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.
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.