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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Medieval hunting,The hound,The hawk

Throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages, men hunted wild animals. While game was at times an important source of food, it was rarely the principal source of nutrition. Hunting was engaged by all classes, but by the High Middle Ages, the necessity of hunting was transformed into a stylized pastime of the aristocracy. More than a pastime, it was an important arena for social interaction, essential training for war, and a privilege and measurement of nobility.

As with heraldry, too, the conventions and vocabulary of hunting were originally French in origin, via the transmission of Roman property laws through Frankish monarchs.

There exists a rich corpus of Medieval poetry and literature, manuals, art and ceremonies surrounding the hunt, increasingly elaborated in the 14th and 15th centuries as part of the vocabulary of aristocratic bearing.


Hieratic formalized recreational hunting has been taking place since Assyrian kings hunted lions from chariots in a demonstration of their royal nature. In Roman law, property included the right to hunt, a concept which continued under the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian monarchs who considered the entire kingdom to be their property, but who also controlled enormous royal domains as hunting reserves (forestes). The biography of the Merovingian noble Saint Hubert (died 727/728) recounts how hunting could become an obsession. Carolingian Charlemagne loved to hunt and did so up until his death at age seventy-two.

With the breakup of the Carolingian Empire, local lords strove to maintain and monopolize the reserves and the taking of big game in forest reserves, and small game in warrens. They were most successful in England after the Norman Conquest, and in Gascony from the 12th century. These large sanctuaries of woodland—the royal forest—where populations of game animals were kept and watched over by gamekeepers. Here the peasantry could not hunt, poaching being subject to severe punishment: the injustice of such "emparked" preserves was a common cause of complaint in populist vernacular literature. The lower classes mostly had to content themselves with snaring birds and smaller game outside of forest reserves and warrens.


The weapons used for hunting would mostly be the same as those used for war: bow and arrow or crossbow, lance or spear, and sword. Shortbows and longbows were the most commonly used weapon; the crossbow was introduced around the time of the First Crusade (1100), but was not generally used for hunting until the second half of the 15th century. Cudgels (clubs) were used for clubbing small game in particular by women who joined the hunt; "boar spears" were also used. With the introduction of handheld firearms to hunting in the 16th century, traditional medieval hunt was transformed.

The hunter would also need a horn for communication with the other hunters. In addition to this the hunter depended on the assistance of certain domesticated animals. Three animals in particular were essential tools for the medieval hunter: the horse, the hound and the hawk (or falcon).

The horse

The horse was the most important animal of the great medieval household. The stables, also called the "marshalsea," would be separate from the rest of the household, and its head officer—the marshal—would be one of the household's senior officers. The marshal would have pages and grooms serving under him to care for the horses.

A large household would have a wide array of horses for different purposes. There were cart- and packhorses employed in the day-to-day work of the household, palfreys used for human transport, and destriers, or warhorses, a powerful and expensive animal that in late medieval England could obtain prices of up to £80. Although it had the necessary qualities, the destrier would not be used for hunting, due to its value. Instead, a special breed called a courser would be used. The courser, though inferior to the destrier and much smaller than today’s horses, still had to be both powerful enough to carry the rider at high speeds over large distances, agile, so it could maneuver difficult terrain without difficulty, and fearless enough not to be scared when encountering wild beasts

The hound

The dog was essential for several purposes. Its good sense of smell made it invaluable in finding the quarry. It would then assist in driving the hunted animal and, when the animal was finally at bay, the dog would either be the instrument of attack, or distract the quarry while the hunter moved in for the kill. Different breeds would be used for different tasks, and for different sorts of game, and while some of these breeds are recognizable to us today, the dogs were nevertheless somewhat different from modern breeds

Foremost among the hunting breeds was the greyhound. This breed was valued first and foremost for its speed, but also for its ability to attack and take down the game. Since the greyhound did not have much stamina, it was essential that it be not released before the quarry was in sight, toward the end of the hunt. Furthermore, greyhounds, though aggressive hunters, were valued for their docile temper at home, and often allowed inside as pets.

The alaunt, or alant, was a somewhat more robust animal than the greyhound, and therefore used against larger game, such as bears or boars. The alaunt was considered a reckless animal, and had been known to attack domestic animals, or even its owner. The mastiff was an even more rugged breed, and though also used on the larger game, was mostly considered useful as a guard-dog.

What all these dogs lacked was the ability to follow the scent of the quarry, and run it down. For this purpose the running-dog was used. The running-dog was somewhat similar to today’s foxhound. This dog had, as the name indicates, excellent stamina, as well as a good nose. Another dog valued for its scenting skills was the lymer, a forerunner of today’s bloodhound. The lymer would be used to find the lay of the game before the hunt even started, and it was therefore important that, in addition to a good nose, it remained quiet. Silence in the lymer was achieved through a combination of breeding and training. Other dogs used for hunting were the kenet, the terrier, the harrier and the spaniel.

The hounds were kept in a kennel, inside or separate from the main domicile. Here the dogs would have oak beds to sleep on, and often also a second level where the dogs could go when the ground level became too hot or too cold. Outside the kennel there would be grass for the dogs to eat whenever they had digestive problems. To care for the dogs would be a hierarchy of servants such as pages, varlets, aides and veneurs; the page being the lowest, often a young boy. Pages would often sleep in the kennels with the dogs, to keep them from fighting and care for them if they got sick. Though this might seem harsh by modern standards, the warm dog house could often be much more comfortable than the sleeping quarters of other medieval servants.

The hawk

Medieval terminology spoke of hawks of the tower and hawks of the fist, which roughly corresponds to falcons and hawks, respectively. The female hawk was preferred, since it was both larger than the male and easier to train. Hawks were captured all over Europe, but birds from Norway or Iceland were considered of particularly good quality.

Training a hawk was a painstaking process. It was normal at first to "seel" the bird’s eyelids—sew them shut—so that it would not be scared or distracted. The trainer would then carry the hawk on his arm for several days, to get it accustomed to human presence. The eyes would gradually be unsealed, and the training would begin. The bird would be encouraged to fly from its perch to the falconer’s hand over a gradually longer distance. Hunting game would be encouraged first by the use of meat, then a lure, and eventually live prey. Such prey included herons, sometime with their legs broken to facilitate the kill.

Hawks would be housed in mews, a special edifice found in most large medieval households, mostly a certain distance from the main domicile, so that the hawks would not be disturbed. The mews could be rather elaborate structures. There should be windows in the wall, and the ground should be kept clean so that the bird’s regurgitations could be found and analyzed.

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