- An army of ants.
- A flock of birds.
- A flock of sheep.
- A herd of deer.
- A hive of bees.
- A litter of puppies.
- A murder of crows.
- A pack of hounds.
Ever wonder who sat around and came up with these? How about a bloat of hippos, a business of mongooses, a tower of giraffes, and a confusion of wildebeests? Insane? Or just one woman’s little joke from the 15th century?
Many of these collective nouns have been around longer than the 15th century and can be found in different languages. So Dame Juliana Berners, the 15th century Benedictine prioress who recorded them, was just doing what they did back then—creating an archival encyclopedia in her Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms, also called The Book of St. Albans (Dame Julianna was the prioress of Sopwell Priory, a cell of St Albans Abbey) But that latter list—the bloat of hippos, etc—isn’t as easily traced. And when she added these other collective beasts: a disguising of tailors, a doctrine of doctors, a neverthriving of jugglers (I like to think of that as a commentary on the entertainment industry even then), diligence of messengers, a melody of harpers, a blast of hunters, a subtlety of sergeants (sergeants obviously had a reputation even 500 years ago!), a gaggle of women, and a superfluity of nuns, she seemed to have tongue firmly in cheek.
Very little is known about Juliana Berners. In fact, she’s an intriguing mystery. The records left by Sopwell Abbey—founded in 1140 and dissolved in 1537—contain a gap from 1435 to 1480, which is when Dame Juliana would have lived there. Did she destroy any record of her presence? Or did her enemies try to rub out the existence of one of the first English female authors?
Her Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms is essentially a gentleman’s catalogue of wildlife and hunting. For a Benedictine nun to write a comprehensive guide for the anglers, one containing substantial information on fishing destinations, rod and line construction, and selection of natural baits and artificial fly dressings, was a feat of wonder in itself. Even more remarkable are the essays on the virtues of conservation, respecting the rights of streamside landowners, and angler’s etiquette. These were NOT concepts commonly accepted over 500 years ago.
The book itself admits that much of the material came from prior sources, mostly from the French from the time of Edward II, but like Sister Julianna herself, there is little available evidence of any earlier treatises, so we have no idea how much is her own opinion and how much is merely copy work. I’d like to believe she added the virtues of conservation as her contribution to the book.
Sopwell Priory in Hertfordshire, north of London, had a precedent for taking in wealthy widows as nuns or boarders. At the time, the monks may have encouraged some of Berners’ writing. It was fairly common for English monks to fly falcons and hunt after taking their vows, and men of the church were also responsible for much of the era’s hunting literature. Perhaps she read French better than they did, and they gave her the treatises to translate?
Receiving attribution in a published work was an uncommon feat for most authors of the Middle Ages. But because of Berners’ familiarity with the subject matter and the fact that she—a woman— received attribution when even men didn’t, indicates she probably came from a highly respected background, perhaps even nobility. What are the chances that an influential family would have allowed a woman to put her name on a book? There are almost no records of female authors at the time. Is this the reason she’s disappeared from the annals of history—because her family tried to wipe out the existence of such an unfeminine relation?
Anyone have a time travel machine? I’d really love to meet this lady!
How about you? Who would you like to travel back in time to meet?