Before I began to write the third book in my Oxford Medieval Mystery series, The Huntsman’s Tale, there was one area of research demanding my attention – what exactly went on at a medieval hunt? Most of us are familiar with images of medieval hunting, like the hawking scene from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:
And I suppose that we also know that the origins of more recent forms of hunting, on horseback, with a pack of hounds, must lie somewhere back in that remote past. Modern hunts have about them an aura of wealth and privilege, and those medieval pictures show the nobility in fine clothes, so it must always have been a pastime of the rich, mustn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
As I delved into the subject, I discovered that everyone, from king down to villein, hunted as a regular part of life. At any rate, every man, and quite a few women. The nature of the hunt and the type of quarry varied, but everyone hunted for food. Pursuing something as inedible as a fox would have seemed like madness, unless it was to protect farm stock from a predator. Deer and boar were the favourite quarries of the rich, but everyone hunted hares and rabbits (usually called conies), either on horseback or on foot, and every type of edible bird either with nets or birds of prey.
Two principal and invaluable contemporary books on hunting survive from the Middle Ages. The Master of Game, by Edward, Duke of York, and Le Livre de Chasse, by Gaston Phébus, Count of Foix.
Edward Plantagenet of
, Duke of York, was a grandson of King
Edward III, killed at the age of 42 at the Battle of Agincourt, where he saved
the life of King Henry V at the cost of his own. His book, The Master of Game, is the first book in English on the subject of
hunting, and is a translation – with additions and modifications – of Le Livre de Chasse: Norwich
Edward Plantagenet had served as Master of the Hart Hounds for his cousin, King Henry IV (amongst many other more obviously distinguished posts) and wrote his book between 1406 and 1413, dedicating it to the Prince of Wales, later Henry V. Gaston Phébus was obsessed lifelong with hunting, and wrote his treatise in the 1380s. He died of a stroke at the age of sixty, after an exhausting bear hunt. (All right, bears were a slightly more exotic quarry in parts of
Europe. Wolves were
also hunted as dangerous predators preying on farm stock, but by the late
medieval period had almost disappeared from .) Britain
The hunting of deer was the outdoor sport par excellence in England, and was originally confined to royalty and nobility, hunting on horseback, with two main types of dog – tracking dogs, often a breed called lymers (and also precursors of the greyhound breed), and killing dogs, like the alaunt (a breed now extinct, which seems to have resembled mastiffs, and could be dangerous even to their own handlers).
Although a successful deer hunt would provide food in the form of venison, participants also viewed it as both a source of ‘delite’ and as a training for young men in many of the skills they would need in mounted warfare. Deer were hunted in forests, chases, and parks.
A ‘forest’ was not a synonym for a ‘wood’, it was an area usually belonging to the king which could include woodland, heath, and even marsh. A forest was reserved for royal hunting, or for those to whom the king gave a licence, and it was subject to strict forest laws. Those who lived within the boundaries of a forest had certain rights (usufruct), but could also be severely punished if they broke the forest laws. The term survives, for example, in the
A ‘chase’ was a free liberty, and not subject to forest laws. However, as time passed, the right to hunt in a chase was granted more and more as a favour or reward to nobles, where the king then enforced forest laws. The term survives in Cannock Chase.
A ‘park’ was an enclosed area in an estate where a breeding herd of deer was kept for hunting, and belonged to the king, a noble, or an ecclesiastical body. Those in holy orders were not above enjoying the hunt, as Chaucer makes clear in The
Many deer parks survive to this day on great estates, some owned by the
National Trust. Canterbury
The kind of hunt which took place in a park tended to be different from the day long pursuit of quarry on horseback over often dangerous ground. The park was usually situated near a manor house or hunting lodge, where spectators could view the hunt. Often the hunters would be lined up – somewhat like the guns in a modern grouse shoot – and the deer would be driven past them by the senior huntsman and his assistants. As the deer passed, the hunters would aim their bows or crossbows and take down their quarry at far less risk to themselves.
Although a few notable women took part in the mounted hunt, it was more common for them to join one of these driven hunts. Even well into old age, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed this form of hunting (as well as hawking).
