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The Astorga Manuscript A.D. 1624

This is a book that talks about how to garnish and decorate feathers to catch Trout, so begins one of the most mysterious and at the same time important texts for understanding the evolution of fly fishing in Spain.

Looking for inspiration to start writing this article, the figurative image of the Trojan horse comes to my mind. That gadget disguised as an offering and loaded with deception that, according to the chronicles, the Greeks left at the gates of Troy. Perhaps that story that Homer quoted in the Odyssey has something in common with what I want to tell today. "In the name of God and of Our Lady. This is a goodly book on how to tie and dress feathers to fish for trout in certain months". Thus begins the Astorga Manuscript. Known by fishermen, both from Spain, and from around the world, it has always been admired for the quality and quantity of the knowledge it collected, but its real value was always veiled for several reasons: the first, the late discovery of the document. The second, its subsequent appearances and disappearances. The third, the difficult interpretation of both the information contained in the text, and the method for making those artificial flies, which came to be considered as an encrypted puzzle between its pages, perhaps impossible to solve.


The story: a clergyman from the city of Astorga (León), Juan de Bergara, began to write a document in which, he, and later another person whose identity is unknown, compiled a part of the existing knowledge in the time about fly fishing and fishing flies, stating that they were already common among those Leòn fishermen. That unique copy, which was in the form of a small booklet, a leaflet, with twenty pages written in handwriting by its authors, later took the name of the city that saw it born and today is known as the Manuscript of Astorga. Since it was discovered there in the thirties of the last century, its surprising content did not allow an in-depth study, although the first news already warned of its importance. Shortly after the death of its last owner, Mr. Julio de Campo, the document was lost, because of a move, between the volumes of his library, until it was located again in the early sixties. Then it was acquired by the Diputación de León. Fu in questo periodo che le sue pagine furono fotografate e posteriormente trascritte da D. Jesus Pariente Diez. It is at this time when all its pages were photographed and later transcribed by D. Jesús Pariente Diez. Thanks to his work and dedication, we currently retain the content and forms of the Astorga Manuscript. And I say this, because in 1964 the León Provincial Council gave it to General Franco during a visit to the city of León. Since then the document is missing.



The manuscript and its language: the Astorga Manuscript is composed of a correlative succession of recipes to tie thirty-six fishing flies, ordered, as seems standard among the old fishing writings, according to the months of the year. In this case from January to San Juan, at the end of June. Reading its pages we are faced with a calligraphy, rather two, one of each author, relatively easy to read. The real problem arises when we try to understand what the authors wanted to say and why. Then the first step to approach its content was to understand the language and how to use it as a descriptive tool. The absence of details about how to proceed to join all the materials described to make the flies, their size, how to compose a gear, how to fish with them, etc., would lead us to think that these notes could be personal notes, exclusive property of the author, or for a small circle of connoisseurs. In this way, the lack of “how to” instructions would be justified, instructions that other close authors in time made in their writings with the intention of attracting an audience. In the Astorga Manuscript there are no explanations, because they are probably left over. We must recognise that these fly dressings that have come to us since the handwritten compilation in 1624 are the result of a much earlier tradition. Otherwise we could not understand the simple, but refined technique, or the elaborate combination of materials. Juan de Bergara already warns that his writing “must be taken and use with some knowledge of books by fishermen with a lot of experience".


There aren’t known documented information of those books or their content, although without a doubt these “contents” and “experiences” have been preserved in the guild language and in the narratives of the oral transmission, related to the current art of tying the traditional Leon flies. The key to the rescue of this treaty is largely due to its analysis and recovery. Thus, for example, before the question what trout fly trout are rising to, It is still common to hear a response similar to "To tobacco, ribbed in bone, with pardo crudo" The rest is left over, because all fishermen know how it is done and what the final aspect will be. That concise description that translates into a brown body fly (of a tobacco-like tone), ribbed with a dirty cream or white thread and topped with a Coq de Leòn Pardo’s rooster feather, with thick, dark or black spots, on a white background essentially contains the same descriptive technique that was used 400 years ago.


