Collective Nouns: A Prioress, a Book, and a Legacy of Appreciation
The Surprising Authorship of The Book of St Albans
There’s one word-nerd trait all of us seem to have. We’re all enchanted by collective nouns. And who wouldn’t be? A charm of finches; a murder of crows; a parliament of owls; the spare words conjure up images of quaint beauty, severity, maliciousness and more. I’ve always been fascinated and delighted by collective nouns, and decided to do a light-hearted story on their origins. This is how far I got: The Book of St Albans was published way back in 1486, also called The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms.
Then I noticed an unusual thing.
The authorship of The Boke of St Albans has been credited to a woman. A highly educated woman who coined many of the most wonderful collective nouns; some poetic and beautiful: the exaltation of larks; the unkindness of ravens — others more mischevious: a skulk of foxes; a barren of mules. A woman who, beneath the weight of history, is so mysterious, some doubt she ever existed. A handy gap in family records between 1430 and 1480 is enough to show reasonable doubt. Yet we still know her name.
Her name was Juliana Berners.
Juliana Berners, 1308–1460: Possibly a Dame, probably a Prioress; most certainly an author, outdoorsy woman, skilled fisher and hawker
Juliana Berners is thought to have been the daughter of a courtier Julian Berners, or perhaps wife to the Lord of the Manor of Julian Berners. Either way, she was sure to have been a privileged woman, and clearly took part in the usual sports favoured by the aristocracy: hunting, hawking, and fishing. One would imagine she was quite the skilled huntress, since she went on to write a treatise on hunting, hawking, and fishing. The work was completed with insights and understanding ages ahead of her time.
“These treatises are remarkable in the fact that they are some of the earliest extant writings of their kind, as well as in their vision and insight. They include remarks on the virtues of environmental conservation and on etiquette for field sports, concepts which would not become commonly accepted for hundreds of years after the publication of these treatises”
Juliana Berners lived in Renaissance England. Women were literally property, very often illiterate, and were blocked from academic institutions, including universities and libraries. As Suffragist Virginia Woolf pointed out hundreds of years later, libraries owned by men were locked doors to women. They controlled whose work was kept for public consumption and conservation, and who was rejected and forgotten.
It wasn’t until the 1900s, some 600 years later, that women were allowed to attend university and be given the same degree their male contemporaries were awarded. Generations of intelligent, able (and yes, it was always privileged) women who burned brightly were still unable to leave a legacy, even a literary one.
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”
Ironically, we might even have author gender bias to thank for the survival of The Book of St Albans, a best-seller in its time. Printed in the late 1400s, it came back to popularity in the 1600s, and again three centuries later. Careful reading of the book in 1810 by English writer and antiquary Joseph Hasselwood found information which he used to give Berner posthumous right of authorship for the hawking and hunting sections. Wynkyn de Worde, the publisher of the 1486 book, credited Berners himself.
“Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng.”
Wynkyn de Worde
This strikes me as highly unusual. Acknowledging the author in printed material is a relatively modern convention, and in Berners’ time it was very difficult for authors of any sex to keep control of their work. The words seem few and miserly, but they could be a measure of how well Berners knew her subject, how big a personality she may have had, or the position of power and influence she may have had — a point I’ll touch on shortly.
While she may have been ‘blocked’ from universities, there was one institution a rich, well-educated woman like Berners would have been welcomed into. A place where she’d be relieved of the responsibilities of child-bearing, and given access to the academic world. A place where she came up with the cheeky collective noun a superfluity of nuns. You guessed it: the nunnery.
A Non-Conforming Woman Found Freedom in Monastic Life
In Berners’ time, it wasn’t uncommon for women of power to be sent to nunneries to be kept out of political machinations, but some took the veil voluntarily. In any case, we don’t know when or why Juliana began monastic life, but she entered the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, England. Far from the oppressive places nunneries no doubt were to some women sent in disgrace, or those from poor families, they weren’t always that way. For women of a certain class and level of intelligence, it was one place they could be free.
It’s widely thought Berners continued her sporting pursuits of hunting, hawking, and fishing while in the nunnery. Referred to by some as ‘the fishing nun’, with many modern American fly fishing societies named for her, she also penned the first ever how-to book on the proper way to angle: A Treatise of Fishing With An Angle, published in 1496 as part of The Book of St Albans.
The Book of St Albans Lives On
England being a small and highly populated nation, there seems to have been a bit of a lull in collective nounery after the 1600s: I’m saying all the animals were probably catalogued, their collective nouns too. However, new entries in The Book of St Albans increase again in the 1900s, when the British colonised parts of Africa. Once again, most were recorded in the context of hunting big game and other animals. But with poetic collective nouns like a pride of lions, a shrewdness of apes, and a conspiracy of lemurs, it seems like the hunter knew he was being watched by animals with ferocity and intelligence previously unencountered.
Why I Love and Appreciate Collective Nouns
Quite simply, collective nouns are poetry on the micro level. Such vivid, quite beautiful images which capture an essential quality, energy, or sound. They’re playful and quietly irreverent, like I imagine Juliana Berners was; a woman who knew how clever she was, and perhaps even that she was before her time. I’m even going to ‘do a Juliana’ and throw a few of my own out there: the gout of grammarians; a hallucination of pixies; a screech of seagulls; a clatter of copywriters.
Which new collective nouns can you think of? We can only hope they’re as witty and as timeless as those thought up by Juliana Berners, a woman author, excellent angler, and top shot of the Renaissance.
If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my newly minted Medium blog Snake Talks Sense, God Gets Mad.