Scholars, both professional and independent, have long argued that the first literary reference to fly fishing in European literature, outside of the ancient world, appears in a fragmentary, 13th century text. The text was composed by German author Wolfram von Eschenbach, who also composed a very popular version of the Arthurian romance Parzival. Titurel, the fragmentary text in which Wolfram refers to fly fishing, is also a part of the Arthurian body of literature. Indeed, tales of King Arthur, his knights, and related figures were immensely popular outside of the Celtic areas of England, with which they are most often associated. The tales became known in France because the people of Bretagne were closely related to the Celts of Wales and Cornwall, with whom the narratives of Arthur likely originated. The Arthurian stories then became known in Germany, simply because French writers were so influential throughout the continent.
The story of Parzival is well known, even today. Many of the characters and events of Wolfram’s other text, Titurel, remain relatively obscure. One of the characters is Schionatulander, a young squire. The text describes him enjoying the distraction of the forest with his lover, Sigune, who is the granddaughter of King Titurel. Schionatulander and Sigune embark upon this retreat just before being led to tragedy by a hound with an unusual collar and leash.
Here are several lines from the text, translated by Cyril Edwards:
Schionatulander, with feathered bait, was catching perch and grayling, while she was reading–and catching also, such loss of joy that he was very seldom merry thereafter.
. . . .
Schionatulander was catching large and small fish with his rod, standing there on his bare, white legs to enjoy the coolness in the clear-swift brook.
Admittedly, these references to fly fishing are very minor. On the other hand, they are presented in a way that indicates fishing was well-known as an acceptable pastime for high-born, future knights in the presence of noble women. Indeed, it is the passing quality of these references that makes them so interesting. Many, many texts about King Arthur and related characters were written in this era and later. Many of these, probably most, did not survive. It is easy to imagine that fly fishing appeared in one of these lost texts. Perhaps somewhere, sometime, there was even a reference to King Arthur fly fishing for salmon in Wales. In fact, if he was a fly fisher, we might better understand why his wife’s eyes wandered toward another man: Arthur was always off fishing. Now, lest anyone take this latter suggestion seriously, let me emphasize that I am joking. Still, I would be surprised if fly fishing did not appear in any of the other stories at some point.