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What follows is the product of two years of research. The story of Dame Juliana Berners, creator in literature of the world's first true artificial trout flies and the progenitor of the vast amount of angling literature which followed, was produced under the editorship of John McDonald, one of America's foremost students and writers on angling. Alfred Duggan, Britain's eminent medievalist and author, discusses Dame Juliana in Part I of the series, and presents a new rendering of her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle in Part II. In Part III, the Berners flies themselves are reconstructed on the basis of exacting research, tied by Professor Dwight A. Webster of Cornell University and painted in full color by John Langley Howard. In conclusion, Mr. McDonald, in a unique essay, ranges over the entire vast field of angling literature since Berners.
This famous little book, the first to give instructions in the art of tying artificial flies, has been available in print for more than 450 years. But, as with many other ancient documents, the identity of the author is in doubt. What is definitely known of the appearance of the Treatise may be summarized as follows:
In 1486 the schoolmaster of St. Albans Abbey, who managed the second press set up in England, published a bestseller. At that time it was unusual to print original compositions; most early printed books are versions of classics long famous in manuscript. This bestseller was a hitherto unknown work, taken from an obscure manuscript then preserved at St. Albans; since it lacked an earlier title it was known simply as the Book of St. Albans .
The book, written in English, treated of hunting, hawking and heraldry; it was said to have been composed a generation earlier by Dame Juliana Berners O.S.B., late Prioress of Sopwell.
It appealed to a wide public because the chapter on hunting gave sensible advice in everyday language. Probably it revealed nothing that the experienced huntsman did not know already, but its sidelights on etiquette and on the correct use of technical terms would be valuable to wealthy merchants who about this time began to mingle with the aristocracy.
This was before the days of copyright. Wynkyn de Worde, the businessman from Worth in Alsace who was first Caxton's partner and later his successor, printed another edition in 1496. In this version appears for the first time the Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, which purports to be another essay by the same author.
In 1532-34 Wynkyn de Worde published the Treatise of Fishing with an Angle as a separate work in quarto form. This is the edition I have used in this article. Since then the Treatise has always been in print. Throughout the 16th century new editions appeared. Other publishers attributed the whole Book of St. Albans to a mythical Sir Tristram, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. It was believed that Sir Tristram of Lyonesse had invented the thousands of technical terms in which Tudor sportsmen delighted; and, since many of these terms were first written in the Book of St. Albans (though in speech they must be much older), the story got around that Sir Tristram was its author.
Dame Juliana does not appear in any contemporary document, or in the later list of the Prioresses of Sopwell or the genealogy of the Berners family. Some historians are troubled by the title "Dame," which is seldom found before the 16th century. So it is not surprising that many scholars have doubted the existence of Dame Juliana Berners.
But the argument from silence is always weak, and I am inclined to believe in Juliana. If the schoolmaster of St. Albans found an anonymous manuscript there was no reason why he should not publish it as anonymous; if he wanted a fictitious author it would be natural to father it on a monk of his own community. On the other hand, if he was reluctant to attribute a sporting work to a monk, for fear of causing scandal, the same reason would make him unwilling to attribute it to a nun. If he needed a name for his title page, why not give it to Sir Tristram or Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville?
The Berners genealogy was drawn up to enumerate the ancestors of the house; it might reasonably omit as irrelevant a nun who died childless and unmarried. The annals of Sopwell show a gap for the years 1430-1480, the very period when Dame Juliana would have flourished. "Dame," from the Latin domina, is still the official title of Benedictine choir-nuns, though in most other orders the female religious are called Mother or Sister.