Byssus and Byssus

There is a big confusion and misunderstanding around the concept of byssus. Aristotle would have been the first to give the name byssus to the fibres of the Pinna, so is said. This false attribution is based on a translation error, or more precisely an accent error going back to the 15th century, a very momentous error - at least for the history of sea-silk.

In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a Historia animalium. In Book V 15 he described the fan shell Pinna: „Αἱ δὲ πίνναι ὀρθαὶ φύονται ἐκ τοῦ βυσσοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἀμμώδεσι καὶ βορβορώδεσιν”. In the 13th century, Willem van Moerbeke (approx. 1215-1286), a Flemish Dominican priest, translated the book into Latin: „Pinnae rectae nascuntur ex fundo in arenosis…“ („the Pinna-mussels grow upright out of the depth in sandy places…“). This is correct, as ό βυσσός is masculine, with accent on the last sillable – it means depth (van der Feen 1949, Turner and Rosewater 1958). So it is clear, that Aristotle did not use the term byssus for the filaments of the Pinna.
200 years later, in the second half of 15th century, Theodorus Gaza (approx. 1400-1475), a Byzantine humanist living in Italy, made another translation of Aristotle’s History of animals. He made major alterations, as he was convinced, that “a translator of Aristotle must first do his best to restore the text to the form the philosopher had originally given it, and to do so he will have to make substantial changes ad mentem Aristotelis“. Make a better Aristotle, but Gaza was not always lucky in that. He translated: „Pinnae erectae locis arenosis coenosisque ex bysso …“. As in the time of Aristotle Greek was not written with accents, he misunderstood the term “εκ του βυσσου” and translated „ex bysso”: „the Pinna-mussles grow upright from the byssus…“ – ή βύσσος, feminine, with accent on the first sillable, meaning fine linen.

That is how the term byssus for the fibre beard of the Pinna was born. Gaza’s version was much more successful. Printed 1476 in Venice, his book had by the end of the 16th century already more than 40 editions. „Gaza, in fact, had a ‘virtual monopoly’ on the biological works of Aristotle“, and more: „Immediately after its publication Gaza’s translation of De Animalibus achieved an authoritative status, totally eclipsing all previous translations” – although the incorrect translation of this cited phrase was contradicted later by many philologist and zoologist (Beullens and Gotthelf 2007.
Nevertheless, the term byssus entered in zoology and was given later to all other bivalve filaments. So, from that moment on, to the already ambiguous term byssus known from the ancients – cotton? linen? silk? – was added one more: the zoological term byssus for the fibres of bivalves. But „…we must bear in mind, that not one author before Gaza, 1476, has ever used the word byssus in this sense [as fibre beard of the Pinna nobilis] and that all later use goes back to the quoted passage of Gaza” (van der Feen 1949).


A brief overview of encyclopaedias and textile books gives an impression of the conceptual difficulties of the term byssus:


History of textile art, Geijer 1979

«Mention is sometimes made in historical texts of textile fibers which have proved hard to identify, and centainly which are not related to the common principal species .... Pinna marina, or squamous, is the name for certain mussel species living in temperate sea water, especially in the Mediterranean and off the coast of India. The mussel clings to rocks under water by means of long tufts of hair growing out of its shell. After they have been cleaned, these tufts make a lustrous spinning material which was used even in prehistoric times for weaving fine fabrics. Arab merchants called this material 'sea-wool'.»


Matthews' Textile Fibers, 1947

«Byssus Silk: This is also known as sea-silk or pinna silk; it is obtained from a marine mollusk, Pinna nobilis and related varieties. The shellfish possesses a long slender gland which secretes woolly fibers known as the byssus or beard. These fibers are of a brown color and are 4 to 6 cm in length. The brown color is said to be due to an external covering which wehen removed leaves a colorless fiber. Sea-silk is somewhat used in southern Italy and in Normandy for the making of various ornamental braided articles. Though this fiber somewhat resembles silk in appearance, it is easily distinguished by the presence of natural rounded ends. The fibers vary considerably in diameter (10 to 100 mü), are elliptical in cross-section, and are often twisted. Fine longitudinal striations are apparent, but as the fiber is solid, no empty lumen or air canals are present. The finer fibers are smooth, but the coarser ones are rough and corroded. Frequently very delicate fibrils are to be observed branching from the larger fibers.»


Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913

Byssus
Bys'sus noun; plural English Byssuses; Latin Byssi. [Latin byssus fine flax, fine linen or cotton, Greek by`ssos.]
1. A cloth of exceedingly fine texture, used by the ancients. It is disputed whether it was of cotton, linen, or silk. [Written also byss and byssin.]
2. (Zoology) A tuft of long, tough filament …



Die textilen Byssus-Reliquien des christlichen Abendlandes, aufbewahrt in den Kirchen zu Köln, Aachen, Cornelimünster, Mainz und Prag, Bock 1895

Antique byssus is linen: «Es ist also der Byssus des Altertums und des frühen Mittelalters nicht zu den Seidenstoffen, sondern zu den Leinengeweben zu rechnen.» No mention of sea-silk.


