BEGINNING the extraordinary tale of a 15th century English nun who launched five centuries of sport and literature: THE LADY AND THE TROUT
May 12, 1957

What follows isthe 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 theprogenitor of the vast amount of angling literature which followed, wasproduced under the editorship of John McDonald, one of America's foremoststudents and writers on angling. Alfred Duggan, Britain's eminent medievalistand author, discusses Dame Juliana in Part I of the series, and presents a newrendering of her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle in Part II. In Part III, theBerners flies themselves are reconstructed on the basis of exacting research,tied by Professor Dwight A. Webster of Cornell University and painted in fullcolor by John Langley Howard. In conclusion, Mr. McDonald, in a unique essay,ranges over the entire vast field of angling literature since Berners.

This famouslittle book, the first to give instructions in the art of tying artificialflies, has been available in print for more than 450 years. But, as with manyother ancient documents, the identity of the author is in doubt. What isdefinitely known of the appearance of the Treatise may be summarized asfollows:

In 1486 theschoolmaster of St. Albans Abbey, who managed the second press set up inEngland, published a bestseller. At that time it was unusual to print originalcompositions; most early printed books are versions of classics long famous inmanuscript. This bestseller was a hitherto unknown work, taken from an obscuremanuscript then preserved at St. Albans; since it lacked an earlier title itwas known simply as the Book of St. Albans.

The book, writtenin English, treated of hunting, hawking and heraldry; it was said to have beencomposed a generation earlier by Dame Juliana Berners O.S.B., late Prioress ofSopwell.

It appealed to awide public because the chapter on hunting gave sensible advice in everydaylanguage. Probably it revealed nothing that the experienced huntsman did notknow already, but its sidelights on etiquette and on the correct use oftechnical terms would be valuable to wealthy merchants who about this timebegan to mingle with the aristocracy.

This was beforethe days of copyright. Wynkyn de Worde, the businessman from Worth in Alsacewho was first Caxton's partner and later his successor, printed another editionin 1496. In this version appears for the first time the Treatise of Fishingwith an Angle, which purports to be another essay by the same author.

In 1532-34 Wynkynde Worde published the Treatise of Fishing with an Angle as a separate work inquarto form. This is the edition I have used in this article. Since then theTreatise has always been in print. Throughout the 16th century new editionsappeared. Other publishers attributed the whole Book of St. Albans to amythical Sir Tristram, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. It was believedthat Sir Tristram of Lyonesse had invented the thousands of technical terms inwhich Tudor sportsmen delighted; and, since many of these terms were firstwritten 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 doesnot appear in any contemporary document, or in the later list of the Prioressesof Sopwell or the genealogy of the Berners family. Some historians are troubledby the title "Dame," which is seldom found before the 16th century. Soit is not surprising that many scholars have doubted the existence of DameJuliana Berners.

But the argumentfrom silence is always weak, and I am inclined to believe in Juliana. If theschoolmaster of St. Albans found an anonymous manuscript there was no reasonwhy he should not publish it as anonymous; if he wanted a fictitious author itwould be natural to father it on a monk of his own community. On the otherhand, if he was reluctant to attribute a sporting work to a monk, for fear ofcausing scandal, the same reason would make him unwilling to attribute it to anun. If he needed a name for his title page, why not give it to Sir Tristram orSir Geoffrey de Mandeville?

The Bernersgenealogy was drawn up to enumerate the ancestors of the house; it mightreasonably omit as irrelevant a nun who died childless and unmarried. Theannals of Sopwell show a gap for the years 1430-1480, the very period when DameJuliana would have flourished. "Dame," from the Latin domina, is stillthe official title of Benedictine choir-nuns, though in most other orders thefemale religious are called Mother or Sister.

This is thecommon tradition concerning Dame Juliana's birth and ancestry. Sir JamesBerners, a well-authenticated historical figure, had by his wife Anne Berewthree sons (and perhaps this putative daughter). In 1388 he was executed as oneof the "evil counselors" of King Richard II. But under King Henry IVthe family was restored to favor; the Berners estates were returned, and SirRichard, 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 havebeen in the nursery when her father met his end. It is likely that she was bornabout 1385 and died about 1460. When she was a young girl, circa 1400, therewould have been no dowry for her, and therefore no chance of her finding ahusband. But her family was popular at court. She may have lived in the royalhousehold, and gone staghunting and hawking in state with King Henry IV.Staghunting was the privilege of kings and great lords; only someone who hadmoved in royal circles could write a book about it. But we do not know how oldJuliana was when she took her vows; she may have hunted for several seasonsbefore she entered religion.

