John Greenlee ’00
Medievalist and cartographic historian John Greenlee ’00 was working on a project involving 17th-century London when he noticed something odd. On several maps, there were two ships anchored in the Thames. These ships had been marked as civic landmarks and labeled “Eel Ships.” Interest piqued, he began researching the history behind these vessels and the history of eels in England in general.
Little did Greenlee know that this chance observation would evolve into the dissertation topic for his Ph.D. in medieval studies at Cornell University and an ongoing fascination with the slippery, snake-like fish.

“I kept finding myself surprised by the roles that [eels] play in premodern English history,” said Greenlee, who is now a lecturer in medieval studies at Cornell. “Once you start looking for eels in English history, they’re basically everywhere.”

It’s true. Eels were no ordinary fish in historical England. They were a common form of currency in 1200 CE and remained an important aspect of English diet and identity in the 17th century. Finding increasing fascination with the history of eels in England, Greenlee began to share these facts with the world. He started with sporadic Tweets, under the name Surprised Eel Historian, mostly for his own amusement. Now, he Tweets each weekday, usually with a meme and a joke or pun, for his 21,400+ followers. His work was featured in a 2020 Time article.

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As a medieval historian, Greenlee hopes his Tweets will encourage people to learn more about the period. But during his time as a history major at Hamilton, he also learned about the importance of interdisciplinarity. He weaves this into his Tweets in the hopes that people will recognize eels, a critically endangered species, as one that is worth saving.

“Eels have long been an extremely important part of freshwater riparian habitats, but they’re neither majestic nor cuddly, and they are not a fish that most people have personal experience with,” Greenlee says. “To get people on board with saving them, I try to make eels interesting by telling engaging stories. Twitter is a great medium for helping people appreciate the humor, and history, of eels.”

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