SI Vault
John McDonald
June 03, 1957
In her "Treatise of Fishing with an Angle," the 15th century nun bequeathed to literature a new and enduring form of the writing art—and left to posterity a fascinating speculation
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June 03, 1957

Dame Juliana's Legacy

In her "Treatise of Fishing with an Angle," the 15th century nun bequeathed to literature a new and enduring form of the writing art—and left to posterity a fascinating speculation

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The Angler must intice, not command his reward...

For the angler all history is divided into two parts, before and after Berners. What she did in the garden and study of the nunnery to achieve this eminence was to create angling literature. For the first time in history she saw and defined the special qualities of fishing as a game and its profound relationship to life, and identified the character of the angler. For this purpose she created a new species of writing about fishing and a wholly new branch of sport. Surprisingly, she derived the angling convention not from the older fishing literature of Greece and Rome but from another, far-removed source, the hunting literature of barbarian Europe.

Now, fishing has two quite different literatures, one treating the subject as work and the other as play. Writing about fishing as work goes back to the beginning of writing itself and, until the modern novel appeared, was dominantly a literature of poetry. Writing about fishing as play, in the beginning class-angled, in the words of the Book of St. Albans , to show "how gentlemen shall be known from ungentlemen," is dominantly the didactic angling essay, which goes back to the Treatise.

Berners created this model in a simple form: 1) she defined and praised the art; 2) gave instructions in its pursuit; and 3) identified the angler and his experience. From this beginning, at once plain in substance and exalted in spirit, the angler with his rod, line and hook, and pursuit of pleasure and peace, was in time to become identified in thousands of books as philosopher, scholar and teacher, and his sport as gentle, solitary, contemplative, passionate, cheerful and innocent. And the solitary noblewoman of the 15th century, seeking solace in angling, was to become 30 million anglers in 1957. So she is of interest to us for her charm and for the effect her work has had upon angling and angling writers for nearly 500 years. What she may have sought solace for, and what the significance of that is for angling, I shall come to presently.

Angling is more or less a writer's word; in the U.S. one goes fishing, whether one is heading for the mountains with a rod or out to sea in a trawler. But angling is a useful word. Efforts to define it have been undertaken by some good minds from Plato to the American angling writer, Henry Van Dyke. These have been examined by William Radcliffe (Fishing from the Earliest Times), who concludes in favor of Van Dyke's "the art of fishing by hand with a hook and line, with or without a rod." That's not bad, but for the purpose here I define it in part subjectively, along the lines of Berners, as fishing by defined means and for its own sake.

It would be absurd to think that people did not angle for pleasure before Berners, but so far as we know they didn't write much about it. We know from Plutarch that Cleopatra was an angler. But as Shakespeare retold the story, she angled not for fish.

Give me mine angle, we'll to the river: there,
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny finn'd fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their shining jaws, and as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say, "Ah, ha! you're caught."

But Sappho, greatest of all women poets, and perhaps greatest of all poets, wrote in the characteristic classic manner in her famous doleful epigram:

Meniscus, mourning for his only son,
The toil-experienced fisher Pelagon,
Has placed upon his tomb a net and oar,
The badges of a painful life and poor.

Sappho, Cleopatra and Berners—but there is no line of descent. To place Berners by contrast in the context of fishing history, follow the trail of the scholars through the fishing literature of ancient Greece and Roman times: Fishing is treated by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Aelian, Oppian and others—all of whom, except possibly Aelian who described fly-fishing, deal with the subject as work.

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