Hunting in Europe, 11th – 13th Centuries

First of all, sorry about missing a post earlier this week. As the holidays draw ever closer I find I have less and less time. But then, I expect most people are finding the same. I hopefully won’t miss anymore posts, but if I do it’s probably because of holiday stuff. Now, on to what you’re actually here for:

Way back in my first year of university I took a history class focused on the middle ages. At that point, I was fascinated by that time period and had done extensive reading on it. Unfortunately, there were a few times I lost marks on tests for using “outside knowledge”. It was the first time I’d really experienced what people had warned me about university. The profs only want you to parrot their opinions back to them. Thankfully, it was also one of the last times I experienced it. Most of my others profs were much more open-minded, so long as I was correct and/or could back my views up with proper sources.

Within my history class we got to pick a topic to write an essay on, and I was fascinated with falconry. I was told that was too narrow of a topic, so I broadened my essay to cover all forms of hunting. (Of course, it was a 7 page essay, so… pretty sure I could have written the entire thing on falconry lol) Hopefully it gives a bit of an overview to people unfamiliar with medieval hunting, and gives those wanting a more in-depth look a starting place.

Hunting in medieval Europe was a popular sport during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Social divisions are pronounced through the myriad methods of hunting available, and though many have faded over the years, there is still an echo in modern society.

Of the types of hunting available, there was the pursuit of falconry, the use of trained dogs, and for the less ambitious, pre-captured game which could be ‘hunted’. Within each category there were a broad range of styles present, though it may not seem as such to the untrained eye. Falconers, for example, differentiated based on the type of raptor to be used for their sport. There were the commonly known peregrine, goshawk, and sparrowhawk, but also the less well known gyrfalcon, lanner, saker, hobby, and merlin. Each bird was trained, and hunted, differently, and was classified as either a falcon or a hawk.

Falcons “typically attack[ed] by diving,” while the hawks “usually kill[ed] by driving their talons into the victim’s body and holding on until the creature [was] dead.” This dictated the kind of prey that each type could be set after. In general, the falcons and hawks hunted other birds, usually waterfowl, and they could bring in a surprising amount in a single day. While the kings or other lords could fly their own birds, it was often left to the hawkers and falconers to keep the birds looked after and practiced. They were usually the ones who took the birds hunting as well. Though falconry was a common sport, it could be dangerous and it was often considered best left to those whose job it was.

The training of the birds was long and intense, involving many steps to accustom the falcon or hawk not only to being handled, but also to new experiences, as well as the type of lure (if so desired) used to call the bird back to the handler. Once trained, the birds were well looked after, for they were often quite expensive and had to be imported from different areas. Hounds were always used in conjunction with the birds to retrieve the prey, and in some instances, to help the trained bird bring down her quarry.

With the exception of the professional hawkers and falconers, the only people who flew the noble birds of prey were those of status. The rank of a hunter could often be determined by how expensive their bird of choice was. “From its earliest appearance in the West, the sport of falconry has implied the possession of wealth and status by those who pursued it.” Peasants were viewed as uneducated and unable of caring for a bird of prey. While the Church had declared that the clergy were not to partake in hawking, many of the higher positions were filled by aristocrats who felt it was their right to fly hawks.

This incongruity is just a part of the varied views on falconry. Those of prestige adored this style of hunting, while those of particularly strict morals felt that the sport embodied the seven deadly sins. The peasants often felt bitter, as the nobles would ride through their fields with little care that they were destroying someone’s livelihood in the pursuit of game. The imagery brought forth by falconry was often used by those with a grudge against the nobility to attack the higher ranks.

Separate, though rarely differentiated from hawking, hunting with hounds was another pastime employed by those with money and time to spare. Though it is known that such sport was engaged in across a broad area, it is difficult to ascertain the exact methods through which they were completed. The most common sources of information are handbooks, which often contain idealized forms of the hunt. Hunting with hounds, especially the pursuit of deer and boar, was romanticized much more heavily than hunting with falcons or hawks.

In a time when war was quite common, this sport was used, in part, to keep the men trained and ready in case of battle. It served “as a form of recreation and military exercise” for those who possessed money and land. The privilege of such sport was regulated and one had to purchase a licence to be allowed to do any sort of hunting, even that of hare. This, of course, did not stop those of lesser means from poaching. If poachers were caught by the authorities they would face dire consequences, but for those who had little other options for food it was a risk worth taking.

The handbooks on hunting made “an effort to claim an elaborate decorum of attitudes, procedures, language, and vesture.” There is evidence that suggests that all the pomp was not necessary, and was actually based upon the romanticized ideas of what counted as “the customs of the greatest households.”

