Early and Medieval Fishing


The period defined by the title falls within the reign of the Catholic Church, from the early first millennium to the 16th century, coinciding with the beginning of the printing press. This era shares a common characteristic with ancient times: the classification of existing fishing texts into knowledge or stories is challenging or unnecessary. Therefore, the presented material is gathered under the same title.

Due to the various storage locations of the material and the focus of literary research, discoveries are limited, corresponding to the obscurity of the era. For a layperson (like this author), it is difficult to know what to search for and where to search, especially when texts about fishing have not been the primary focus of researchers. The topics are scattered, but there are also fantastic findings, closer than one might expect. As literary research expands its scope, and as internet files and PDF archives in archives and libraries become more comprehensive, more material will be made public, and the image of the era will become clearer.

In the early 18th century (specifically in 1702), the Frenchman Antoine Galland returned from Syria, bringing with him the collection of tales and stories known as “One Thousand and One Nights,” which had been translated from Persian into Arabic in the 9th century and had taken its current form in 14th-century Egypt. Galland translated the texts into French between 1704 and 1707. As a result of his work, this extensive collection of tales and stories, with roots in Indian, Persian, Baghdadi, and Egyptian backgrounds, became known in Europe. Galland’s translation, fitting the Baroque era, smoothed the way for the collection to become famous and popular throughout Europe.

There are several Finnish translations of these tales, including those by F. Hoffman in 1874-77, G. E. Euren in 1878-80, Valfrid Hedman in 1922, J. Anselm Hollo in 1930, Eeva-Liisa Manner in 1965, Heidi Järvenpää in 1975, and Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila in 2010, as well as several selections and compilations of varying lengths, from children’s and youth-oriented storybooks (such as the one I first read) to six-volume epics.

The collection also includes fish-themed stories, such as the tale of an elderly, poor fisherman who, on his first attempt, caught a dead donkey in his net, on the second, a basket filled with stones, and on the third, a bunch of seashells and mud. His fourth catch was a reddish-bronze vessel sealed with a sign containing a vengeful spirit. The clever fisherman managed to trap the vengeful spirit back in the vessel through persuasion. The story continues with the title “Further Adventures of the Fisherman.” The details of the stories I have chosen are based on J. Anselm Hollo’s translation; in other translations, the fisherman’s catches and the description of the malicious spirit’s prison vary.

Around the turn of the 11th century, Aelfric, a monk who lived in Dorset and Oxford, wrote a dialogue-style Latin language textbook (Aelfric’s Colloquy). One of the topics covered is the profession of students, including that of a fisherman. The textbook has been translated into English and published, among other places, on the www.kentarchaeology.ac website.

Excerpt from the conversation between the teacher and the fisherman:


Teacher: What skills do you have?

Fisherman: I am a fisherman.

Teacher: What do you gain from your skills?

Fisherman: I get food, clothes, and money.

Teacher: How do you catch the fish?

Fisherman: I get into my boat, put my nets into the river, and then I cast my bait and wicker baskets, and whatever I catch, I take

Teacher: What sort of fish do you catch?

Fisherman: I catch eels, pike, minnows and dace, trout, lamprey, and any other species that swim in the rivers, like sprats.


Romantic poetry that emerged in the wake of the Crusades gives us at least two examples. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (1160/80-1220) well-known poem “Parzival,” the young hero is said to wade barefoot in a stream, catching graylings and trout. I read the Finnish translation of “Parzival” for just over a week until I became weary of the tedious chivalric romance and abandoned it, not finding what I was looking for. I had to rely on what others have said about it.

Similarly, Richard de Fournival’s (1201-1260?) “De Vetula,” a poem created in the spirit of Ovid, describes fishing gear and methods in detail. This poem, which comprises 68 stanzas dedicated to fishing, mentions tools such as worms and flies, torches and spears, long lines, creels, and nets. According to Ernest Schwiebert, the nymph-fishing sections in “De Vetula” can be considered the earliest literary presentation of fly fishing. It’s worth noting that this poem was written over 200 years before the publication of “The Boke of S. Albans.”

In the early 19th century, when examining the remaining possessions of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Bertin, founded in the 8th century near Saint-Omer in northeastern France, a treatise was discovered in the material. This treatise, titled “Treatise on Fishing,” discusses the fish species in rivers, their fishing seasons, and methods of capture, including bait and fly fishing. Who originally created the manuscript, where, and when is unknown, but the descriptions of events point to antiquity, the lives of Judean fishermen, suggesting a broad timespan. The buildings of Saint Bertin’s monastery have long since turned into ruins.

A manuscript from the early 16th century, kept by the Tegernsee Abbey in Bavaria, lists a series of unnamed flies intended for fishing salmon and trout, among other fish. This same abbey was known for its crayfish fishing and their use as food.

The significance of the manuscripts preserved in monasteries is twofold. On one hand, they reflect the interests and hobbies of monks. Their fascination with fishing and fish farming can be attributed to the Catholic Church’s fasting tradition since fish was allowed during fasting periods. Rich monasteries, in addition to their vast landholdings, had flowing and still waters. Maintaining and documenting fishing skills, as well as fish farming, provided useful activities and pastimes. On the other hand, the manuscript discoveries support the prevailing notion of monasteries playing a significant role in preserving, storing, and advancing ancient fishing knowledge.

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning the Latin work “Dialogus creaturarum moralisatus,” published in 1480 following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press. It is a collection of 122 animal fables or stories, and the content aligns with the title of the collection, “moral conversations of created beings.” Some of the stories in the collection are attributed to Aesop. The free translation of the title is my own, “Moral Teachings from the Bible and the Church Fathers.”

The popularity of the work is evident from the fact that it quickly saw four Latin editions: the first two in Gouda in 1480 and 1481, followed by two more in Antwerp in 1486 and 1491. There were Dutch editions in 1481 and 1482, and a French edition in 1482. Furthermore, it is the first book known to have been printed in Sweden, with the printing date listed as December 20, 1483. The printer was Johann Snell, originally from Rostock. The first English translation, titled “The Dialoges of Creatures Moralysed,” was published in 1520.

What ties this work to fishing stories is the presence of fish in both the narratives and the excellent illustrations in the collection. The book also contains the oldest known depiction of a raised fly-fishing rod and the angler holding it. To the best of my knowledge, this work has not been translated into Finnish.


Text: Sulo Tiainen