Medieval Huntsmen

Diana chasseresse

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.

Sources:

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

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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39 Comments

Filed under Medieval Food, Medieval Life

39 responses to “Medieval Huntsmen

  1. Fascinating. I found all the different terms and roles really interesting. It must have been so dangerous with weapons that would not necessarily kill instantly, even if you were an excellent shot.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Eek. Sounds too close for comfort.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It was most interesting to read this information presented as a complete package like this. I knew bits and pieces of it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fab post April, have seen plenty of TV/movie hunt scenes but didn’t know what the positions of people were. More fun than Asda for sure.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’ve always been interested in the way you can glimpse a family’s historical occupation from their name and you have two unusual examples here: one whose work we all use (Tim Berners- Lee) and the other may be known to short story lovers (Ring Lardner). Two pub names also spring to mind – the White Hart and the Talbot.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. lydiaschoch

    Wow, I didn’t know any of this. I was most surprised to hear that not everyone was allowed to eat venison.

    There are a lot of hunters in my family, so we’d often have a deer – or, in really good years, multiple deer – to split up among everyone’s freezers and pantries.

    Venison is delicious, but I’d never thought of it as a particularly fancy food like steak or lobster. It was just a normal part of our autumn/winter meal rotations if someone had a successful hunt that year. That obviously doesn’t seem to be the way it was thought of in medieval times, though. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for the explanation of the picture at the top! I spent quite a while staring at it and thinking, No-o-o, surely not – this must be from some medieval satire or romance. Not so much the huntress shooting at the deer, because I knew some Tudor ladies did that from a stand, but the support staff? Diana never occurred to me!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. From what I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that the only people who hunted legally (as opposed to helping) were the aristocrats and maybe the gentry below them. For anyone else, it was poaching. Am I right about that?

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Always fascinating, April. Ever thought of writing a book on living in the Middle Ages? It would be great for schools and would probably sell well at NT shops etc. Like your follower above, I was wondering about surnames as I read this – some trades have made it down the years, others haven’t; I’m not sure when surnames became fixed and what determined whether it was a patronym, based on location, trade, or whatever.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Mike. I haven’t thought about writing a non-fiction book. Ian Mortimer has rather cornered the market on life in the fourteenth century.
      I think surnames were starting to become fixed in the fourteenth century, but I do know that the majority of men who were archers at Agincourt were called Archer. On the other hand, there were six or seven men there with variations of my own surname, which must have become fixed by that point.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. This was really interesting, April and very well done. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. It’s nice to see all the roles described in such detail. Today, venison is a luxury here as well for those who don’t hunt themselves (so, most people!). You mention both hart and deer as animals that were hunted, so I’m curious: what’s the difference?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. This is so interesting April, to learn about the roles of different people and how they hunted. I’ve learnt a lot, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. priscillaking

    I remember, in a book about hawks, a list of how far up the hierarchy people had to be to keep pet hawks and falcons. “Gentlewomen” were allowed to own only small species that hunted songbirds. The thought of how protein-starved people must have been to bother eating songbirds took over, so I seem to have forgotten other details…when were such laws passed, and how long were they in effect? I do remember that the author mentioned a complaint about people bringing their hawks into church.

    Liked by 2 people

    • One of the reasons why I’m reading books about hunting at the moment is that there’s a hunting scene in the novel I’m working on at the moment. SInce it’s important that the hero and the heroine hunt together, it’s a hunt with hawks. There will be a post about it, but not in the near future.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: The Medieval Deerhunter | A Writer's Perspective

  15. Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s top air ace of WWI, described in his memoirs a hunt in a French forest, where he was invited to attend.

    He was shocked to be told to stand with other men, at the far edge of a glade, shotgun “broken” over his arm. The men were chatting, animatedly, sipping wines brought by servants. As they were all speaking French, Rickenbacker understood little & wondered when they were going to start hunting. Being an Ohio State native, he was used to the American idea of shouldering guns & stalking prey in woods. He could not see how such a gaggle of guys could possibly get the drop on a critter.

    Then he heard hunting horns, baying hounds, and young boys yelling & beating staves against trunks. Suddenly the men had their firearms pointing at the opposite end of the glade & out popped all kinds of wildlife! Behind the animals were the unseen dogs and boys making the ruckus. Someone managed to bag a fox, and everyone seemed content at a successful conclusion, heading off to an outdoor banquet.

    Rickenbacker asked the mayor, who was part of the hunting party, if it was dangerous for the boys and dogs. Mayor responded that there was an occasional injury or death, but that the boys thought it an honor to be “beater-uppers”, and that one day they aspired to be among the wine-sipping gun gang.

    It was a right they held very dear, and had probably became a community event after the French Revolution, when every man gained the right to participate, instead of just the king and sycophants.

    Americans certainly experienced more than combat shock during our brief time in that conflict!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds a bit like bow and stable. In the Middle Ages, though, it would have been the ordinary people doing the killing and the higher status people driving the prey towards them on horseback, if they could be bothered with that form of hunting at all.

      Liked by 1 person

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