Fishing Nun

Fishing Nun

11 October 2017

There’s a bit of a debate among fishing historians. The first writing on angling ever printed in the English language is attributed to a certain Dame Juliana Berners – a Nun, born in 1388, whose name appears in A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle (hook) as part of The Boke of St Albans, 1486. Many claim that the Fishing Nun is a myth, but plenty of reputable sources take her existence and authorship as fact.

We will go into the debate and Juliana’s supposed history in more detail, but the key arguments at their crudest level are as follows:

  1. There is not enough evidence to say that the first book on angling was written by a woman.
  2. There is not enough evidence to say that the first book on angling wasn’t written by a woman.

The book itself is a lovely, short handbook on everything from rod making to which baits you should use for specific species and times of the year. Apparently “the grub under the cow turd” makes an excellent bait for perch, but ideally in April. You can read the entire Treatyse here. The instructions included for crafting flies will make a great activity for children (and adults) if you fancy trying your hand at some 15th century fishing techniques.

The existence of the Fishing Nun has been brought into question partly due to 15th century records being sketchy at the best of times. To give an idea of the resources available at the time, William Caxton had only introduced the printing press to England a few years before The Boke of St Albans was issued - making it one of the earliest works ever printed in English. Juliana is supposed to have resided at Sopwell Abbey, although is not contained in its records among the list of prioresses. Interestingly, there is a large gap in the abbey’s records between 1430 and 1480, which is precisely when she would have been there.

Many seem to believe that the lack of evidence to say that Dame Juliana wrote the Treatyse of Fysshynge renders the theory a myth. But some also wonder why anyone would claim that a woman wrote the first fishing manual – nun or not. Andrew Herd, of flyfshinghistory.com writes:

“The only clue to the authorship of the Treatyse is an attribution at the end of the book… It seems little enough to go on, but it didn’t stop a good deal of elaboration by later authors. I guess you can’t keep a good story down”.

Why make up such a clue? Juliana could have indeed passed time fishing either before joining the nunnery or during her time there, as there are no canons against nuns fishing. In fact, the thought of a 15th century publisher or author falsely attributing an angling manual to a woman is possibly more ridiculous than the idea of a nun pottering about with a hand-crafted rod stashed in her habit.

Innovator or invention, Juliana Berners’ story is one we hope stays alive in the fishing community. In the Treatyse, she writes about the happiness and health brought about by fishing, and is eager to share this with the world. This is something I’m sure we can all agree on.

If you have any personal tips, recipes or inventions you’d like to share, or any catches you’re particularly proud of, please feel free to show us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. As the Fishing Nun herself says: “It will be a true pleasure to see the fair, bright, shining-scaled fishes deceived by your crafty means”. Happy fysshynge, folks.