Today is often cited (erroneously) as the birthday (c. 1594) of Izaak Walton, an English writer best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, that is, if he is remembered at all these days. Walton also wrote a number of short biographies that he recorded as he was researching The Compleat Angler and which were eventually collected into one volume under the title Walton’s Lives. Walton was born in Stafford on a date that is unknown. The traditional date of 9th August 1593 is based on a misinterpretation of his will, which he began on 9 August 1683. The register of his baptism gives his father’s name as Gervase. His father, who was an innkeeper as well as a landlord of a tavern, died before Izaak was 3 years old. His mother then married another innkeeper by the name of Bourne, who later ran the Swan in Stafford.
He is believed to have been educated in Stafford before moving to London in his teens. He is often described as an ironmonger, but he trained as a linen draper, a trade which came under the Ironmongers’ Company. He had a small shop in the upper storey of Thomas Gresham’s Royal Burse or Exchange in Cornhill. In 1614 he had a shop in Fleet Street, two doors west of Chancery Lane in the parish of St Dunstan’s. He became verger and churchwarden of the church, and a friend of the vicar, John Donne. He joined the Ironmongers’ Company in November 1618. Walton’s first wife was Rachel Floud (married December 1626), a great-great-niece of Archbishop Cranmer. She died in 1640. He soon remarried, Anne Ken (1646–1662), who appears as Kenna in Walton’s poem The Angler’s Wish. She was a stepsister of Thomas Ken, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells.
After the Royalist defeat at Marston Moor in 1644, Walton retired from his trade. He went to live just north of his birthplace, at Shallowford between Stafford and Stone, where he had bought some land bordered by a small river. However by 1650 he was living in Clerkenwell in London. The first edition of his book The Compleat Angler was published in 1653. His second wife died in 1662, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral, where there is a monument to her memory.
For the remainder of his life (40 years) Walton visited eminent clergymen and others who enjoyed fishing, compiling the biographies of people he liked, and collecting information for revisions and additions to The Compleat Angler. He died in his daughter’s house at Winchester, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century, going through 5 editions. At the core of the book are instructions about fishing itself, but the whole work is a kaleidoscope of poems, stories, reminiscences, autobiography, and miscellany about fishing. You have to dip into it to get the idea. Here’s a few quotes:
Doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.
Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element are made for wise men to contemplate, and for fools to pass by without consideration.
You will find angling to be like the virtue of humility, which has a calmness of spirit and a world of other blessings attending upon it.
We may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.
Thus use your frog…Put your hook through his mouth, and out at his gills;…and then with a fine needle and silk sew the upper part of his leg, with only one stitch, to the arming-wire of your hook; or tie the frog’s leg, above the upper joint, to the armed-wire; and in so doing use him as though you loved him.
Walton did not claim to be an expert at fly fishing and many of the technical discourses on the subject come from other fishermen. But he was skilled at using live bait (as in the case of the frog), and was a genuine devotee of fishing in general. In the first edition the book opens with a dialogue between Piscator (angler) and Viator (traveler) extolling their respective pastimes, much in the vein of similar dialogues from an earlier period.
In the second edition, seemingly in response to critics who felt that Piscator was too dominant in the dialogue, introduced the falconer, Auceps, and changed Viator into Venator (hunter), and made these new companions each expound on the joys of their individual sports. After the 17th century, Walton was not much in vogue until the late 19th century when noted folk tale scholar and editor, Andrew Lang, put out a new edition in 1896.
I lived on a trout stream in the Catskills for nearly 30 years, and during that time I became deeply involved in the world of fly fishing, which includes fly tying (an incredibly arcane art), split bamboo cane making, entomology, and tale telling galore. Dipping into Walton is like peering into the lives of many of the fishermen I knew. One thing that unites Walton with contemporary fishermen is the distaste for actually killing and eating the fish they catch. Rather they prefer to catch fish – enjoying the battle – and then immediately releasing them back into the river. So a fish recipe might not meet with their approval. I’ll go ahead anyway.
Here’s two recipes from 17th century England. First, from The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675). In this case a “coffin” is a contemporary word for an enclosed pie shell.
To make a Carp-Pye.
After you have drawn, wash’d, and scalded a fair large Carp, season it with Pepper, Salt, and Nutmeg, and then put it into a Coffin, with good store of sweet Butter, and then cast on Raisins of the Sun, the juice of Limons, and some slices of Orange-peels, and then sprinkling on a little Vinegar, close it up, and bake it.
Second, from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696)
To Stew Trouts, Carp, Tench, &c.
Draw them and scrape them well, wash them in White-wine, then smeer them over with a piece of Sweet Butter, and lay them orderly in a Stew-pan, putting in as much water as will cover them above an inch, with a little Salt, a bundle of sweet herbs, and some blades of Mace, take them up, and make your Sawce of beaten Butter, Claret, yolks of Eggs, and Sugar.