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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Berners says never take fish by foul means (a sport or game by definition is a set of rules). Don't break a hedge; shut the gate. Don't be greedy; conserve the fish. Solitude is for prayer. And if solace is needed, it may be found on the stream. So enjoined, you will have the blessing of God and St. Peter. Here was the angler born.

Berners' bow to St. Peter—understandable in a nun who would fish for sport—made plausible connection between angling and the patron of professional fishermen. With that reference, however, she started a religious theme in angling that was to last a long time and arouse some contention.

During the 157 years between the printed Treatise and The Compleat Angler, the few angling writers who appeared developed principally the character of the angler. The second known book, The Arte of Angling, published in 1577 by a now anonymous author and unknown in angling literature until a single copy was recently discovered and printed last year at Princeton, makes no mention of Berners. "Anon" uses the classic prose dialogue form and creates the characters Piscator and Viator (wayfarer), who were later adopted by Walton in his first edition of The Compleat Angler. Piscator (the pupil in Aelfric) is the teacher, Viator the student. The Arte is a fine little book, the best use of the prose dialogue form on the subject of angling, I think, outside of Walton's. Piscator is testy but hospitable. He treats of angling as an art and a science, and "as of that pleasure that I have always most recreated myself withal, and had most delight in, and is most meetest for a solitary man, and is also of light cost." He speaks of the fellowship, ruling out, however, "the sluggard sleepy sloven," the poor man, the angry man, the fearful man and the busybody, who can stay at home or, if they like, hunt or hawk.

Most curious are Anon's 13 "gifts," which appear to be a spoof on the virtues of the angler and a possible jest on Berners' glorifications; for her book was the angling bestseller of the 16th century. This ancestor of Ed Zern (To Hell with Fishing) wrote:

Vi[ator]. Why then, I pray you, what gifts must he have that shall be of your company?

Pi[scator]. 1. He must have faith, believing that there is fish where he cometh to angle. 2. He must have hope that they will bite. 3. Love to the owner of the game. 4. Also patience, if they will not bite, or any mishap come by losing of the fish, hook, or otherwise. 5. Humility to stoop, if need be to kneel or lie down on his belly, as you did today. 6. Fortitude, with manly courage, to deal with the biggest that cometh. 7. Knowledge adjoined to wisdom, to devise all manner of ways how to make them bite and to find the fault. 8. Liberality in feeding of them. 9. A content mind with a sufficient mess, yea, and though you go home without. 10. Also he must use prayer, knowing that it is God that doth bring both fowl to the net and fish to the bait. 11. Fasting he may not be offended withal, but acquaint himself with it, if it be from morning until night, to abide and seek for the bite. 12. Also he must do alms deeds; that is to say, if he meet a sickly poor body or doth know any such in the parish that would be glad of a few fishes to make a little broth withal (as often times is desired of sick persons), then he may not stick to send them some or altogether. And if he have none, yet with all diligence that may be [he] try with his angle to get some for the diseased person. 13. The last point of all the inward gifts that doth belong to an angler, is memory, that is, that he forget nothing at home when he setteth out, nor anything behind him at his return.

Thus for Anon the virtues of the angler—excepting alms giving—enhance not his nobility so much as the size of his catch.

In the year 1613 John Dennys showed how an angling treatise could be written in verse. His Secrets of Angling was the first and remains the most noted of angling poems. He begins with a play on the elevated opening line of Virgil's Aeneid (Arma virumque cano: Of arms and the man I sing), and with a mastery common to the age alternately blurs and jingles the conversational iambic pentameter.

Of Angling, and the Art thereof I sing,
What kind of tooles it doth behove to have;
And with what pleasing bait a man may bring
The fish to bite within the watery wave....

Dennys confesses:

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