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

Assume then thatJuliana Berners, of good birth but too poor to marry, entered the small nunneryof Sopwell about 1415. It lay just outside the great Abbey of St. Albans, whoseabbot appointed the prioress. There is no record of serious scandal, but it wasa 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 hourof None (about 2:30 p.m.), and must be closed at curfew, which suggests thatthe ladies had been in the garden when they ought to have been in choir. TheRiver Ver ran through this garden.

About 1440 DameJuliana was, we assume, appointed prioress. She occupied her old age bycomposing treatises on the sports that had amused her youth, and copies ofthese manuscripts lay about in the parlor for 35 years until the schoolmasterof the neighboring abbey came upon them and considered them worth printing. Itall fits well enough.

In treating ofhunting and hawking she recalled her girlhood in the fashionable world. Butthere was then good fishing in the Sopwell garden, no canon forbids nuns tofish, and it is likely that she fished, or pottered on the riverbank, until atlast she died of old age.

She wrote of"Fishing with an Angle"; that means fishing with a hook, as opposed tofishing with nets or other implements. For the upper classes, this was acomparatively 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 forpleasure will want to go fishing. The new pastime had a considerable vogue. In1483 King Edward IV caught the chill that caused his death at a fishing picnicon the Thames near London. There is no record that any earlier king of Englandfished for amusement.

But it is obviousthat a long unwritten tradition had come down to the gentle prioress. For manygenerations travelers, outlaws on the run and soldiers foraging for food hadcarried hooks in their pouches; burdensome nets, too heavy for the wayfarer,were left to the professionals who lived by the waterside. Dame Juliana did notherself devise all the technical tricks she advocates; in particular, the queercomposite baits she advises for float-fishing must have been first put togetherby hoary old water bailiffs intent on proving to their lords that the businessof taking fish is more difficult than it seems.

Nuns arenotorious for petty economies, and in the Middle Ages there were at least ahundred days in every year, counting Lent, Advent, Ember Days, all Fridays andthe vigils of great feasts, when butcher's meat would be forbidden. Thatexplains why Dame Juliana gives instructions for catching coarse fish whichnowadays no one eats willingly. Minnows were presumably intended as bait forsomething better, but roach and dace were for the table of the unlucky ladies.They must sometimes have wished that their superior had chosen anotherhobby.

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

The firstnecessity is the rod. It must be long, for there is no reel, and the line istied directly to it. The foundation is a considerable piece of timber: si poleof aspen, hazel or willow nine feet long and as thick as your arm. This must becut in midwinter when the sap is dormant, then straightened in the heat of anoven and seasoned for a month in a cool dry place. You next bore a hole rightthrough the center, from end to end, with a red-hot wire. This hole is enlargedby the use of progressively larger spits, beginning with the little spit onwhich small birds are roasted. (Any good kitchen would have a wide range ofspits.) You then season your rod once more in wood-smoke. At the upper end ayard-long switch of seasoned hazel is inserted. At the top, and perhaps also atthe bottom, a "crop" is fixed, made from seasoned blackhorn and boundwith horsehair. Your line will be fixed to the binding at the top of this crop.The whole is strengthened at top and bottom by iron ferrules.

The final resultis a strong springy rod all of 10 feet long, reinforced by bindings ofhorsehair and metal. The author claims that it can be easily taken down andassembled, and that when it is used as a walking stick no passer-by willrecognize it for a fishing rod. This last seems a direct encouragement topoaching, but I find it hard to credit.

All this skilledjoinery is to be done at home by the prospective fisherman himself.

The line also ismade at home, of hair from the tail of a white horse. It may be dyed any one ofsix colors and, of course, the dyes must be fast. Instructions are given forcompounding dyes from ingredients that would be found in any well-equippedkitchen; for it was then the custom to dye cloth at home. The colors requiredare yellow, green, brown, tawny, russet and dark gray, to be used in theappropriate state of the water.

Your line may beof any gauge from 15 horsehairs to one, according to the size of the quarry. Ofcourse, the individual hairs will not be more than two to three feet long, sofrequent knots will be necessary. To twist the hairs into a line, Juliana givesa picture of a most ingenious tool, a miniature rope-walk. The basic idea isthat the hairs are held fast at one end of a short rod, and all twistedtogether on a little catch. She points out with regret that one bolt of theInstrument, as she calls it, must be made of iron by the local smith; but allthe other parts are wooden, and may be made at home. The picture makes thedesign reasonably clear, at least to householders who were accustomed to makingtheir own ropes for work on the land. Presumably, since the seasoning of therod must take the best part of a year, fishermen then were willing to learn byexperiment the right way of twisting a line.

