Dame Juliana Berners


ho was Dame Juliana Berners and did she really exist?

The only clue to the authorship of the Treatyse is an attribution at the end of the book of hunting in the 1486 edition of the Boke of Saint Albans. The attribution reads: "Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng." In the later, 1496 edition, the spelling is altered to Bernes. 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.

John Hawkins gave the legend tremendous impetus, in his popular 1760 edition of the Complete Angler. In his introductory essay, "Life of Mr. Isaac Walton," Hawkins describes the author of the Treatyse as: "Dame Julyans Bernes, prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell, near St. Alban's; a lady of noble family, and celebrated for her learning and accomplishments, by Leland, Bale, Pits, and others..." Leland, Bale and Pits were early English antiquaries. Bale undoubtedly started the legend, in his Lives of the Most Eminent Writers of Great Britain, published circa 1559. In it, Bale describes Dame Juliana as:

... an illustrious female, eminently endowed with superior qualities both mental and personal. Amongst the many solaces of human life she held the sports of the field in the highest estimation. This heroic woman saw that they were the exercises of noble men after wars, after the administration of justice, or the concerns of the state. she had learned, perhaps, that Ulysses instituted such diversions after the conquest of Troy, and that they received commendation from Plato, as the sources of renewed enjoyment to those who suffered, either from domestic calamities, or the injuries of war. These arts therefore this ingenious woman was desirous to convey in her writings as the first elements of nobility; with the persuasion, that those youths, in whose hearts resided either virtue or honour, would cultivatethem to guard against vain sloth... She flourished in the year of our Lord 1460, in the reign of Henry the VIth.

Bale cites no sources, so the accuracy of his text is doubtful.. If it is a flight of fancy, then he deserves an award! The story still isn't complete, because Bale says nothing about Juliana's supposed post as abbess of Sopwell; an assertion which depends on a library catalogue entry made in a copy of The Boke of Saint Albans - a book which originally belonged to Bishop Moore. On flyleaf of this copy appear the words:

This Booke was made by Lady Julian Berners, daughter of Sr. James Berners, or Berners Roding, in Essex, Knight, & Sister to Richard Lord Berners. She was Lady Prioresse of Sopwell, a Nunnery neere St. Albons, in weh Abby of St. Albons this was first printed in 1486, 2 H. 7. She was living in 1460, 39 H. 6. according to John Bals, Centur. Fol. 611.

So there it is, warts and all. If you want to read more, I would suggest that you obtain a copy of The Origins of Angling, by John McDonald, which contains the full text of the Treatyse and much more. The alternative is to order a copy of my facsimile of the Treatyse from the Medlar Press - click here to e-mail them!


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