I wonder what things we beleive today which will in future turn out to be just as crazy!)

    I love the illustration of how the geese are 'hatched' though, beautiful.

  6. Carol, I read your comment in another blog about Geraldine Brooks. I thought I'd let you know (if you werent already aware) that theres an Illuminated Manuscript exhibition on at the SLV in Melbourne. Charm.

  7. What an interesting story, Carol! I really like your logo, too.

  8. Fascinating bit of history!

    And, you've been tagged - check out my blog for details:


  9. This is incredible! I make drawings that morph plants and animals together, and I've been working on some that have ducks and geese emerging from magnolia tree buds. Your post is incredibly fascinating -- thank you so much for the information! I'm really glad I stumbled upon your blog.

  10. Hi Carol
    I am a Marine Biologist in cape Town, South Africa, and was familiar with the myth about barnacles... but have never seen such cool illustrations of it!

    I am giving a talk to some teachers next week, and was wondering, if I could use your scans of these amazing old books that you placed in your story?

    If yes, would it be possible that you email me some better resolution/larger size scans?
    My email address is maya.pfaff@uct.ac.za
    I hope you find this on time...

    Great to know of other barnacle fans... for me their actual life cycle is not less fascinating as the mythological one!


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  12. this is fabulous & love the illustrations!


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