Medieval Mermaids: Sirens of Shipwreck, Salvation and Folklore

Spotting a mermaid in the Middle Ages was easy. In both real and imaginary waterscapes merfolk had many guises, appearing as saints, sinners, and fantastic creatures. Chroniclers recorded encounters with merpeople, especially in the oceans encircling the British Isles and Ireland, which were believed to be home to a burgeoning population of seductive sirens with sleep-inducing voices and a propensity for shipwrecking sailors.

Across medieval Europe, fountains, pools, marshes, and rivers teemed with water spirits inherited from earlier mythologies, some of which were said to have founded royal dynasties, like Melusine of Lusignan. But mermaids and their male counterparts (mermen) also had a foothold on land, inhabiting the borders of richly illuminated manuscripts, swimming through the decorative stone and woodwork of churches, and adorning images of the world like the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Even noble households were not immune to the charms of fish-tailed women, as mermaids frolicked on royal embroideries and paraded across the heraldry of families like the Berkeleys.

Focusing on mermaids in medieval culture, this illustrated talk draws on literary and visual evidence, to offer new ways of thinking about the evolution of the mermaid. Join Professor Sarah Peverley as she draws on fresh evidence from her ‘Mermaids of the British Isles and Ireland, c. 450-1500’ project to consider the various ways that medieval people used mermaids and the complex interpretative frameworks that defined their aesthetic.

No prior knowledge of the Middle Ages is required, just a love of mythical creatures and a sense of adventure as we dive into mermaid history!


Professor Sarah Peverley is an academic, writer and broadcaster who divides her time between being immersed in the depths of mermaid history and lost in the medieval world. As professor of medieval literature and culture at the University of Liverpool she teaches across English and History and regularly speaks at festivals and heritage events. She has consulted for organisations like Guinness World Records, and has written, presented or appeared in over eighty TV, radio and press features. She is currently writing a cultural history of the mermaid. For more information see

Your curator and host for this event will be the writer Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), a work of narrative non-fiction, is a moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – as well as the author’s own haunted past; it was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley 2020 prize, an award given to a literary autobiography of excellence. Edward’s first novel The Listeners (2014), won the Rethink New Novels Prize. For further info see:

Don’t worry if you can’t make the live event on the night – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day.

[Image: a Mermaid in The Luttrell Psalter: London, British Library.]

Date: Wednesday 5th June 2024. Time: 8.00pm – 9.30pm (London time)

£6 – £10, & by donation