I’m reading about hunting at the moment, because there’s not just a hunting scene in my current work in progress, but there’s also a lot of talking about hunting.
It’s very interesting to read about the noble and dangerous beasts that were hunted in the fourteenth century, but one animal I hadn’t even considered as worth being an object of the chase is the otter. After a few paragraphs of explanation in the book I was reading, however, I understood.
Otters are inedible, so they weren’t hunted for food. Although they’re difficult to hunt, they weren’t pursued because of the excitement of the chase. Kings of England, however, did have both otter huntsmen and otter hounds, but they didn’t go hunting with them. The men and the dogs were sent out to various parts of the country instead. The skins of otters were valuable enough to be used as rent in Ireland in the early fifteenth century, but that wasn’t the only reason they were hunted.
Like foxes and wolves, otters were a nuisance. They ate fish. In a society where about half the days of the year were fast days, fish were important. Otters didn’t limit themselves to eating fish in rivers, but raided the fishponds of monasteries and large manor houses. Fishponds were a way of maintaining a private supply of fish for monks and lords of the manor, and were particularly important during Lent, when every day was a fast day.
Otters were hunted with specially-trained lymers. These were dogs who were trained to follow the scent of an otter and not make a noise when the prey was discovered. Otters don’t stay in one place for long, so the huntsmen had to find its current place of residence before the hunt could begin.
Four men set off with a lymer each, two on each side of the river. Of each pair, one went upriver and one went down. The huntsmen didn’t just rely on the dogs catching the scent; they were also looking for otter prints and droppings. The medieval hunting treatises say that the otter typically went upriver to hunt and then floated back downriver while digesting its meal.
Once the dogs found the place where the otter was living, the huntsmen reported back to the rest of the men gathered for the hunt. They then took up position upriver and downriver of where the otter was. The doges were let loose into the water and the otter tried to get away from them. The waiting huntsmen stood by shallows and fords, so that they could see the otter when it reached them. Their weapons were spears, barbed tridents and two-pronged forks. The idea was to spear the otter as it swam past, pursued by the dogs. If the river was wide, a net might be spread across it and the dogs would drive the otter into it.
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