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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The longest section of the short book is a description of the best bait for float-fishing for every kind of fish, throughout the year. Of course, all bait must be found by the angler, not bought in a shop; and the monthly calendar is needed because certain grubs and larvae can be found only at certain seasons. In this connection Dame Juliana sometimes confuses the two aims of her own fishing. Generally speaking, what she wanted was sport; but she could never forget that a basket of fish, however acquired, would be useful in the refectory. Unattended ground lines—baited hooks lying on the bottom-are still employed by English and Scottish poachers, but there is no more sport in this long-range method of baiting fish than in laying lobster pots in the sea. She devotes a good deal of space to describing the best baits for unattended ground lines.

To make her Treatise complete, she mentions every known method of taking fish without a net, though she has nothing to say of fish weirs except to deplore them as private encroachments on public domain and obstacles to navigation (a complaint as old as Magna Carta and a perennial grievance of the Middle Ages). And just as she feels she ought to begin by proving that fishing is morally more worthy than hunting or hawking, so she feels obliged to deal with every kind of freshwater fish, even those of which she is quite ignorant.

Naturally the salmon has pride of place, though it seems likely from her writings that Dame Juliana has never angled for one. There were none in the little River Ver, though at that time they abounded in the Thames, both at Westminster and Windsor. She has seen salmon taken, but only in the nets of professional fishermen to supply the market. After complaining that salmon lurk very far out in the stream, she recommends various baits for use with a float; but the little detailed touches which make many of her descriptions so vivid are absent. She is repeating what she has been told, not relating her own experiences.

After salmon come trout and grayling, and then all the coarse fish of England—barbel, carp, chub, tench, perch, roach, dace, bleak, ruff, bream, flounder, pike, eel, minnow—whose pursuit is nowadays carried on from little folding stools by placid philosophers who value contemplation more highly than sport. These pastimes need not be treated at further length in this article.

Trout and grayling, usually mentioned together, are the game fish that really gave pleasure to Dame Juliana. She describes more than one method of angling for them. The "ground line lying" and the "ground line running" I take to be two forms of bottom-fishing with a baited hook. Presumably, the lying line was fixed at both ends, with a hook or hooks in the middle; the running line attached at one end only so that the hook moved with the current. Other methods are with a float and baited hook, or, "in leaping time," with an artificial fly.

Baits, of course, vary with the seasons, since they must be freshly gathered. There are several live baits which can be used without a float: minnow, lamprey or frog, the last so mutilated that he cannot swim. The lamprey, recommended as a bait for April, is not the edible fish which was so highly regarded as a delicacy in the Middle Ages, the indigestible luxury that caused the death of King Henry I. Here the author means the Thames lamprey, or "lampern," a little wormlike fish which is now extinct, or nearly so, but which used to be caught in enormous quantities on the Thames between London and Oxford. For human consumption it was sold pickled in barrels, rather like the modern sardine, but it was also sold alive, in large jars, as bait for fishing. In the 18th century lampern were sold by the thousand, and even exported to Holland for use by Dutch fishermen in the North Sea. Overfishing destroyed the stock in the 19th century.

Another live bait, suggested for May, is the stone fly, an insect large and heavy enough to be threaded on a hook. Otherwise, in summer, Juliana recommends some astonishingly cumbrous composite baits. "In August take a flesh fly [blowfly] and the great red worm and bacon fat, and bind them about your hook." If this mass of fodder hit the water near a trout it might stun him even if he did not rise to it. In June another confection is advised, a red worm without its head tied to a codworm.

These baits are made from prey a fish might conceivably find floating naturally in the river. There are others, as artificial as any dressed fly, which must have a long tradition behind them. They could hardly be invented by deliberate thought, and their needless elaboration does not make them more effective than any other fragment of edible matter which may sometimes tempt a hungry fish. A wasp will not be more attractive after being baked in bread and its head coated with dried sheep's blood. The flesh of a cat, flour, beeswax, sheep's tallow and honey, all made up together into a little ball, seems to hint at sympathetic magic rather than first-hand observation of the diet of trout.

At length we come to the most important passage in the book, the earliest description of artificial flies as a lure for trout. There are 12 of them, distributed under the six months from March to August inclusive. They are described as "the" 12 flies, as though the number were already fixed. In the Middle Ages they liked exhaustive lists, and they liked them all the better if they added up to a lucky number. Although artificial, the 12 are intended to represent insects which exist in nature, and to be used when these insects are on the water. And Juliana's flies caught fish. Some of them are still tied today, when her elaborate baits have been forgotten.

These, save for one fly mentioned in ancient history, are the first trout flies recorded in history. I shall not discuss them here; they are the special subject of Part III of this series, where they will be illustrated and discussed in detail.

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