Berners, Juliana (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04
Berners, Juliana

by Morgan George Watkins
The view of the ODNB is that Juliana Berners "cannot be authoritatively identified".

BERNERS, BERNES, or BARNES, JULIANA (b. 1388?), writer on hawking, hunting, and heraldry.

The historic and the legendary Dame Juliana Berners are very different persons. 'What is really known of the dame is almost nothing, and may be summed up in the following few words. She nrobaoly lived at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and she possibly compiled from existing, MSS. some rhymes on hunting;' so writes one of the latest and most destructive of Dame Juliana's biographers (Blades, The Boke of St. Albans in Facsimile, 1881, p. 13). Mr. Blades evidently judges from the only mention of Juliana Berners in the original edition of the 'Boke of St. Albans,' 1486, in the colophon of its second treatise. This consists of a rhymed treatise on hunting, and concludes : 'Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng.' In the reprint of the 'Boke' ten years later by Wynkyn de Worde, the colophon is varied, thus: 'Explicit dame Julyans Bemes doctryne in her boke of huntyng;' and the 'Boke' itself ends: 'Enprvnted at Westmestre bv Wvukvn the Worde the yere of thyncarnacon of our lorde, m.cccc.lxxxxvj.' Clearly Wynkyn de Worde attributed the authorship of the hunting treatise in the 'Boke' to one Julyans Bernes. This is all that contemporaneous history knows of the lady. 'It must not be concealed that no such person can be found in any authentic pedigree of the Berners family, nor do the county historians of Hertfordshire, nor indeed any other writers, notice her from documents' (Dugdale's Monast. Angic. iii. 363. ed. 1821). She possesses, however, a biography which is more or less mythical, and which is due to conjecture, inference, and perhaps not a little to imaginaticm. Haslewood assigns a distinguished lineage to the dame on the authority of Chauncy (Hist. of Hertfordshire, 1700). She 'is supposed,' he says, 'to have been born towards the latter end of the fourteenth century. The received report is that she was the daughter of Sir James Berners, whose son was created Baron Berners, temp. Henry IV, and that she once held the situation of prioress of Sopwell Nunnery, in Hertfordshire.' The pedigree may be found p. 11 (Haslewood, Boke of St. Albans, London, 1810, fol.), drawn out in full. It is enough to note here that Sir John Berners of Berners Roding, Essex, died in 1347. His son, Sir James, father of Dame Juliana, was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1388. The family branched out into Sir Humphrey Bourchier, who was slain at Barnet 1471, fighting for Edward IV, and was a son of one Margery Berners. His son was the translator of Froissart. Thence it stretches to Jane, mother of Sir Thomas Knyvet, whose great-great-grandson left a sole heir, Katharine. She married Richard Bokenham, to whom the barony of Berners was adjudged in 1720. The dame is said to have spent her youth probably at the court, and to have shared m the woodland sports then fashionable, thus acquiring a competent knowledge of hunting, hawking, and fishing. Having withdrawn 'from the world, and finding plenty of leisure in the cloister after being raised to the position of prioress, it is next believed that she committed to writing her experience of these sports. As for fishing, if she were an active prioress, the exigencies of fasting days would demand that she should busy herself in the supply of fish required for the sisterhood. Like all observant anglers, she would daily learn more of that craft as she grew older, and so she naturally treats of it more fully and in a clearer order than the other subjects of the 'Boke' are handled. The title 'dame' did not of itself imply in the fifteenth century any connection with nobility; 'it meant simply mistress or Mrs., says Mr. Blades (p. 10). 'Had the Dame Julyans Barnes of the fifteenth century, lived now, she would have been just "Mrs. Barnes."' But this is somewhat too broadly stated. The usual account of this title is that the lady was one of the sisters called Dames, as she was able to pay the little community for her maintenance, and so was placed on a higher footing than the ordinary nun, who performed menial tasks in lieu of payment. She calls herself dame in the 'Treatise on Hunting.' The scanty ruins of Sopwell Nunnery may yet be seen about a quarter of a mile north-east of the Abbey of St. Albans, not far from the little river Ver, in which the dame may have fished, and which is yet famous for its trout. The well from which the name was derived is also visible hard by. Of this nunnery the authoress of the 'Boke of St. Albans' was certainly an inmate, and probably, as tradition has handed down, its prioress. Her name does not appear in the list of the prioresses of Sopwell; but there is a gap in their enumeration between 1430, when Matilda Flamstead died, and 1480, when a commission was issued by the abbot of St. Albans (on whom the nunnery was dependent) to Rothebury, the cellarer, and Thomas Ramrugge, the sub-prior, to supersede from her office of prioress Joan Chapell, who was very old and too infirm to discharge her duties. In this space of fifty years upholders of the time-honoured belief may legitimately insert the dame as prioress if they will. The nunnery itself had been founded under the rule of St. Benedict about 1140. The rule of life was very strict, and at first the nuns had been enclosed under lock and key; but this discipline was gradually relaxed, and it is quite conceivable that, without participating in the license and evil-living which rendered notorious many of the religious houses prior to the reformation, the dame and her companions might have allowed themselves a decent liberty, during which field sports suitable to their sex might have alternated with the exercises of devotion. In the well-watered, well-timbered neighbourhood of Sopwell the dame may have found inducements to follow the field-sports which are inseparably connected with her name and the 'Boke of St. Albans.' A century after her time, Mary Queen of Scots displayed the same passionate enthusiasm for hunting and hawking which animated so many high-born ladies during the middle ages. In any case, the dame could solace herself with her treatises among the ruthless succession of battles, treasons, and executions which marked the wars of the Roses, and from which her own kith and kin had not escaped. She had heard, it may be, of the marvellous art which Caxton had been introducing into England at his Westminster Press, 'the almoury at the red pale.' Suddenly she found another of these wonderworking printers settled at her own doors, and made over to him her manuscripts, much to the delectation of posterity.