While it was not unheard of women to participate in hawking, they rarely partook in the use of hounds. Men would go after larger game, and the women would only join in the excitement and aftermath of such hunting. It was not considered dignified for women to engage in any sport which would require her to crawl through brush and dirt. The most common way for women, as well as those who were not dedicated hunters, to partake in this common activity was to ‘chase’ animals that had been caught and set loose in special parks where the nobles could  easily shoot them with bows from horseback at their leisure. The authors of hunting handbooks felt that this was not true hunting, as there was no sport if the animal had no chance of escaping.
Again, the Church viewed hunting, and the use of hounds in particular, as sinful. But as aristrocrats made up most of the high positions in the Church, such arguments were often dismissed. Counter to the Church’s opinion, authorities such as Gaston Phoebus argued that if one were a good hunter then they would be incapable of falling to any of the seven deadly sins. That was one of the main justifications used by the aristocracy in the defence of the hunt. They claimed that if they were concerned only with the pure and simple art of hunting then they would be unable to entertain impure thoughts and desires. Another common argument was that because of Adam’s fall from paradise, humans lost their superior sense, while the beasts retained theirs. Thus, the act of chasing, outwitting, and killing the animals was a way to restore some of their superior sense -if only for a time.
The most common animals hunted were boars, bears, and of course deet. Rabbit was considered a challenge because of its speed and the avoidant way it ran. Other animals that were hunted included wolves, otters, badgers, foxes, and lynxes. These other animals were not considered truly noble pursuits because the meat could not be eaten and it was viewed as pest control rather than a true form of hunting.
Wolves were feared throughout Europe for they were the only creatures to ever be recorded as using humans as a primary food source, and they often took out livestock much larger than themselves. The fur was considered acceptable, though difficult to treat to remove the scent. Hunters appreciated the wolves for their confidence, strength, and speed, noting that the hunt was always interesting.
The fox was viewed in a similar light as the wolf, though it took careful planning and preparation in the woods before hand so that the scent-hounds could induce the foxes into running instead of just diving for cover.
Otters were “seen as the aquatic counterpart of the fox: greedy, crafty, preying on the witless” and not considered worth any sort of sympathy. They were really only hunted so as to remove a nuisance from some area.
Badgers were not seen as a challange at all because they could not run fast. There are only brief mentionts of them in the hunting manuals, as it was considered beneath the authors to mention them alongside such noble pursuits as the bucks and boars.
The last of the uneatable meats were the lynxes, and they were only hunted when, and if, the hounds picked up the trail when sent out to find soemthing else. Again, it was viewed as an act of pest-control. It was also thought to be a good form of practice for the hounds.
Deer, boar, and bear, as previously mentioned, were favoured pursuits. Any of which, if approached incorrectly, could kill a hound, horse, or man. The boar and bear were especially prized for the courage and bravery needed to face them. When hunting the boar, the hunters had to have specially modified spears so that the spear would only go so deep and then stop. Otherwise the animal would continue along the length until it could gore its attacker.
Bears, while similarly dangerous, were not as dumbly brave. They would wait until the hunters drew close enough to attack before making a retaliatory move. The hunting books caution hunters to be wary of the hug and subsequent ‘kiss’ given by this fierce animal to any unwary enough to step within its reach. The preferred method of killing a bear was to bait it, for it would turn to swipe at its last attacker. Thus, by working together, hunters could force the bear to run back and forth between them until it died of blood loss and exhaustion.
While the literature of the time views hunting as a noble and romantic pursuit, it divided people clearly into their respective classes. Only those who did not need to work could partake in this simple pleasure with no fear of punishment. Those of the Church who were not raised among such grandeur viewed the sport as sinful, and the hunters as wicked men. Peasants were thankful for the pest control, but found themselves resentful of the off-handed way in which nobles passing through (or camping nearby) treated their homes, livestock, and crops. The aristocracy themsevles felt that they were exceptional, and felt the need to make it evident through their every action. Their arrogance caused further separation between the classes.
That women were though to only be capable of hunting a captive animal speaks volumes on the gulf between the sexes in this age. While many of the views held during the middle ages have faded away, there are still echoes today. It is commonly accepted that one requires a license to hunt, with strict penalties for failure to comply. Though society has moved away from the stratification of the classes, there still remains the backbone that once formed such discrimination.

Bibliogrophy

Cummings, John. The Art of Medieval Hunting: the Hound and the Hawk. Edison: Castle Books, 2003.

Oggins, Robin S. The Kings and their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England. United States of America: Sheridan Books, 1931.

Thiébaux, Marcelle. The Stag of Love: the Chase in Medieval Literature. United Kingdom: Cornell University Press Ltd., 1974.

Singman, Jeffery L. Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.

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