title of learn-about section on goose barnacles of A SNAIL'S ODYSSEY
  Goose-barnacle legend
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Research study 1

image of frontispiece of John Gerard's Herball published in 1597image of John Gerard, author of The Herball or General Historie of Plantes, 1597Why are goose barnacles called “goose” barnacles?  For one possible answer we go back over 400yrs to a publication by John Gerard entitled The Herball or General Historie of Plantes published in London in 1597.  Gerard was a member of the Court of Assistants of the Barber-Surgeon’s Guild and had sufficient status in the Court to allow him to practise “barberie or chirurgerie” in London City.  In those days medicine, other than traditional herbal remedies, was limited to the application of poultices and leeches, and to blood-letting, the latter done in what we now know as “barber” shops. In his spare time Gerard studied plants in his garden and other aspects of biology.  He seemed particularly fascinated by accounts from Lancashire and the west coast of Scotland that certain geese, known as tree geese or barnacle geese, originated from “Muskle”-like shells found growing on bits of cast-up shipwrecks, and on “old and rotten trees”.  In the Herball he referred to these “muskles” as Britanica Conche anatifera - thought from his illustration to be the common British goose barnacle Lepas fascicularis, or possibly L. anatifera.   One day on a visit to the south coast of England, and enabled by help from women on the shore, he claims to have obtained some actual specimens of these “muskles” from the trunk of a wave-cast tree.  On closer examination at his home he was able to discern feathers, soft down, and other bird features within the shells of the muskles.  This was all the evidence he needed and, in his final Chapter 188 of the Herball entitled Of the goose tree, Barnacle tree, or the tree bearing Geese, he was able “to confidently avouch, and boldly put down for verity” the fact that barnacle geese did, in fact, grow from what we now call goose barnacles.  

drawing of John Gerard's mythical "barnacle goose" emerging from "muskles" washed up on the shore on Lancashire, EnglandGerard has been accused of plagiarism by more than one author, but defended by others on the basis that an herbal is really a compendium of information gathered through the ages by any different people, and accused of lying and outright absurdity by others. But, really, can’t one make a simple mistake in interpretation without being accused of such duplicity?  Cox 1998 Endeavour 22:51.

NOTE there are several earlier references, including writings of Giraldus Cambriensis in 1187, a French publication Livre des Merveilles in 1433, and others, and perhaps one or more of these started the myth. A nice historical account of the story is given in Bondeson 1999 The Feejee mermaid Cornell Univ Press. Linnaeus himself had read and heard about the myth, and named the barnacle Lepas anatifera (anatiferae = duck-breeding).

NOTE these accusations stem principally from another author on the history of "herbals", Agnes Arber, who writes: “His oft-quoted account of the ‘Goose-tree, Barnakle-tree’…removes what little respect one may have felt for him as a scientist…not because he held an absurd belief, which was widely current at the time, but because he described it, with utter disregard for truth, as confirmed by his own observations”.  Arber 1953 Herbals, their origin and evolution Cambridge Univ Press

So, what's all the fuss about? CLICK HERE to see a whimsical cartoon account of Gerard’s observations done by staff at the Audio Visual Centre and English Department of Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.  The account is taken verbatim from The Herball and is spoken in a Middle-English accent thought to be contemporary with the times.  It is accompanied by krummhorn and flute music common in the late 15th Century.  

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