Such being the shadowy life of Dame Juliana Berners, it is curious that a like fate pursues even her printer. He is only known from Wynkyn de Worde's reprint of 'St. Alban's Chronicle,' the colophon of which states: 'Here endith this present chronicle, compiled in a book and also enprinted by our sometime schoolmaster of St. Alban.' From 1480 to 1486 he issued eight works, the first six of which are in Latin. Towards the end of his life he seems to have grasped the fact that fame waited for the man who should give books in their own tongue to the English. Accordingly his last two books, 'The Boke of St. Albans' and 'St. Alban's Chronicle,' were printed in the vernacular. He printed from an old worn-out fount of type which had been discarded by Caxton, and after the stoppage of the press at St. Albans (probably by Cardinal Wolsey) this same fount returned to Westminster, and was actually used by Wynkyn de Worde in his reprints (1496-7) of the two English books which had been issued by the press of St. Albans (Blades, Introd. to the Boke of St, Albans, pp. 17-23).

The first edition of the 'Boke of St. Albans' (1486) consists of four separate treatises on ' Hawking,' 'Hunting,' the 'Lynage of Coote Armiris,' and the 'Blasyng of Armys,' together with a good deal of intercalated matter resembling the subjects usually found at the end of a modern almanac. Warton, Blades, and most moderns consider these treatises as but translations, probably from French manuscripts, much as Cædmon's poems are probably but the versification of previous Saxon paraphrases. Indeed, the colophon at the end of the 'Blasyng of Armys' states: 'Here now endyth the boke of blasyng of armys translatyd and compylyt togedyr at Seynt albons.' There is also internal evidence to the same effect. What seems to render this certain, however, is that in 1883 Messrs. Satchell published the 'Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle' from a manuscript in the possession of A. Denison, Esq., which differs considerably in orthography, phrase, and sense from that in the 'Boke of St. Albans;' and Professor Skeat is inclined to assign to it an earlier date than 1400. After full consideration, Haslewood finally attributes to the dame's pen (1) a small portion of the treatise on Hawking; (2) the whole treatise upon Hunting; (3) a short list of the beasts of chase; (4) another short one of beasts and fowls. 'It is plain Julyans Bernes wrote the book of Hunting' (Herbert and Dibdin's Ames, ii. 65, 1810). Chalmers states that 'what relates to the blazing of arms contains no more than abstracts from a performance of Nicholas Upton, written about 1441.' Only three perfect copies of this first edition are known. One is in the Althorp Library, another in the Earl of Pembroke's collection, and the third is in the library of the Earl of Devon. The only copy which has appeared in an auction-room this century (with the exception of that in the Duke of Roxburghe's sale, which was very imperfect) was itself imperfect. It came from the library of Mr. F. L. Popham of Littlecote, and was sold in March 1882 for 600 guineas to Mr. Quaritch.

In the next edition (1496), that of Wynkyn de Worde, first appears the celebrated 'Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle.' A hundred years after its first publication the work features, in 1586, as the 'Boke of St. Albans, Hawking, Hunting, Fishing, with the True-Measures of Blowing' (b.l. Printed by Edward Allde, 4to, 6 leaves). During the sixteenth century the 'Boke' was so frequently reprinted, owing to its extreme popularity, as almost to defy the bibliographer's skill. Its 'circulation for a long time vied with and perhaps exceeded that of every other contemporary production of the press of lesser eminence than Holy Writ' (Haslewood, p. 21).

The first edition of the 'Boke' is illustrated with coats of arms in black and red, but in the second edition, 1496, appear the quaint and celebrated woodcuts. These are three in number. The first consists of a group of men going hawking, while a hawk flies over them, and two dogs like Italian greyhounds run at their side. The costume of the sportsmen is as noticeable as the character of their dogs. In the second appears a 'bevy' or 'sege' of fowls (as the dame orders them to be called), some of which are flying, others swimming, others again standing on the banks of a stream. A lion is seizing one of these which resembles a bittern. The woodcut attached to the 'Treatyse of Fysshynge' is probably better known than the other two, owing to its numerous reproductions. A countryman is engaged with rueful face in angling. His rod and line are extremely primitive. An open tub lies at his side, in which he is intended to place his captives and keep them alive until they could be deposited in the 'stew.'

An excellent facsimile of the original edition of the 'Boke' was published by Mr. E. Stock in 1881: and a reproduction, also in facsimile, of the 'Treatyse of Fysshynge' in 1880.

[Dugdale's Monasticon, ed. 1821. iii. 363; Dibdin's Ames, ii. 55-66; Chauncy's Hist. of Hertfordshire; Newcome's Hist. of St. Albans; Haslewood's Boke of St. Albans; Warton's Hist. of English Poetry; Bale's Script. Illust. Mag. Brit. For the printer of the Boke, Blades's Introduction to the Boke of St. Albans, pp. 16-23; and Biography of Caxton, 1882, pp. 45-219. For its bibliography, Blades as cited; and Satchell and Westwood's Bibliotheca Piscatoria, p. 24 seq. 1883.]

M. G. W.