Forest, deer parks and hunting in the time of chivalry



Like the inclusion of crenellations, the creation of a deer park required a license from the Crown. The ownership of hunting land or the right to hunt within it was as much a symbol of noble status as the fortified dwelling or heraldic arms. Vast tracts of land, by the late 12th century maybe as much as a third of southern England, were set aside for hunting.

These parks and ‘forests’ (a legal term for a hunting ground rather than a place of dense woodland) came under their own ‘forest law’ the terms of which were designed to protect the animals and landscape for the sole purpose of hunting. Under this law it was illegal to hunt game, built enclosures or clear land for agriculture within the forest without a warrant, which was sold by the Crown. Those living within the forest were forbidden from owning hunting weapons and dogs.

 

The Medieval hunting

The Medieval hunting

Hunting was a noble pastime and, like the tournament, considered a manly pursuit and training for war. The chivalric writers emphasized the importance of hunting as exercise for the body whilst in his treatise on hunting entitled The Master of Game, Edward of Norwich, Duke of York in the reign of Henry IV and V, writes that ‘hunting causeth a man to eschew the seven deadly sins’ and that he is ‘better when riding; more just and more understanding, and more alert and more at ease’.

The hunting with hounds

The hunting with hounds

He also says that hunting gives a man ‘better knowing of all countries and all passages’. Not only did hunting improve fitness and equestrian skills, it also taught the knight about the use of terrain. In many ways the hunt was like a military campaign. The hunt par force, ‘by strength’, began by the quest, the tracking of the quarry before the hunt began. Then the hunters would assemble to hear the huntsman’s report and decide on a strategy for the hunt itself. The hounds, separated into packs, were placed along the expected route that the quarry would take, so that they formed a relay and no one pack would become over-tired. The quarry was then tracked and chased. Finally, when the animal was unable to run further and turned ‘at bay’ the dogs were called off and one of the hunting party would be chosen to have the honour of going forward and making the kill with spear or sword, literally by the strength of his own hand, or par force.

The boar hunting

The boar hunting

A slightly less prestigious form of hunting, ‘by bow and stable’, saw quarry being driven by beaters towards a fixed line of shooters armed with bows. In both cases there was a substantial element of planning and timing involved as well as an understanding of the quarry, the nature of horse and hounds and a not inconsiderable degree of physical prowess. Even at bay the stag and the boar, the two creatures most regularly hunted par force, were dangerous creatures, more than capable of maiming or killing a man. The English banneret Sir John Chandos lost an eye hunting stags and Richard, Duke of Bernay, the second son of William the Conqueror, was gored to death by a stag in the New Forest in 1081.

The death of the King William II, allegedly killed accidentally during the hunt in New Forest

The death of the King William II, allegedly killed accidentally during the hunt in New Forest

The hunting of the hart and hind, of the boar, bear and hare, and of the fox, badger and otter, was all done from horseback with dogs, or with the bow. The hunting of birds might also be done with a bow, using specially designed arrows with blunt or crescent-shaped heads (which would kill the bird without damaging the flesh), but the more noble pursuit of such game was with hawks. Unlike hounds, which were categorized practically from their role and use against particular prey, the hawk was considered noble itself, and a hierarchy of nobility attached to these birds. According to the 15th century treatise on hawking in the Boke of St Albans, the rare and powerful gyrfalcon was suitable only for a king, the peregrine for a baron, the saker for a knight and the lanner for a squire.

Medieval falconers dressing their birds with hoods. Miniature in the manuscript of 'Livre du Roy Modus'

Medieval falconers dressing their birds with hoods. Miniature in the manuscript of ‘Livre du Roy Modus’

These falcons, known in the treatises as ‘hawks of the tower’ because they hunted from high altitude and stooped on their prey, were differentiated from the hawks proper, who hunted horizontally and close to the ground, and who were seen as the birds appropriate for the commoner, the yeoman, the priest and the cleric. Thus the falcon and hawk, as with the differences laid out in the sumptuary laws, were used to identify the status of the owner. In fact the use of each bird was seen as a different art; falconry was the higher and more noble, whilst hawking, particularly in later medieval France, might be seen as the pastime of the commoner.

