The diversion of outwitting fish with rod, line and hook inspires devotion, meditation and premeditation in great quantities and, in consequence, perhaps more books than any other sport. The very first of these books to be printed in the English language, the Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, appeared in the year 1496. The mountain of literature which followed and in large measure derived from it, including, for instance, Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, has tended somewhat to keep the treatise obscure. But it is unquestionably the starting point for all English literature on fishing for fun. It is as well the first known work in English attributed to a woman. For both these reasons it has exceptional literary importance and is therefore of interest to everyone who reads at all; and for readers who also fish it is almost of scriptural significance, as it contains not only the first written philosophy of angling but the first set of instructions on the tying of artificial flies.
This is an article from the May 6, 1957 issue
With next week's issue, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED begins a four-part series on this fishing and literary classic. The series represents the product of two full years of scholarship and research.
In Part I, Alfred Duggan, the distinguished British historical novelist and medieval scholar, places the treatise in historical perspective and re-creates the environment in which it was printed. There is a bit of mystery here, too—for the author, who became the prototype of all fishing writers, has never been completely identified. But the best historical sources support the belief that her name was Dame Juliana Berners, and that she was a Benedictine nun.
The following week, in Part II, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents the complete text of her treatise, which Duggan has rendered into modern English, with an authority and a wealth of research unique in its history.
Part III takes up in detail the 12 flies Dame Juliana describes—the sole ancestors in literature of the artificial trout fly. They appear in full color as tied by Cornell's Dr. Dwight Webster, Professor of Fishery Biology and an expert on stream insects, who collaborated with John McDonald on their reconstruction. An outstanding American student of the literature of fishing and the history of angling, McDonald has already appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as the author of the article on Theodore Gordon's recently discovered fly box (SI, Oct. 18, '54). McDonald explains the reconstructions and the reasoning behind the Berners flies. The result is a notable exercise in detective work which, among other benefits, opens the way for every living fisherman to try his luck, if he wants to, with the very flies which had them biting when Columbus discovered America.
Finally, in Part IV, McDonald considers the contributions of the treatise to the vast field of fishing literature which followed, and discusses Dame Juliana's work as the first written expression of an historic change: the emergence of the fisherman as a sportsman—and his more or less contented evolution since that time.
The series as a whole, our editors believe, is the most important contribution to the history of fishing in many years. When I read it, it seemed no less pleasant a diversion than angling itself—an unexpected adventure into that slightly mysterious world where men, and women too, meet fish and live happily ever after.