Hunting, in the medieval times, was a way of life.
This is the case in more ways than one. On the one hand, hunting was an essential task for generating food for a noble household. According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,
The deer and other quarry supplied a substantial share of the meat for the castle table, and the forest supplemented game with nuts, berries, mushrooms, and other edibles. It also furnished the principal construction material and fuel for all classes. (p. 134)
On the other hand, though, according to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century, “Hunting was not only the prime sport of the baronial class, it was also their consuming passion.” (p. 166)
The popularity of hunting as a sport, notwithstanding the extra fare it provided, can be explained by a couple of noteworthy facts.
Firstly, according to Labarge, “For the thirteenth-century baron life indoors was always a poor substitute for outdoor activity.” (p. 36).
Castles in the wintertime, she goes on to explain, despite the hall’s great fireplace and screens to block drafts, often remained damp and depressing. Dark as well since candles were expensive and other forms of lighting inefficient.
As a result of this, most people retreated to their beds shortly after nightfall, dreaming of the light and outdoor life the return of spring would bring.
The other reason for the popularity of hunting is that it remained yet another way the nobility could demonstrate social dominance over the lower classes, with whom hunting was also extremely popular (and extremely regulated).
According to Labarge,
[R]ank defined the kind of game and the places where it was permissible to hunt. The cat, the coney, and the hare were hunted by everyone, but the favourite game, restricted to the king and fortunate lords, was the deer. (p. 166)
The law of the (wood)land
In 13th century England, only lords with grants of “vert and venison” within the feudal lands they held of the king were permitted to hunt deer.
These highly sought after rights not only allowed landholders to freely hunt deer (“venison”), but also to cut timber and undergrowth on their lands (“vert”), as well as administer their own regulations and impose their own fines for poaching.
The restriction of deer hunting to a select few dates back to the Norman Conquest, wherein William the Conqueror, an avid hunter, brought “forest law” to England from France in order to preserve the forests for his own particular use.
The Gieses write,
William established as royal forest or game preserve large tracts that embraced villages and wasteland as well as woods. On these lands no one but the king and those authorized by him – not even the barons who held the land – could hunt the red deer, the fallow deer, the roe, and the wild boar. Hounds and bows were forbidden. Because foxes, hares, badgers, squirrels, wild cats, martens, and otter were considered harmful to the deer and boar, rights of “warren” were often granted for hunting these smaller quarry. (p. 135)
King William even went so far as to stipulate that anyone caught poaching in a royal forest be blinded, and that dogs kept within the forest had to be “lawed” – that is to say, to have three talons cut from each foot.
Forest law, and in particular the Forest Charter – an amendment to Magna Carta issued in 1217 – contained numerous other conditions, which will be the subject of a future post.
Deer hunting was further restricted by seasons, of which, according to Labarge there were two: from June 24 to September 14 in the summer and November 11 to February 2 in the winter. Wild boar, meanwhile, was hunted mainly during winter.
Of the two deer seasons, the summer was preferred because the deer were fatter from having grazed all spring.
Any extra supplies of venison were salted and stored away for the rest of the year, and at times even given in alms to the poor and the sick, particularly dead deer found in the forest.
In good (hunting) company
Perhaps because of its role in supplying extra meat for the table, many great households had paid huntsmen to ensure that this important demand was satisfactorily met.
This professional company may have included any number of men, including horn blowers, beaters to drive game out in the open, dog handlers, archers, lead huntsmen (who were often knights), and assistants. In this regard, as the Gieses observe that, “A royal hunting party was a small military expedition.” (p. 128).
At the same time, though, hunts were urbane, leisurely outings, complete with picnics, socializing, and scenic rides through the countryside. The presence of women was also perfectly acceptable since woman loved the sport just as much as men.
Once out in the forest, a deer hunt began by finding some indication of the animal’s presence, be it tracks, vegetation that had been eaten down or rubbed by a buck’s antlers, droppings, or a visual sighting. Using these signs, the huntsmen estimated the deer’s size and age. The lord of the hunt then decided whether that particular animal was worth hunting or not.
From there, one of the huntsmen proceeded on foot with a pair of lymers (bloodhounds) to drive the deer toward the hunting party. Once the deer was spotted, the hunting horn was blown and the greyhounds (also called levriers) were set on the chase with everyone following on horseback.
The chase continued until the hounds brought the deer to bay, at which time, either a huntsman or one of the other participants was granted the privilege of killing the deer with a lance or bow and arrow. The kill was then skinned and divided, including a portion of meat for the dogs, which was laid out on the skin.
The clergy, notwithstanding the fact that they too often employed huntsmen, didn’t care much for hunting as a sport.
They did, however, if grudgingly, deem it an acceptable pursuit for knights, barons, and earls. This was, though, only a concession to, according to Labarge quoting 13th century moralist Robert Mannyng “keep them from idleness which might lead them to worse sins.” (p. 169).
A/N: Coming next month: another entertainment that was exclusive to the nobility.