“The time of the hunter is without idleness and without evil thoughts…hunters live in this world more joyfully than any other men. For when the hunter rises in the morning he sees a sweet and fair morn and clear weather and bright and he heareth the song of the small birds…and when the sun is arisen he shall see fresh dew on the small twigs and grasses.” – Edward of Norwich, from his book The Master of Game written in the early 1400s.
Last week’s post was about the pleasure gardens of the wealthy. Another leisure activity enjoyed by the well-to-do in summer was hunting. Aside from the practical aspect of supplying food, it had a dual purpose of providing sport and keeping men trained and fit for warfare. Hunting was not a spontaneous activity, but a social event, carefully planned and organized by servants. The most significant hunts were those for stag, which took place during the summer when the beasts were in their prime.
A well planned hunt was broken up into different stages. Dogs would first be used to track the quarry, with a few pursuing huntsman leaving branches as markers to show the way. They would then return to the main hunting party, which would be picnicking leisurely in a clearing. This part of the hunt was something women often took part in, and enjoyed until the hunt was completed. Though there were some women who were hunters in their own right ,and would continue on with the rest of the hunting party. Once a trail was established, the whole party would set out with the dogs at the lead. The hunters communicated with each other by using curved hunting horns, and with the dogs by using special shouts and calls that the dogs were trained to understand. The dogs would eventually surround the animal and bay until the rest of the hunting party could catch up. While it might seem that the prey being hunted stood no chance, there was always danger involved for the hunting party as well as the dogs. The hunted animal, once cornered, could quickly turn on them, killing the dogs and attacking the huntsmen.
Cornering a stag was a particularly significant event. A long note would be sounded from a horn. This was called The Blowing of the Death, and signaled the animal’s defeat. From that point a very careful ritual began, during which the animal was cut up in a particular way and prepared for transport home.
“The heart, lungs, liver and windpipe were given to the hounds, while the right forefoot of the animal was presented to the most eminent person present, or to the lord of the hunt. Stags have a heart bone, a piece of hard red cartilage found in the heart which was considered to have medicinal properties; it was prized and often given to a pregnant woman. When the day’s hunting was over, the party would return in triumph, with the deer in a cart, for a great feast in the lord’s castle.”
Stags were not the only animals hunted, and each animal was pursued in its own season. Popular quarry were deer, boar, bear, wild cats, partridge, otter, fox, wolf, hare, and pheasant. Bear, deer, and wild boar were particularly sought after and reserved by the lord or king. Poaching on a noble’s estate was a grave offense that might provoke harsh punishments against those caught.