22. Rats leaving a Sinking Ship

This week’s edition is less a wreck of the week than a bit of a linguistic diversion. Spotting the skeleton of a rat, at the preview of the Mary Rose museum on Tuesday, led me to consider the phrases associated with ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’ and the expressions associated with total loss in various languages, the principal English expression being, of course, ‘lost with all hands’.

Rats are excellent swimmers, hence another expression, ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’: the rat in the Mary Rose museum is one of only three which were actually found in the wreck, suggesting either that the ship’s dog who was also found was a good ratter, or that most of the rats had managed to swim ashore (you can imagine them swarming up the netting placed to prevent boarding by the French, which unfortunately trapped a lot of the crew) and doing a ratty paddle to shore. Of course the Mary Rose is relatively close inshore, so it’s quite plausible that there was a sudden incursion of rats shaking themselves off in Portsmouth – we will never know.

You might remember that in the Christmas issue we looked at the Dutch ship Jeffrow Edia Maria (or variants thereof)  which was lost off Rame Head in 1753 met Man en Muys,’with man and mouse’, implying total loss. It’s a phrase I have come across quite regularly in terms of Dutch wrecks. The same phrase is used in German, mit Mann und Maus untergehen, to ‘sink with both men and mice’.

It struck me that I have never, ever, seen in an account of a wreck any detail on rodent survival or otherwise, presumably because they were vermin . . . As we all know from historical research, contemporary sources rarely make common knowledge explicit, because the reader would have understood the situation immediately – but we, of course, don’t, because it is no longer common knowledge to us!

I did start to wonder if anyone historically ever noticed flotsam and jetsam washing up with rats clinging to them, or is that too fanciful a notion? Has anyone ever come across such a reference?

Interestingly, the French expression is perdu corps et biens, literally ‘lost with bodies and goods’, i.e. everything, both men and cargo, perished. I am told that when the Vasa was lost a contemporary report to the king said that she went down med man och allt (men and all).

I leave you with this image.

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