Medieval people engaging in falconry from horseback

Medieval people engaging in falconry from horseback

Although both hawking and hunting were a means of providing meat for the table they were not particularly practical ways and the majority of game that went into the pots of the kitchen came from the netting and trapping. However, just as in battle and tournament, there was prowess to be gained from the act of hunting, and especially from the slaying of a great creature such as a boar or a stag. Both hunting and falconry were group activities in which the entire noble household might take part. Falconry was actively participated in by both men and women, and both rode to the hunt. Even those not actively involved might be able to watch from purpose-built terraces.

The hunting, Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391), 'Le Livre de la chasse', Detail

The hunting, Gaston Phoebus (1331-1391), ‘Le Livre de la chasse’, Detail

Like the tournament, hunting was part game, part training and part social ritual. The romances echo this sense of the hunt as a social occasion. Erec and Enide begins with King’s Arthur desire to re-establish the tradition of the hunt for the White Stag as part of the celebrations of Easter, whilst in the three days’ hunting of Lord Bertilak in St Gawain and the Green Knight at another festival, this time Christmas, it is the size of the retinue and the number of servants who accompany them that is emphasized. The tale of Gawain, like many others, focuses in great detail on the hunt itself, from the initial tracking to the ritualized butchery of the quarry. Just as in their treatment of battle and warfare, those writing tales for the ears of the nobility and knights chose their subjects carefully based on what their audience would want to focus upon. The hunt, like all the many other social and cultural aspects of the knight’s life, was not a simple and practical matter, but intrinsically tied up with the desire and need to display his status.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Even off the battlefield that status was bound up with the knight’s martial calling. Developing skills on the hunt was seen as developing skill for the battlefield, and prowess accrued in both. Even if it was first and foremost a place of comfort and ease, the knight’s dwelling had to have the appearance of the fortress. The symbols that were developed to identify him on the battlefield spread and did the same in his home and in the chapels and churches that he built, and the gravitas and dignity of his political and judicial functions came from those warranted him by his chivalric ethos and the sword he carried into battle. Whilst not always dominant on the battlefield, nor always the social elite off it, the knight was a social and military force that dominated the middle ages.

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2 Responses to Forest, deer parks and hunting in the time of chivalry

  1. Douglas Reid says:

    Hi
    I stumbled across your site while looking for an illustration. I was most impressed with the effort that has gone into it. However, can I make two observations, and ask a question, please.
    1) You do not seem to give the source of the illustrations (or have I missed something?). I suppose you have sometimes scanned stuff in from books that you have, but where you have procured them from museums etc it would be good to be able to follow that up via links.
    2) You don’t provide a brief list of relevant reading – that would also be helpful to students.
    3) On http://www.historynotes.info/about-history-notes/ you say you are history enthusiasts, not professionals. Fair enough, and a very impressive
    effort – potentially of considerable use to students and their teachers, as well as to people generally browsing the web. I’m just a bit curious about who you are and how you fund all this! Why are you going to such efforts? I see adverts for Amazon (fair enough), but the only other ones I noticed are to do with the oil and gas industry. Are you some kind of front organisation for the industry?! All history students at university are taught to be curious about the stance of historians. Where are they coming from? What are their possible agendas? History is not value free! Can you tell us more about where you are coming from please? That would be educative just as your site is educative at a different level.
    Best wishes,
    Douglas Reid

    • tamara says:

      Hello Douglas,

      First, I would like to thank you for your interest and comments. So, here are answers as best as possible.
      This website suppose to be a place where all history lovers could find something interesting in area of their specific interest. The choice of texts and topics is purely what I like and want to share with others.I hope sincerely that people enjoy the articles.
      The source of illustrations are various, and I try to give source (eg gallery or museum where the painting is exhibited) whenever is possible. Also, in the case that I cannot confirm the source, I rather decide not give it then give the wrong one.
      As for the relevant books list – it is a good idea to suggest a further reading on the end of the article. You may notice the section ‘Books’ at homepage. Unfortunately, I don’t know the student’s curriculum to be more helpful.
      The History Notes website has not any fund or financial support. Just a little help from my friends. Amazon ads (books suggestions on The History Notes) and other ads should be only in history context, but I cannot control what you see on your PC. Sometimes it goes weird, like this oil and gas company that stuck on your page.
      On the end, the history is certainly not value free, but it is a pleasure to share the knowledge with others.
      Whether you are history professional or just like to read about our past, I hope you will recommend this site to your friends.
      Thank you.
      Tamara,
      administrator,
      The History Notes

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