Wild boar provided another noble quarry, although by the late Middle Ages they were becoming rarer in English woodlands. An adult male boar was a dangerous beast, which could kill a man, especially as the final kill was often by a man on foot. A boar spear had a crosspiece on the shaft, to halt the animal, for otherwise a boar was capable, even when speared, of running up the spear as it plunged into him, and killing the hunter even as it died.
These noble hunts were large affairs, starting with an open-air meal, attending by ladies and other spectators as well as the hunters. For preference this was served in a grassy clearing beside a stream. The modern stirrup cup before a hunt is a vestigial survival of the original hunt breakfast.
The hunt would be organised by the chief huntsman, a man of considerable skill, whose salary might exceed that of apparently much higher officials. Under him would be a large company of assistants and dog handlers with their animals. The hunters carried horns, which were used to sound various recognised signals (like a modern hunt). At the kill, a most complex ritual was carried out, to butcher the animal, reward the dogs, divide the venison according to established practices, and sometimes even leave an offering in the wood.
Hares were also hunted. Although they did not carry the cachet of the deer hunt, yet their speed, their cunning tactics, and elusiveness meant that they provided an exciting ride for the hunters. Nets might also be used.
Men of a lower class than those nobles granted the rights of the chase by the king did, nevertheless, sometimes manage to poach deer, for those who were unsuccessful in concealing their crime have left their names in the records of the courts. The names of those convicted occasionally include women. Famously Shakespeare was alleged to have poached a deer in the park belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy. There were also criminal gangs, not unlike modern organised crime gangs, who poached on a massive scale. Interestingly, they were often peopled by men of gentle birth, like the notorious Coterel and Folville gangs in the earlier part of the fourteenth century, and the gang led by Richard Stafford, known as ‘Frere Tuk’, a hundred years later. These were not the stuff of romantic Robin Hood legends, but thugs who terrorised whole communities.
Landowners frequently held ‘rights of warren’, which meant they could build artificial warrens, in which rabbits were bred for the hunt, although this was almost more like a form of farming, rather than hunting. The conies brought in valuable income for their meat and especially their fur. They were also frequently poached by commoners, who did not need the elaborate equipment of the deer hunters. Some nets to cover the escape holes, and an agile ferret or small terrier would serve. This was a form of hunting – or poaching – often undertaken by women.
Commoners also used nets and traps to capture other types of game, including wolves and foxes which preyed upon farm animals, or when poaching deer.
Hawking was a sport for the rich. The birds themselves were costly, usually imported. Several dealers in birds of prey are to be found in the records, importing hawks of various types mostly from Arab countries of the eastern
the expense did not stop there. Training a hawk to kill, but then return to the
hawker’s hand was a long and arduous process, demanding weeks or months of
constant attention and sleepless nights on the part of the falconer. The
falconers themselves were skilled and highly paid specialists, so only the wealthy
could afford trained birds.
There was also a very strict hierarchy as to who might fly which type of bird of prey, from gyrfalcons (only for kings) down to goshawks (for yeomen, if any could afford one). Ladies flew female merlins. The Boke of
Albans (1486) gives a comprehensive list, including some
unlikely hawkers, but then medieval people did so love lists!
- King: gyrfalcon (male or female)
- Prince: peregrine falcon
- Duke: rock falcon
- Earl: tiercel peregrine (male)
- Baron: bastarde hawk
- Knight: saker
- Squire: lanner
- Lady: merlin (female)
- Yeoman: goshawk or hobby
- Priest: sparrowhawk (female)
- Holy Water Clerk: sparrowhawk (male)
- Knave: kestrel
- Servant: kestrel
- Child: kestrel
I think some of these may be taken with a pinch of salt. The last three probably refer to members of a noble hawking party who were allowed to join in, but probably did not own the birds. On the other hand, the clergy probably did.
Commoners also caught birds, especially water fowl like ducks and geese, for eating, but used nets or sticky lime spread on branches, which trapped the birds’ feet. They might also shoot birds with bow or crossbow, using spaniels with their soft mouths to retrieve them, again much like today.
Medieval hunting in all its variety is an enormous subject, its rituals of the kill alone requiring much study for young noblemen. It might seem a blood-thirsty business to the modern mind, but it was not undertaken purely as an enjoyable pastime. Certainly those galloping through a forest on a beautiful day and a lively horse would have enjoyed themselves, but the primary purposes were to obtain food, to train young men in skills for warfare, or to protect flocks and herds from predators – not unworthy goals.