As to what happened in the world of angling in the first few centuries of the Christian era we know little. It may be inferred, however, that both fish and fishermen occupied a more honourable position in Christendom than they ever did before. The prominence of fishermen in the gospel narratives would in itself have been enough to bring this about, but it also happened that the Greek word for fish, ιχθυσ, had an anagrammatic significance which the devout were not slow to perceive. The initials of the word resolve into what is practically a confession of faith, Ἰησοῦς χριστὸς θεοῦ υἱὸς σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour). It is therefore not surprising that we find the fish very prominent as a sacred emblem in the painting and sculpture of the primitive church, or that Clement of Alexandria should have recommended it, among other things, as a device for signet rings or seals. The fisherman too is frequently represented in early Christian art, and it is worthy of remark that he more often uses a line and hook than a net.
The references to fish and fishing scattered about in the writings of the early fathers for the most part reflect the two ideas of the sacredness of the fish and divine authorization of the fisherman; the second idea certainly prevailed until the time of Izaak Walton, for he uses it to justify his pastime. It is also not unlikely that the practice of fasting (in many cases fish was allowed when meat was forbidden) gave the art of catching fish additional importance. It seems at any rate to have been a consideration of weight when sites were chosen for monasteries in Europe, and in many cases when no fish-producing river was at hand the lack was supplied by the construction of fish-ponds. Despite all this, however, save for an occasional allusion in the early fathers, there is hardly a connecting link between the literature of Pagan Rome and the literature that sprang up on the invention of printing. One volume, the Geoponica, a Greek compilation concerning whose authorship and date there has been much dispute, is attributed in Bibliotheca Piscatoria to the beginning of the 10th century. It contains one book on fish, fish-ponds and fishing, with prescriptions for baits, etc., extracted for the most part from other writers.
But it seems doubtful whether its date should not be placed very much earlier. Tradition makes it a Carthaginian treatise translated into Greek. A more satisfactory fragment of fishing literature is to be found in the Colloquy of aelfric, written (ad pucros linguae latinae locutionis exercendos) towards the end of the same century. aelfric became archbishop of Canterbury in A.D. 995, and the passage in the Anglo-Saxon text-book takes honourable rank as the earliest reference to fishing in English writings, though it is not of any great length. It is to be noted that the fisher who takes a share in the colloquy states that he prefers fishing in the river to fishing in the sea. Ascribed to the 13th or 14th century is a Latin poem De Vetula, whose author was apparently Richard de Fournival. It contains a passage on angling, and was placed to the credit of Ovid when first printed (c. 1470). A manuscript in the British museum, Comptes des pêcheries de l'église de Troyes (A.D. 1349-1413), gives a minute account of the fisheries with the weights of fish captured and the expenses of working.
There is, however, practically nothing else of importance till we come to the first printed book on angling (a translation of Oppian, 1478, excepted), and so to the beginning of the literature proper. This first book was a little volume printed in Antwerp probably in 1492 at the press of Matthias van der Goes. In size it is little more than a pamphlet, and it treats of birds as well as fish: - Dit Boecxken leert hoe men mach Voghelen ... ende ... visschen vangen metten kanden. Ende oeck andersins.... ("This book teaches how one may catch birds ... and ... fish with the hands, and also otherwise"). Only one copy apparently survives, in the Denison library, and a translation privately printed for Mr. Alfred Denison in 1872 was limited to twenty-five copies. At least two other editions of the book appeared in Flemish, and it also made its way, in 1502, to Germany, where, translated and with certain alterations and additions, it seems to have been re-issued frequently. Next in date comes the famous Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, printed at Westminster by Wynkyn de Worde in 1496 as a part of the second edition of The Book of St. Albans. The treatise is for this reason associated with the name of Dame Juliana Berners, but that somewhat dubious compiler can have had nothing whatever to do with it.
The treatise is almost certainly a compilation from some earlier work on angling ("bokes of credence" are mentioned in its text), possibly from a manuscript of the earlier part of the 15th century, of which a portion is preserved in the Denison collection. This was published in 1883 by Mr. Thomas Satchell under the title An Older Form of the Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle. But it is also possible that a still older work was the parent of both books, for it has been held that the manuscript is an independent version. However this may be, it is certain that the treatise itself has been the parent of many other works. Many of the instructions contained in it are handed down from generation to generation with little change except in diction. Especially is this the case with the list of trout-flies, a meagre twelve, which survives in many fishing books until well into the 18th century.
From the beginning of the 16th century the fisherman's library begins to grow apace, as, though books solely devoted to fishing are not yet frequent, works on husbandry and country pursuits almost all contain something on the subject. In Italy the fisherman and his occupation apparently were considered poetically; the word pescatore or its cognates are common on Italian 16th and 17th century title-pages, though in many instances the fulfilment of the implied promise is not adequate, from an angler's point of view. From the pages of Bibliotheca Piscatoria a fairly long list of Italian writers could be gleaned. Among them may be mentioned Sannazaro (Piscatoria, etc., Rome, 1526) and Andrea Calmo (Rime pescatorie, Venice, 1557). A century later was Parthenius, who published a volume of Halieutica at Naples. This writer has an amusing reference to the art of "tickling" trout as practised in Britain. In Germany, as has been shown, the original little Flemish treatise had a wide vogue in the 16th century, and fishing played a part in a good many books on husbandry such as that of Conrad Heresbach (1570). Fish and fish-ponds formed the main topic of a Latin work by Dubravius (1552), while Gesner in the middle of the 16th and Aldrovandi at the beginning of the 17th centuries wrote at length on the natural history of fishes.
In France the subject is less well represented, but Les Pescheries of Chris. de Gamon (Lyons, 1599) and Le Plaisir des champs of Cl. Gauchet (Paris, 1604) deserve to be noted. Les Ruses innocentes by François Fortin, first published at Paris in 1600, and several times in later editions, is characterized by Messrs Westwood and Satchell as "on the whole the most interesting contribution made by France to the literature of angling." England during the most part of the 16th century was evidently well enough served by the original treatise out of The Book of St. Albans. It was republished twice by Wynkyn de Worde, six or seven times by Copland, and some five times by other printers. It was also practically republished in A Booke of Fishing by L. M. (1590). L. M. (Leonard Mascall) ranks as an angling author, but he did little more than borrow and edit the treatise. The same may be said of another version of The Book of St. Albans "now newly collected by W. G. Faulkener" and issued in 1596.