The Medieval Deerhunter

Bayeux_hawking

There was a comment from Lydia about last week’s post on huntsmen that brought me up short. She said that, in her experience in North America, venison isn’t a particularly special type of meat and she was surprised that only certain people had the right to hunt it and eat it in the Middle Ages.

In the fourteenth century it wasn’t just a question of having the right equipment and the requisite skill to hunt deer. No matter how many huntsmen, mounted or on foot, you had at your disposal, and no matter how many dogs you had, you could only hunt a hart, or deer of any kind, if you had permission from the king.

First, we’ll clear up what a hart is.  It caused a bit of confusion last week. There were three types of deer in England in the Middle Ages: red deer, fallow deer and roe deer.  As the largest, red deer were the most important ones for hunters, followed by fallow deer. Roe deer came a poor third. The hart is a red deer stag more than five years old. He was the ideal prey and was hunted on horseback with dogs. Hinds are female red deer and does are female fallow deer. They were very much lesser prey and were hunted for meat rather than sport using the bow and stable method. It was more like a cull than a hunt.

Deer were mostly hunted in forests. Shortly after he became king of England in 1066, William the Conqueror started creating royal forests where he could hunt deer. I live near one of them, the New Forest, which dates from 1079. It’s where William’s much-hated son, William II (more widely known as William Rufus) was killed in 1100, whilst hunting.

At their peak in the first half of the thirteenth century, royal forests covered more than a quarter of England. They were private hunting grounds for the king and his guests, and the people who lived within their boundaries needed permission to fell trees, clear woodland or kill any animals that could be hunted. Forests were hugely unpopular with everyone except those who had the right to hunt in them.

The laws covering the forests were set out in Forest Charters. William I decreed that poaching from a forest was a capital offence. In 1244 Henry III issued a new Forest Charter, which set out that poachers would only be fined. There were poachers from all levels of society, both secular and lay. Bishops and dukes, however, tended to be let off without the fine.

Just as he could invite guests to hunt with him in his own forests, the king could give permission for others to have their own forests (or chases) in which they could hunt deer whenever they wanted. This was an honour very rarely given. It was more usual for an aristocrat to receive permission to have a much smaller deer park. The park was an enclosed area tended by a parker. People without a chase or a park could only hunt foxes, hares, rabbits and pheasant on their own land. Occasionally a minor lord might be invited by a greater lord to hunt deer with him, but that was the only legal way in which he could do it. He might still eat venison, though. It was never sold, but given as a gift to show the generosity of the giver.

Sources:

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

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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24 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

24 responses to “The Medieval Deerhunter

  1. Great post April…lots of background…I had never thought about what a hart was before.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve never had venison and never wanted to, think I had Bambi issues.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Losing the Plot

    When we visited St Michaels Mount, we went up to the house to have a look round, as you likely know, it used to be an Abbey. In what used to be the refractory, there is a beautiful frieze of the Chevy Chase that continues the whole way round the room. It’s fabulous!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Glad Lydia mentioned it as it led to a really interesting post. Funny how you just absorb things when you grow up in a country and live by the New Forest. It has made me realise what a very odd thing it is to friends in other countries that only the king could give permission to hunt (and eat) deer. I can understand why forests were so unpopular, why poaching must have been such a temptation and why the penalties for poaching were so severe.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. “poaching from a forest was a capital offense” – Yikes! I can’t imagine having a hungry family and deer in the nearby woods and not being able to hunt them. I don’t hunt, but still, it’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Great post, April. Here in the States, especially rural areas, deer hunting is a fall event. I have been to small towns during deer season, to see the results of the hunt in the back end of pickup trucks headed to the packing house. It is interesting how customs differ. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. lydiaschoch

    Thank you for writing about this topic this week and linking to me, April. It was interesting to get more clarification on the hunt.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. When I lived in Wyoming State, my next door neighbor was an avid hunter of elk, as well as other game and water life. When I went to play with his son, I never knew what carcass would be hanging from the rafters of his garage. My family did not like western game, as the forage they consumed tended to make them taste very strange to our Hoosier palates.

    Dad’s family has huge fans of the same, but around here, white tail deer eat what cattle eat; grass and corn. Taste still a bit gamey, but palateable when prepared with care. Still, I don’t care for venison or guns.

    Sad to say I no longer feel for Bambi and his ilk. Four of his family managed to total four of my vehicles. They popped out of tall corn or darkness, from the side, where nothing could be done to avoid them. The situation in any season is dangerous to them, domestic animals, and people. Excepting a few coyotes, they have no other natural enemies and the numbers exploded, along with deer-bourne diseases which can transmit to other mammals. They browse out their woodsy habitats, starving out other wild creatures, and infest crops. My husband’s family farms, and have had many acres of crops destroyed, and unavoidable accidents with farm equipment. Deer tend to stand too long, blending with the background, and the harvesters (yuck) really get fouled up.

    So I can understand the angry peasants, whose crops were foraged by the King’s deer, or trampled in La Chasse. They stood by, powerless, despairing that all their hard work came to nothing, and their children could go hungry, or even die. Little wonder so many took advantage of those rare days when the King allowed serfs to have as much meat as could be carried in two hands. About the only payback they’d ever get. Naturally, this meat was first divested of the choice parts, which went to the King’s larder, or gifted to upper-crusters.

    I can also understand the American pioneers who, for the first time in their familes’ histories, could possess firearms and all the game they could kill, no permission needed, and determined to never let this freedom slip from their fingers.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love how comments lead to interesting posts like this. Great insight!

    Liked by 1 person

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