Let's see how Juan de Bergara described one of those flies, baptizing it, if someone had not done so before, as “raw vermilion mid-March and April: lleva un negrisco açerado claro luego una de pardo de obra muy menuda que no sea dorada encima desta, una de picapez, luego otro negrisco como el primero. Por capa dos bueltas de bermejo de gallo de muladar ençendido. Cuerpo de seda abinagrada a manera de acavellado escuro, papo y cocote seda leonada muerta. Vinco acul y blanco delgado y poca rropa en el ala tanbien se puede echar el cuerpo de çedaço y es muy bueno. La Caveça encarnada puede".


Which, interpreted, would sound like this. “Tie a Coq de Leòn Indio grey feather of light steel color. Then a Coq de Leòn Pardo rooster feather with very small spots, which is not golden. Above the latter, a feather of Kingfisher (Alcedo Atthis). Then another Leòn feather as the first one described. In the head two turns of intense reddish common rooster . The body in vinegar-colored silk similar to dark brown hair color. The top and bottom of the thorax with silk the color of the faded fur of a lion. Ribbing of blue and white color, with two fine twisted threads. Do not use an excessive amount of feathers to imitate the wings. The body can also be made of wrapped hemp fibres and the fly continues to be effective. The head may be flesh-coloured "Upon reading these lines, the question immediately arises: How could someone join in a centimeter of hook, five different threads to form the body of a fly and up to five different feathers to mimic its wings? But before raising an answer, we must approach the adobos y aderecos, the ingredients and mixtures that those fishermen used to make their flies.


Materials: Threads and feathers. In total, in the Astorga Manuscript there are thirty-nine different colours and textures of threads, mainly silk, but also linen and hemp. Threads and colours that shape the bodies of the flies and that embroider on them the marks or drawings that nature drew on the thorax or abdomen of natural insects, in addition to giving the precise color to the head of each imitation. In order to interpret the descriptions that the Astorga Manuscript makes of colours, it is necessary to understand that Juan de Bergara and the Second Author use pre-scientific names, in which objects, in this case the threads or feathers, are described by its resemblance to natural models, such as: leonado (the color of a lion's fur), avinagrado (color of vinegar), acerado (color of steel), ahumado (color of smoke).


Each fly has its own name, which tries to describe them without mentioning their author, origin or other features outside them. He prefers to reveal through it, some peculiarity related to its form, its color, its feathers, or even some behavior of the imitated insect. Thus in the catalog of names they appear: Negriscos (with the wings formed with feathers of Leon rooster of the Indio variety, or negrisco as the Manuscript calls them), Salticas (that jump), Longaretas (of elongated body), Encubiertas (with the wings covering the body). At present, regardless of photography and using only language, it would be difficult to achieve more simple, natural and pedagogical descriptions than those contained in the Astorga Manuscript.


Returning to the threads, without a doubt the protagonist is silk. Hardly used in the twelve flies compiled in the Treaty (1496) attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, it is nevertheless used with generosity also in the first Austrian fishing treaties of the time. In Italy, silk was undoubtedly also the quintessential material. In addition to the written reference of Eugenio Raimondi's five flies in 1632, which would undoubtedly deserve a few lines, traditional Valsesian flies are eloquent testimony to the use of silk. Along with silk, in the Astorga Manuscript threads and strands of linen and hemp are used, cited for the same purpose in later European writings.


If for the bodies the color palette is considerable, as for the feathers it is spectacular. In the Astorga Manuscript appears the first news about the feather of Leon and its destiny, artificial flies. We can consider its descriptions as the first catalog that details and differentiates a selection of sixty-six different varieties of  Coq de Leòn Pardo and Coq de Leòn Indio. Everybody writes his own story with the ink he has more at hand and in fishing and flies issues the same thing happens with the feathers. No doubt the existence of the Astorga Manuscript flies is inexorably linked to the fortune of having the feathers of these birds. The Leon rooster feathers described in the Astorga Manuscript maintain similar denominations today and all of them are preserved today. As for the peculiarities of these feathers and leaving aside their suitability to imitate the brightness and markings of the wings of any insect, they have the added value of the uniform and smooth structure of each of the barbule that make up the feather, which makes these retain their qualities, both dry and wet. In addition to maintaining the desired volume and shape, thanks to its flexibility.