Even Julianaadmits that the manufacture of hooks is tricky. Working in metal was no part ofthe education of a lady, and, though it is easy to bend a red-hot needle intothe right shape, the tempering that will give it strength is more difficult.The tools needed—files, tongs, anvil, hammer, etc.—are very small; they mayhave to be made specially by a skilled smith. For once, in specifying materialsshe does not begin right at the beginning, with the mining of the ore; probablybecause at that time first-class steel was not produced in England. The bestraw material is osmund, the trade name for bundles of little steel rodsimported from the Baltic; or you may cut out one stage and begin with needlesof various sizes, from miniature embroidering points to shoemakers' brads. Anyhandy man or woman should be able to bend the hook, sharpen the point and"raise" the barb at home.

These homemadehooks will have no eyelet at the shank for attachment of the line. Instead,fine silk is bound downwards towards the hook end of the shank; the free end isled through the "hosepipe" formed by the binding and attached to theend of the line. The author notes that the line should always be attached"within the hook," on the barb side of the shank; otherwise the hookwill lie crooked under strain.

Except in fishingfor pike, where Juliana recommends a copper trace, there is no leader. At theother end the line is tied directly to the rod so that its length cannot bevaried.

In the 15thcentury fly-fishing called for a very high degree of skill. For it was not amatter of persuading a fish to bite, then striking and hauling him in. Julianaexpects her pupil to play his fish, if a big one is hooked on a light line,though if you are trying for a particular monster you should use a line strongenough to hold him whatever he may do. Her advice is perfectly sound: "Donot let him get out on your line's end straight from you, but always keep himunder the rod so that your line may sustain and bear his leaps and plunges withthe help of your crop and of your hand." Of course, if you can do that youcan "lead him in the water until he is drowned and overcome." But shedoes not explain how you set about it.

There followinstructions on when and where to fish, what color of line to use in differentconditions of water, and on tactics in general. Dame Juliana knows that theangler must keep out of sight, and that a shadow on the water is especiallyfrightening. Her advice is the result of careful observation. But it may not bethe author's observation; she may be repeating age-old country lore now writtendown for the first time.

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

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

Naturally thesalmon has pride of place, though it seems likely from her writings that DameJuliana 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 andWindsor. She has seen salmon taken, but only in the nets of professionalfishermen to supply the market. After complaining that salmon lurk very far outin the stream, she recommends various baits for use with a float; but thelittle detailed touches which make many of her descriptions so vivid areabsent. She is repeating what she has been told, not relating her ownexperiences.

After salmon cometrout 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 byplacid philosophers who value contemplation more highly than sport. Thesepastimes need not be treated at further length in this article.

Trout andgrayling, usually mentioned together, are the game fish that really gavepleasure to Dame Juliana. She describes more than one method of angling forthem. The "ground line lying" and the "ground line running" Itake to be two forms of bottom-fishing with a baited hook. Presumably, thelying line was fixed at both ends, with a hook or hooks in the middle; therunning 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 severallive baits which can be used without a float: minnow, lamprey or frog, the lastso 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 MiddleAges, the indigestible luxury that caused the death of King Henry I. Here theauthor means the Thames lamprey, or "lampern," a little wormlike fishwhich is now extinct, or nearly so, but which used to be caught in enormousquantities on the Thames between London and Oxford. For human consumption itwas sold pickled in barrels, rather like the modern sardine, but it was alsosold alive, in large jars, as bait for fishing. In the 18th century lampernwere sold by the thousand, and even exported to Holland for use by Dutchfishermen in the North Sea. Overfishing destroyed the stock in the 19thcentury.

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

These baits aremade 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 longtradition behind them. They could hardly be invented by deliberate thought, andtheir needless elaboration does not make them more effective than any otherfragment of edible matter which may sometimes tempt a hungry fish. A wasp willnot be more attractive after being baked in bread and its head coated withdried sheep's blood. The flesh of a cat, flour, beeswax, sheep's tallow andhoney, all made up together into a little ball, seems to hint at sympatheticmagic rather than first-hand observation of the diet of trout.

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

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

There follows anillustration, a woodcut showing typical hooks of different sizes. They all lookvery big, but we must remember that the picture was not drawn by Dame Juliana;the engraver presumably followed her sketch in the manuscript before him, butengraving on wood often enlarges small objects. As a practical guide to makingthe tackle described in the letterpress, most of the illustrations printed byWynkyn de Worde are useless.

The Treatisecloses with a few paragraphs on sporting etiquette, pointing out especially thewickedness of poaching and of stealing from other men's fish traps. In all, itis less than 10,000 words long.

What can we makeof it, as a practical guide to the tying of flies? It is notoriously difficultto put down clear instructions for a manual task, as anyone can see byconsulting a cook book. Good cooks write vaguely, because they do not think inprecisely measured quantities; writers whose instructions are easy to followoften describe uninteresting dishes.

It is the samewith Dame Juliana. If a modern fisherman were to ask her the dimensions of herflies she would answer: "Make them the right size, which you know as wellas I do. If you are in doubt, look at a live May fly. Those are the things youmust imitate. If you still can't make up your mind, experiment with big fliesand small. Then use the size that answers best."

