SI Vault
Alfred Duggan
May 13, 1957
BEGINNING the extraordinary tale of a 15th century English nun who launched five centuries of sport and literature: THE LADY AND THE TROUT
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May 13, 1957

The Writing Of The 'treatise'

BEGINNING the extraordinary tale of a 15th century English nun who launched five centuries of sport and literature: THE LADY AND THE TROUT

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This is the common tradition concerning Dame Juliana's birth and ancestry. Sir James Berners, a well-authenticated historical figure, had by his wife Anne Berew three sons (and perhaps this putative daughter). In 1388 he was executed as one of the "evil counselors" of King Richard II. But under King Henry IV the family was restored to favor; the Berners estates were returned, and Sir Richard, eldest son of the executed Sir James, was created a baron.

The Book of St. Albans is written in the English of about 1450 or earlier, so Juliana must have been in the nursery when her father met his end. It is likely that she was born about 1385 and died about 1460. When she was a young girl, circa 1400, there would have been no dowry for her, and therefore no chance of her finding a husband. But her family was popular at court. She may have lived in the royal household, and gone staghunting and hawking in state with King Henry IV. Staghunting was the privilege of kings and great lords; only someone who had moved in royal circles could write a book about it. But we do not know how old Juliana was when she took her vows; she may have hunted for several seasons before she entered religion.

The text of her Treatise contains one clue to its date of composition: she refers to "that right noble and full worthy prince the Duke of York, late called the Master of the Game." This seems to be a reference to Edward, grandson of Edward III and second Duke of York. Edward died in 1415, which, it happens, was also the year Juliana entered the nunnery at Sopwell. There was, of course, another Duke of York after Edward's death; but to the end of her life when Juliana spoke of the Duke of York, she would mean the "Master of the Game," the famous huntsman who taught the laws of the chase to a gay young debutante.

Assume then that Juliana Berners, of good birth but too poor to marry, entered the small nunnery of Sopwell about 1415. It lay just outside the great Abbey of St. Albans, whose abbot appointed the prioress. There is no record of serious scandal, but it was a lax and comfortable house. In 1338 the Abbot of St. Albans, as visitor, decreed that in future the garden might not be opened before the canonical hour of None (about 2:30 p.m.), and must be closed at curfew, which suggests that the ladies had been in the garden when they ought to have been in choir. The River Ver ran through this garden.

About 1440 Dame Juliana was, we assume, appointed prioress. She occupied her old age by composing treatises on the sports that had amused her youth, and copies of these manuscripts lay about in the parlor for 35 years until the schoolmaster of the neighboring abbey came upon them and considered them worth printing. It all fits well enough.

In treating of hunting and hawking she recalled her girlhood in the fashionable world. But there was then good fishing in the Sopwell garden, no canon forbids nuns to fish, and it is likely that she fished, or pottered on the riverbank, until at last she died of old age.

She wrote of "Fishing with an Angle"; that means fishing with a hook, as opposed to fishing with nets or other implements. For the upper classes, this was a comparatively new amusement, and hers is the first known book of instructions; for the first time it is assumed that men well enough educated to read for pleasure will want to go fishing. The new pastime had a considerable vogue. In 1483 King Edward IV caught the chill that caused his death at a fishing picnic on the Thames near London. There is no record that any earlier king of England fished for amusement.

But it is obvious that a long unwritten tradition had come down to the gentle prioress. For many generations travelers, outlaws on the run and soldiers foraging for food had carried hooks in their pouches; burdensome nets, too heavy for the wayfarer, were left to the professionals who lived by the waterside. Dame Juliana did not herself devise all the technical tricks she advocates; in particular, the queer composite baits she advises for float-fishing must have been first put together by hoary old water bailiffs intent on proving to their lords that the business of taking fish is more difficult than it seems.

Nuns are notorious for petty economies, and in the Middle Ages there were at least a hundred days in every year, counting Lent, Advent, Ember Days, all Fridays and the vigils of great feasts, when butcher's meat would be forbidden. That explains why Dame Juliana gives instructions for catching coarse fish which nowadays no one eats willingly. Minnows were presumably intended as bait for something better, but roach and dace were for the table of the unlucky ladies. They must sometimes have wished that their superior had chosen another hobby.

In the 15th century it was a mark of gentle breeding to be able to perform all the professional duties of sport better than the professional. Any vulgar rich man could buy good hounds or good hawks; only a gentleman or a professional could train a puppy or man an eyas. Furthermore, there were no shops dealing in sporting equipment. Dame Juliana therefore begins at the beginning, with instructions on how to manufacture rods and tackle.

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