From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it’s easy to underestimate how important hunting was for people in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t just a sport, although there was a huge element of that for the aristocracy. It was also a means of providing food for the table. If you wanted to eat venison (although only a few were permitted to do so), boars, rabbits and birds, you had to go out and hunt them. There was also the practical aspect of ridding the countryside of dangerous animals, such as wolves and bears, as well as animals that would harm domestic beasts, such as foxes.
If you were a noble, you hunted with a great deal of ritual and a large team of support staff. You needed men to train and work with the dogs. A particular style of hunting required archers and beaters. Another type required falconers. As with everything else in the Middle Ages, hunting was labour-intensive.
The favourite prey of medieval hunters was the hart. The same thing applied to hunting them as it did to eating them; only a few people could do it. As a prey, he was considered to be intelligent, wily and noble. It showed intelligence and skill on the part of the aristocratic hunter to bring one down. In reality, it showed his intelligence in choosing his master huntsman and the men beneath him.
Depending on the type of hunt, different men, dogs and horses were required. Most of the huntsmen employed by the aristocratic hunter hunted on foot. It was the job of the employees to locate and assess the prey and, if it was a noble prey, such as a hart, a boar or a deer, the nobleman would get on his horse and take part.
The huntsmen were specialised, as each type of hunt and each prey required different skills.
The fewterer was one of the men in charge of the greyhounds, the principal hunting dogs. On the hunt, a fewterer had charge of two or three greyhounds. He had to keep them under control until the hart went past, then he released the hounds to follow it.
The berners had general care of the dogs. They were responsible for the kennels and for feeding the dogs. It was their job to reward them after the kill.
As today, beaters were often used to drive the prey into the path of the aristocratic hunter. Usually they were peasants and providing such a service was often one of their feudal obligations in return for the land they farmed.
Technically, the lardener wasn’t a huntsman, as he played no part in the hunt himself. His services were indispensable, however, for he salted the deer carcase ready for transporting to the place where it would be stored, prepared and eaten.
Archers were involved in a style of hunting called bow and stable. In this instance, stable means station or stand. It was most often used when obtaining food, in the form of venison, was the main aim of the hunt. The women in the picture at the top of the post are practising a form of it. The deer were driven by horsemen towards a funnel of beaters and archers: the stable. The aim was to enable the archers to shoot as many deer as possible. Don’t be misled by the picture, though. Women did not hunt in this way. The picture shows Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, and her maidens.
Women’s involvement in most hunts was limited. They might meet the men going on a hunt for breakfast before they set off and they might catch up with them around the time of the kill, but their own hunting was done with birds. This meant that the women did not have to be involved in the kill or even see it close to.
Men also hunted with birds, which went almost everywhere with them. Hawks were expensive if they could not be caught locally, and training them was a slow and skilled process. Even after training, there was always the risk that a hawk would simply fly away when released for the hunt. As a result, good falconers were highly prized. Falconers looked after the long-winged birds of prey, such as the peregrine falcon, while the austringer cared for the goshawks and other short-winged birds.
A necessary characteristic of all the huntsmen, regardless of their speciality, was physical bravery. Many of the animals they chased were capable of killing them.
The Hawk and the Hound: The Art of Medieval Hunting by John Cummins
The Master of Game by Edward of Norwich
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond