by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the October 1997, A.S. XXXII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
In the standard synopsis of a noble's life in the Middle Ages it is said that his life revolved around fighting and hunting, the two being different sides of the same coin. This in turn has fostered the belief that hunting was essential to the noble household. Yet archeological evidence says to the contrary. This essay explores the meaning of hunting in medieval life.
The stereotypical image of the noble in peace is one at the hunt, whether it is with a hawk on the arm or spear in hand. That hunting was important to the noble can be testified by the large amount of space in the laws and the court records that issues pertaining to the hunt take up. Large tracks of land were set aside as hunting preserves. In the case of that most famous of outlaws, Robin Hood, the most serious charge leveled against was not that he took the king's taxes, but that he took the king's deer.
Given this enormous interest, it is reasonable to expect that the proceeds of the hunt must be very valuable. And it takes little imagination to conclude that this value must come from the fact that the hunt was an important source of meat. While logical, evidence shows it to be false.
In recent decades, archaeologists have found the middens, or rubbish heaps, can be more enlightening on peoples lives then any account of a king's life. Among other things, what could be found in these middens are the bones of the animals eaten, and thus provide a rough account of the source of meat. And in general, beef constituted about half of all meat eaten followed by some mixture of sheep and pig depending on the region. Game, on the other hand, constituted only about five percent of meat consumed. The few household accounts that have survived tend to support this.
The one household that is the exception, is the king's household. The early medieval kings, in particular, seemed to survive almost solely on venison. This anomaly has been explained by the unusually itinerant nature of the king's routine. With a large retinue that stayed only for a short time would create intense peaks of demand that could be more easily satisfied by hunting then drawing down the limited supply of local livestock. One piece of evidence pointed to as proof is that the royal forests, from which most of the game would be drawn, tended to line up with the king's standard itinerary.
The question then becomes if hunting was not an important source of meat, why was so central a part of the noble's life? At the beginning of the Middle Ages there were almost no restrictions who could hunt what. Yet by the eleventh century, hunting became exclusive aristocratic privilege. A continuing source of tension between peasant and noble centered on what could be taken from the woods and wastes that surrounded every village. These restrictions were the most despised and the most broken. But the nobles gave them up most grudgingly.
The answer lies in the noble's self-perception. To the noble, hunting was a way to train for war, the nobles raison d'etre. He got to practice handling his weapons and his horse. He could learn the lay of the land and by what approaches an armed force could use. And it could harden his body for the rigors of the campaign.
A secondary concern was that hunting was a way to show off his wealth and his erudition. There grew up around hunting an elaborate protocol. The hunt had become a ritual with its own specialized equipment and language. The kennels of hounds and mews of hawks were a form of conspicuous consumption that only a noble could afford as so mark his status. The actual kill had become secondary to showing the proper form.
A whole genera of literature form to elucidate the proper techniques of the hunt. Any noble with scholarly pretensions, from Emperor on down, attempted to write such a book. Like any specialized endeavor a form of jargon arose, naming every detail of the sport down to the assemblages of prey. And every aspect was detailed from the beginning of the hunt to the carving of the game on the table.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages the game that graced the tables of the noble's feast were mostly supplied by professional huntsmen. And then most of it was not intended to be eaten but more as show of the cook's skill and the noble's wealth that he could present such exotic dishes.
The spirit of the medieval hunt can still be seen in the British fox hunt. While the exclusiveness has eased over the centuries, and the object of the hunt has narrowed to one creature, the essence remains. Few have the money and the time to own and train the horses needed let alone the extensive fields such a hunt requires. The competition lies in showing that one has mastered the protocol of hunt. In recent years the fox had even been done away with.
During most of the Middle Ages, while the aspect of taking game for food was always present, medieval man rarely wasted any source, it was secondary to the social aspects of the hunt. To the noble mind, the symbolic outweighed the practical. To be able to hunt one needed to be noble; to show one was noble one hunted. And that was all that mattered.
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Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.