Dictionnaire encyclopédique et biographique de l'industrie et des arts industriels, Lami & Tharel 1881

«BYSSUS. On désigne sous ce nom, ou encore sous celui de soie de mer, une matière textile..... On estime la production totale annuelle de byssus à environ 200 kg. Les moules, les filaments et les produits de leur mise en oeuvre ont été exposés en 1878.»


Vocabolario degli accademici della Crusca, vol 2, 5° edizione (1863-1923)

BISSO. Sost. masc. Sorta di tela di lino assai fine, e di tessuto rado, che oggidì serve specialmente a fare alcune delle vesti sacerdotali. Dal lat. byssus, e questo dal gr. βύσσος. - Fr. Giord. Pred. S: Imperocchè di quel lino si fa il bisso, che è panno lino nobilissimo. Sacch. Op. dic. 51: Bisso era la camicia di lino sottilissima. Soder. Cult. Ort. 160: Pausania scrive non nascere il bisso in altra parte che in Elide di Grecia, di tanta sottigliezza che non cede al bisso di Giudea. Baldell. F. Filostr. 132: Dicesi che il bisso vien prodotto da un arbore che è per l'altezza sua pari all'opio, e che ha le foglie che somigliano le foglie del salce.
§ I. E in locuz figurata. - Borgh. S. Tertull. 878: Vestitevi della seta della bontà, del bisso della santità, della porpora dell' onestà.
§ II. Bisso poeticam. dicesi ora per Mussolina finissima o altro simile tessuto. - Crudel. Rim. 67: Biacheggiante di trinoso Bisso sotto verde manto, Lascia il coro strepitoso E il solenne augusto cauto. Parin. Poes. 114: Con lieve Bisso il madido fronte a lui tergendo, E l'aurette agitando, il tardo sonno Inviterai. Fosc. Poes. 168: O quando l'arpa adorni, E co'novelli numeri, E co'molli contorni Delle forme, che facil Bisso seconda.


Dictionnaire général des tissus anciens et modernes, Bezon & Lorrain 1863

«Tissus d'ablaque (ou byssus de pinne-marine): On appelle ablaque dans le langage commercial, le byssus de la pinne-marine (voir pour le byssus des anciens, l'Introduction au Dictionnaire des Tissus, pages XLVIII et XLIX). On désigne sous le nom de byssus une étoffe de filaments qui proviennent de certains mollusques. Celui de la pinne-marine est très long, très fin; son moelleux et son brillant lui donnent une grande ressemblance avec la soie. La pinne-marine est nommée coquille porte-soie par Aristote, qui signalait dans le byssus de ce mollusque une fibre textile.»


A pentaglot dictionary of the terms employed in anatomy, physiology, pathology, practical medicine, surgery ..., Palmer 1845

«Bissus, s. m., - βύσσος, - byssus, m.
The silk-like filaments, or beard,—laine de pinne-marine, soie de mer, poil de nacre, F, die feine seide der seidenmuscheln, G.,—by which the molluscous inhabitants of the shells, belonging to the genus, Pinna, (see Jamboneau), attach themselves to the rocks. This substance is formed from the secretion of a particular gland, by means of an appendage, or foot, resembling a small tongue. In Italy, Corsica, and Smyrna, it is manufactured into very fine stuffs, which are said to promote cutaneous perspiration, and consequently recommended to be worn next the skin, in rheumatism and gout.»



The origin of laws, arts, and sciences: and their progress among the most ancient of nations, Band 1, Goguet & Fugères 1781

«Almost all commentators on the scriptures translate the Hebrew word Schesch used by Moses to describe the nature of the stuff given to Joseph, by the word Byssus. But the dispute is at present, what kind of matter that was which was anciently thus named. Some think it meant a kind of silk of a bright yellow, which we see sometimes adhering like a tuft to a very large kind of shell-fish called pinnae marinae. We know that the ancients knew and used this as a material for making cloth. Others think that the Byssus signifies a kind of very fine flax, which grew in Egypt, or Judea. Others again are of opinion that it is cotton. This opinion seems to me the more probable, as we cannot apply the description given of the Byjfus by Pollux to any thing but cotton. This writer says, that this material came from a kind of nut which grew in Egypt; that they opened the nut, extracted this substance, spun it, and wove it for garments. Philostrates describes it much in the same manner. These characteristics agree very well with cotton. It is found in a kind of brown nut, which grows on a small shrub. But not to enter any further into this disquisition, it seems evident from the analogy of languages, that the word used by Moses to describe Joseph's garment, must mean cotton. We learn further from profane authors, that robes of cotton were very ancient in Egypt, and that they were worn only by persons of the greatest distinction.»