Albrecht Classen

title.none: Hoffmann, Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9710.004 97.10.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Hoffmann, Richard C. Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages. Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations, vol. 12. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 403. $60.00; $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-802-00869-0 (hb); 0-802-07853-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.10.04

Hoffmann, Richard C. Fishers' Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages. Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations, vol. 12. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 403. $60.00; $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-802-00869-0 (hb); 0-802-07853-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

There is hardly any recently published scholarly study on medieval culture and literature like Richard C. Hoffmann's edition and critical investigation on fishers' craft which so competently appeals to diverse readers' interests. There is no question that the author accomplishes his goal to present critical editions of various fishers' tracts from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance. His translations also prove to be of first rate, and so his in-depth investigation of fishing as a craft during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. At the same time Hoffmann never forgets that also lay people, especially fishing enthusiasts, might read his book, hence never relents in his efforts to describe his subject matter in a very clear, easily readable fashion understandable both for the expert and the lay person. Moreover, Hoffmann, though focusing on a extremely specialized subject matter, fishing, studies also broad and fundamental aspects of medieval and early modern culture, taking into account both the world of orality and literacy. Dealing with fishing both as a means of survival and as a craft, as a form of entertainment and as a topic of learning, Hoffmann covers a vast stretch of everyday culture and intellectual study. Finally, this book does not only discuss fishing in general terms, but takes a close look at this art and craft as practiced in Germany, England, and Spain during the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age.

In his introduction Hoffmann examines the role which fishing played in medieval culture, explores the geographical conditions of Europe with respect to fish population both in the past and today, and discusses the social and literary relevance of fishing tracts for our understanding of that time period. Although a number of writers and scholars have already attempted to approach the subject, Hoffmann emerges as the first one to deal with it both in a highly critical and profoundly informed manner. He demonstrates an impressive knowledge about fishing tracts and their cultural contexts. He remains, however, surprisingly silent with regards to fishing as a leisure entertainment for nobles in the High Middle Ages. The bibliography includes a reference to Wolfram's Titurel where Schionatulander stands fishing in a forest creek when the magical dog Gardeviaz appears, symbolically announcing the protagonist's imminent death, but Hoffmann basically limits his investigations to the Late Middle Ages. There are a number of important manuscript miniatures showing fishing scenes in the Manesse manuscript (early fourteenth century), and one could easily unearth other references to fishing, but all that might be the subject matter of another monograph.

The author's actual interest rests on specific fishing tracts which he has edited and translated into English for the first time. These are the Early New High German Heidelberg Booklet of 1493, printed by Jacob Koebel, the Tegernsee Fishing Advice of ca. 1500, and Fernando Basurto's Spanish Dialogo que agora se hazia of 1539, translated by Adrian Shubert, Thomas V. Cohen, and Hoffmann. Whereas the two German tracts are retyped by Hoffmann, Basurto's text is copied as a facsimile in its early-modern printed version.

Koebel's tract has not been preserved, but Hoffmann resorted to the two oldest surviving versions, those printed by Mathis (or rather Matthias) Hupfuff in Strasbourg in 1498, and by Hans Sporer in Erfurt in 1498. A critical apparatus informs us about the variants in each print.

The fishing tract from the monastery Tegernsee in Southern Bavaria provides us with intriguing insights in the daily lives of monks, especially their eating habits. There is no question that the scribes built a bridge between oral and written culture, but their motives for writing the tract remain unclear (130), unless we assume that they satisfied their interest in creating "scholarly" work without real interest in the subject matter. The tract could have hardly served the ordinary fishers in their craft, whereas it seems unlikely that the monks were interested in that craft themselves.

In clear contrast, Basurto intended his fishing tract for fellow noblemen with an interest in this craft. He was obviously "showing off his cultural knowledge and skills" (195). Hoffmann points out the noteworthy differences to Koebler's edition which are due both to the different fish habitats on the Iberian peninsula and a different cultural approach to fishing among Castilian aristocrats.

Hoffmann examines all three tracts with respect to their practical advice on baits, fishing traps, poisons to stun the fish, and explosives. Here he has both the scholar and the lay person and fishing enthusiast in mind. The tracts contain, after all, a wealth of specific information which could be of relevance for modern fishers as well.

At the end the author revisits the question who the original audience might have been and speculates: "Might, then, recreational fishers have been another intended market for the printed texts?" (332). Obviously, professional fishers, i.e., people who earned their living through fishing and who were most likely illiterate, were not the addressees. On the contrary, the information contained in the tracts flowed from "fishers' oral tradition to a literate audience" (338). Nevertheless, the concrete advices, recipes, information, etc. were directly intended for practical application, hence fed "back into a continuing and lively scribal, oral, and popular culture" (338).

It remains a question of debate whose oral culture we are talking about. It seems to me that, considering Wolfram von Eschenbach's and other writers' testimony about fishing, there might have been a strong tradition of aristocratic fishers practicing this art for their entertainment. Basurto's tract would then be the first early-modern printed version of an oral tradition relevant for the aristocracy. In other words, in all likelihood fishing was an aristocratic sport of a highly sophisticated nature, clearly distinct from fishing done by professional non-aristocratic fishers (see Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius, ca. 1200).

Hoffmann proves to be an impressive translator. These tracts, both in Early-Modern German and in sixteenth-century Castilian, are highly specialized texts with an extremely sophisticated terminology. Hoffmann, however, renders them all--in the case of Basurto's text with the help of some colleagues--in a smooth English using all the required technical terms relevant in fishing. In other words, these are not simply translations, they are also cultural translations.

This study with its multiple editions and translations proves to be highly informative and instructive both for the fishing expert and the cultural medievalist. Although many questions remain to be answered, Hoffmann is the first to raise the relevant questions and to attempt to explain the literary and scientific documents on fishing.