The Fishing Nun

Today I learned that the very first essay about fishing was written more than 500 years ago–by a woman. 

Juliana Berners*

Dame Juliana Berners wrote “Treatyse on Fysshng Wyth an Angle” in 1486. I’m not much into fishing or old English, but I’m pretty sure “fysshng” pertains to fly-fishing, and “angle” means “hook.”

Dame Berners was a prioress of a Benedictan nunnery in England. I guess that explains how a 15th century woman learned to write. 

My version of Dame Juliana Berners, the Fishing Nun

She came from English nobility—which makes sense because the only people who would have fished for sport back in those days were the landed gentry.  

In “Treatyse,” you can hear the makings of modern conservation theory. Here’s Berners chiding fishers to go easy on their take: 

“Nor should a man ever carry his amusement to excess, and catch too much at one time; this is to destroy his future pleasure and to interfere with that of his neighbours.”

–Juliana Berners, Treatyse on Fysshng Wyth an Angle, 1496

You can also hear the classist values of her times.  Berners didn’t want her prized fishing tips to get in the hands of “idle persons who would destroy the sport.” So she had it published as part of a larger volume (called the Boke of Saint Albans) instead of as a pamphlet (which would have been more affordable and accessible to common readers).

Many nature writers of that era copied Berners’ words and sentiments, but few credited her. A notable exception was Isaak Walton in 1653 who quoted Berners and attributed her as his inspiration in his classic, “The Compleat Angler.”

By Wynkyn de Worde, printer – A Brief History of Wood-engraving from its Invention by Joseph Cundall, 1895, Public Domain

There is some controversy about whether Dame Berners is really the author of Treatyse. I like how the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) handles it in this 40-second video
Treatyse on Fysshng Wyth an Angleis available free as part of Project Gutenberg.

*The illustration is uncited, but the journal editors are: Charles Dudley Warner, Hamilton Wright Mabie, Mrs. Lucia Isabella (Gilbert) Runkle, George H. Warner – Library of the world’s best literature, ancient and modern, Volume 4, Public Domain,


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