AP History in the Less Magic Kingdom: “The Mermaid’s War” -The Toast

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url-7Good morning, class.

Ok, before we get started, are there any questions about last week’s lecture? Anyone? No? Well that’s good to hear: since you all have such a good handle on the topic, I guess I won’t bother putting any questions about it on the final exam. Ha ha! In all seriousness, I know some of you are writing your essays on the Coma Concorde between the Kingdoms of Stefan and Hubert, and I can’t emphasize enough that as this is a political history class, I really am not interested in yet another reconsideration of Duchess Maleficent’s obsession with Princess Aurora’s narcolepsy. I read at least two of those a year, they are barely relevant to what was, after all, an unprecedented peaceful merging of two kingdoms, and I never grade them higher than a “B.”

Moving on to today’s class: “The Fisherman’s Revolt,” perhaps better known to you as “The Mermaid’s War.”


This brutal civil war has been mythologized in our culture, such that the little that is known about the event is inextricably tied up with the fictions that have been constructed around it. Those in turn were often inspired by the propagandists on each side of the war. Those of you hoping to learn that Arielle was actually a magical singing sea-creature may want to leave now. Not that I want to sound crabby. Ha ha!

So let us try to tease the facts from the lies. We know that Prince Eric had backed out of a previously arranged marriage to the Princess of Glowerhaven not long before his sudden marriage with Princess Arielle. That ceremony occurred in near secrecy – on the Royal Barge, as opposed to the Palace Grand Hall which had hitherto been the custom.

There are a number of theories – non-magical theories – as to why this should be. The most likely of which was that Arielle was a commoner – possibly even a castle servant – with whom Eric had fallen in love. By now, I hope needn’t go into the political implications of such a match for the kingdom: the alliance with Glowerhaven repudiated, and the legitimacy of the royal reign imperiled.

url-4It is not difficult to believe that, in order to increase her acceptability with the peasantry and aristocratic classes, the royal propagandists led the population to believe that Arielle was a royal from a distant, overseas kingdom: there are references to her origins in “Atlantea,” a country which turn up nowhere else in the historical record. Nonetheless, as her one recorded public address referred to her gratitude of being able to reign “up here” we can assume that she had been elevated from a much lower social station.

The rapidity and secrecy of the marriage, and her uncertain origins, meant that Princess Arielle was destined to be distrusted by the populace, and therefore the scapegoat in any conflict between the Royal family and their subjects. Even given that context, it seems that much of what led to the revolt was – perhaps inadvertently – her doing.

First, it should be made clear, that the bulk of the economy of kingdom was dependent on the fishery: the interior of the country was mountainous and there was insufficient farmland for anything but bare subsistence. From the records that survive, it appears that up to 60 percent of a typical peasant’s diet was derived from the oceans, and fully 80 percent of the economy on the fisheries, either directly from fishing or in international shipping, trade and processing of seafood.

250px-Flounder_camo_mdThe symbolic importance of the royal family publically refusing to eat seafood is therefore hard to overstate. It isn’t clear precisely why it happened: there is a apocryphal tale of the young Princess falling into hysterics on being served a plate of Flounder soon after her wedding – but our best conjecture is that Arielle belonged to a little-known ocean-worshipping sect that prohibited eating fish. This has the added benefit of explaining why the royal couple’s wedding rites were kept secret. On the other hand one palace servant did testify that she claimed that her father was “under the sea” so it is possible that psychological scarring stemming from family tragedy such as a shipwreck explains her aversion to seafood.

Whatever the reason, the fashion for abjuring from seafood spread to the rest of the aristocracy, and eventually led to an official ban on fish for all palace or state functions. It has been estimated the domestic economy shrunk by as much as 25 percent, while the prices of imported foodstuffs skyrocketed even as the value of exported seafood crashed.

There were food riots, and inevitably, Princess Arielle became the focal point of the people’s rage. Her obscure origins and the secrecy of her marriage made it very easy for demagogues to play on the superstitions of the people and paint her as an enchantress: her red hair did not help in this regard. It was from these accounts – remember, written by her enemies – that the fantastical notion that she was a mermaid, sent by the Sea King of sailor’s legend to destroy the kingdom are derived.

We can laugh at such notions now, but remember these were perilous times. We have a toxic mix of economic upheaval, xenophobia, and the overthrow of a foundational aspect of the traditional political power structures (that is, marriage for trade or military advantage). It was not surprising that it simply exploded into The Mermaid’s…excuse me, The Fisherman’s Revolt.

url-6As we all know it did not end well for the royal family: despite most of the rebelling fishermen’s vessels being destroyed in a freak storm – again, attributed by propagandists to Arielle’s supposed undersea family – they did prevail over the royalist forces. Once Prince Eric and Arielle were executed, the aristocracy that did not flee largely put down their arms and one – Sir Grimsby the Great – became their first Lord Protector, governing with the aid of an elected council.

All, right, we’re running out of time, does anyone have any questions? Yes? Ah, I’m glad you asked that. Once more, I caution against putting too much faith in stories that have built up around individuals – it is institutions and the economy that are our best prisms for understanding these events. But to answer your question, no, it is probably not true that, when pleading for her life, that Princess Arielle ever said “let them eat hake.”

All right, thanks for your attention. For our next class, I’d like you to read “Queen Elsa and the Little Ice Age: how an absolute monarchy copes in a time of climate change.”

Mark Reynolds is a writer and editor in Chicago Il. Originally from Canada, he has also lived in France and California. He is the proud father of two little girls. In university, he took a course on international maritime law, and has wondered ever since what would happen if the mer-people ever signed the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, or if they were even consulted.

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