Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Richard Hoffmann, Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Richard Hoffmann, Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages

Wendy R. Childs
University of Leeds
Hoffmann, Richard. Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. xv + 403 pp., illus. Cloth $60, ISBN 0-8020-0869-0; paper $24.95, ISBN 0-8020-7853-2.

1 Richard Hoffmann's Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art is a book packed with information for the historian, the literary specialist, and the angler. Although it is far less written about than sea fisheries, fresh water fishing is nonetheless well recognized for its importance to the diet and economy of communities so far inland that sea fish came only salted, smoked, or dried. Professor Hoffman's book is most welcome as a further contribution to the recognition of its importance. It is not a general history of freshwater fishing (although it gives a succinct historical overview), but a detailed analysis of three early treateises on fishing from Germany and Spain. Specialists will find intriguing references not only to baits and artificial flies, but to lines, rods, lead weights, pots, traps, and lift nets. The three are How to Catch Fish (Wieman fisch und vogel fahen soll): a tract in 27 chapters and associated texts first printed by Jacob Kobel in Heidelberg in 1493; Tegernsee Fishing advice, circa 1500, the so-called Tegernseer Angel- und Fischbuchlein, from manuscript Cgm 8137 in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich; and Fernanado Basurto's Dialogue between a Hunter and a Fisher printed in Zaragoza in 1593. All three are provided in parallel texts with extensive textual and historical notes, as well as extremely interesting introductions and commentaires.

2 The first short printed treatise is essentially a collection of recipes for bait, both for line fishing and fish traps. The flavour of the book can be seen in chapter 25 when a bait mixed of human blood, saffron, pressed barley flour, unrisen bread wheat and doe's tallow is recommended. Recipes are also given for poisoning fish. The urge is clearly to catch fish in some numbers. It includes a list of fish and the months when they are at their best, and a short comparison offish along the lines of "a stickleback is a king. A fresh-run salmon is a lord." The treatise has literary overtones with references to Albertus Magnus and to exotic imported ingredients for some of its baits and potions, but Hoffmann's notes indicate that it remains essentially a practical handbook. The second text is an individual collection of information in manuscript only from the Tegernsee Abbey and without a clear pattern. Its importance lies in that it offers the earliest descriptions of tying artificial flies (although the practice is referred to much earlier), and advises different flies for different seasons and waters. It provides instructions for making a good angling line for grayling, and a miscellany of local recipes for bait with fewer exotic elements than the first. It then incorporates many of the recipes of the first treatise, How to Catch Fish. The third treatise is very different. It is a debate between hunter and fisher, which is consciously literary and explicitly extols fishing as a sport. It sets out to prove the fisher superior to the hunter by emphasizing the patience, repose and contemplation to be found in fishing. However, it too provides practical advice and information at the end on bait, flies, and rods. Unlike the others it includes seafishing with long lines from shore as well as freshwater fishing, and its baits are those appropriate to local Spanish conditions.

3 The texts are interesting not only for their content, but for their contrasts with each other as literary texts. As Hoffmann points out, by being written at all the information has entered the literary sphere and has left the practical oral tradition that normally disseminated the skills of crafts including fishing. But each has its own level of literariness.The Tegernsee text remains closest to local oral traditions, with no literary pretensions, except that it copies extracts from the printed treatise of 1493. That treatise is already one stage removed from the local craftsman with its reference to Albertus Magnus and inclusion of recipes with exotic imported ingredients unlikely to be available to most country fishermen. The third is consciously a highly sophisticated literary device, not uncommon in the period, acting as a vehicle for moralizing, teaching and entertaining the literate leisured class, to whom fishing could be a sport rather than a means of livelihood.

4 Hoffmann's commentaries are excellent in providing each text with its own precise historical and geographical context, as well as in providing a clear overview of the importance of fish in the middle ages, and of the exact position of these three texts in the early writings on fishing. He points out that, although these are the earliest manuscripts and printed books which could be called treatises, earlier individual bait recipes can be found in collections of miscellaneous information and scribbled in margins of manuscripts. He also relates them to contemporary writings in England at this period, long before Izaak Walton's well-known Compleat Angler. Hoffmann's notes to the content of the texts are exemplary and clearly the fruit of long engagement with angling. They are exceptionally full and careful, identifying precisely many of the plants, worms, larva and insects used, indicating how far the bait should work, and analysing the sort of rivers the texts were written about.

5 Altogether this is an interesting book for the scholar and for the fisherman. Hoffman's broad approach provides the practical, historical, literary and geographical commentary necessary to ensure a wide range of readers can benefit from it. His choice of contemporary illustrations also provides visual evidence of some of the equipment used by contemporary fishermen. This is a specialist book but one which has been made accessible to more general readers, and which provides a further valuable building block toward the eventual writing of a history of fresh-water fisheries.