Three Books of Fishing

Published on on February 20, 2011, and the source for the details of my Mary Rose fishing reel.

Following on from some discussion at Newcastle, I present three treaties on fishing for your edification and reading pleasure.

The first, A tretyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle, taken from the larger The Booke of haukynge, huntyng and fysshyng, with all necessary properties and medicines that are to be kept, Tottel, 1561 [STC 3312] written in the finest medieval English in 1496 (updated and reprinted in 1561), takes the potential angler through all steps of building the rod, line, weights, floats, cultivating and catching bait, then follows with how to use your new gear to catch various types of fish at different time of year and then presents the social responsibilities of the gentleman angler including dealing with farm gates and limiting catch sizes.

Also ye shall not be to rauenous in takyng of your sayde game, as too muche at onetyme whiche ye may lightly doo … to destroye your owne disportes and other mens also.

The different techniques are shown for angling and fly-fishing, along with recipes for dying your line diverse colours and a guide for which fish and time of year to use each colour.

The second tome, the second edition of Barker’s Delight: or, the Art of Angling from 1656 shows a leap in the technology from the earlier manual and gives addresses of the finest commercial sources of the various tackle and from the descriptions, would be indistinguishable from that used by our grandparents when young. In the way of books of this period, there are a number of endorsements in the front. One in particular caught my eye as it summarises the work neatly.

On the choyce Treatise called
Barker’s Delight.

COme come, ye bunglers, learn the skill
The greedy nimble trout to kill.
For twelve pence (now) thou maist learn more
Than in an age was known before;
All baits to know, tackle to fit,
Brave Barker I commend thy wit.
What, catch they Prey, and cook the Fish?
And more than this, Sir, can you wish?
Radulphus Hoptonus
Gen. Wigorniens.

Notable are the change from pure horse-hair to horsehair and silk for lines, and the use of the winding reel. Comparing the explanation of the construction of the rod with that given in the earlier work may help understanding some of the more obscure terms in medieval English for the simpler design.

Fishing reel and tackle, frontispiece from The Experienc’d Angler by Colonel Robert Venables, 1662

The book concludes with a recipe for a dressing to keep shoes dry that I would recommend to anyone for preserving Routier boots and a dedicatory poem.

The last is The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing Not Unworthy the Perusal of Most Anglers, first published by Izaak Walton in 1653. Google Books has selected chapters of a modern reprinting of the 5th edition (1676 with additions by Charles Cotton of Compleat Gamester fame). The first edition is on the Project Gutenberg site.

The work is a discourse on the aims, philosophy and practice of angling, set as a conversation between an angler and hunter. A falconer was introduced in the second edition (1661) to extend the dialogue. There’s a nice comparative essay here.

Thanks to the various people involved in the preparation and publication of these works.


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