We must rememberthat she was never in a hurry. To make a rod in accordance with herinstructions would take a whole winter. She herself learned by trial and error,and she would not be distressed if her successors did the same. She set out toconvey the novel idea of fishing with artificial flies; once the idea had beenunderstood, details might vary, as, in fact, they are varied at the presentday.

Oddly enough,Dame Juliana's instructions for making rods and hooks are more explicit. Herprocedure for coloring a horsehair line is as detailed and thorough as amedical recipe, and contains measurements—as the 15th century understoodmeasuring. They are not the measurements we learn at school. There are no feetor inches. She speaks of a yard, which at that time was usually 36 inches asnow, though the cloth-yard was 30 inches; or of a fathom, which may be eithersix feet or the span of her outstretched arms. As a measure of time she usesthe charming phrase "half a mile way": the time it takes a reasonableman to walk half a mile, say a little under 10 minutes. For weight she speaksof peas, beans and walnuts, not ounces and drachms. Everything is approximate,and you must use your common sense.

We may surmisesomething of her methods by noting the tools at her disposal. She takes forgranted a full carpenter's chest, and pots and pans for use in dyeing her line;they would be found in any self-sufficient household of the Middle Ages. Butfor making hooks she specifies the implements needed. These are small sharpfiles, an iron clamp, a "bender" (some kind of vise?), a small pair oftongs, an anvil and a little hammer. She may have used vise and tongs to tieher flies. Scissors were not then in common use; for cutting loose ends of lineshe advises a sharp knife.

In other words,she is familiar with clamps and pincers. If her hooks were really as large asthey are shown in the illustration, anyone skilled in threading needles andknotting silk for embroidery could have dubbed them with wool and feathers. Shemay have tied her own flies.

All the same, Iam not at all sure she did. She relates at length all the processes needed tomake a rod, and if her account of twisting and knotting a line is not easy tofollow, that may be the result of lack of skill in literary composition (trywriting directions for tying a shoelace, to be understood by a barefootedsavage putting on his first shoes). These passages give me the impression thatshe is telling what she herself has done. But of the flies she tells us onlywhat they should look like when finished. Her flies may have been tied for herby the water bailiff on the Sopwell estates. Yet she had very definite opinionsabout the kind of fly she wanted, and some of the patterns may have followedher own designs.

With this tackle,how would she fish? Wet, certainly, for there is no suggestion that her fliesare waterproofed, and with all that wool on the body they must be on the heavyside. Besides, they have no legs or hackle, and would not stand up on thewater. Presumably she would cast downstream, for that is the older method.Lacking a reel, her line must have been difficult to manage. Perhaps after shehad dropped her fly in the water she grasped the slack in her left hand andpaid out gradually; then she might strike with a tug of the left hand and useher rod only to play the fish. When the fish was beat she might take in line inthe same manner. If she could, she would avoid killing. In those days everyangler hoped to bring back his catch alive, to be kept in a pail in the kitchenuntil the moment of cooking; ice was a costly luxury and there were norefrigerators.

By the way, shenever lays down the proper length of a line. I suppose it varied with theindividual fisherman: as far as you can cast and a little bit over.

The frontispieceof her book shows a typical angler. He is sensibly and plainly dressed, thoughhe has neither pockets, wallet nor purse; he must have carried all his gear inthe tub shown in the background. He wields his great rod with one hand. It musthave been very hard work.

There may neverhave been a Juliana Berners. Perhaps her name was invented to lend tone to amiscellany of sporting pieces. I myself believe she was a real person andauthor of the Book of St. Albans, for reasons I have given at the beginning ofthis essay. I like to think of the elderly prioress casting her flies in theconvent garden, while through her mind run memories of the great hunts she hadseen as a young girl at the court of King Henry. When she has finished her bookof weighty instructions on hawking, hunting and heraldry, she thinks it mightbe amusing to add an appendix, something about the placid angling whichoccupies her old age. Five hundred years later the stately hunting "atforce" which she described has long vanished and, save for a few rareenthusiasts, no sportsman mans a hawk. But the little afterpiece on the leastimportant of her many pastimes is a living book today.


Alfred Duggan, student of ancient and medievalhistory, biographer and author of historical novels, is probably best known forhis lives of Julius Caesar and Thomas a Becket. He was born in Argentina in1903, but has lived in England since 1905. History has been his passion sincehe was a boy; he studied extensively in the field of Greek, Roman and Byzantinetraditions. He turned to writing after serving in the British Army in World WarII.



In a new rendering of Dame Juliana's original text,Alfred Duggan presents her discourse on why she considers fishing the best ofsports, on how to prepare the necessary equipment, and how to lure and catchthe fish you seek.