Royal hunting, or the aristocratic art of hunting, was a common practice among the upper class during the Medieval Period, spanning from Europe to the Far East. Although hunting wild animals for food had been a human activity for a long time, people from all social classes participated in it as a crucial food source, sometimes even the main one. Over time, the necessity of medieval hunting evolved into a refined leisure activity for the aristocracy. Beyond being a mere hobby, it served as a significant platform for social interactions, vital training for warfare, and a symbol of privilege and nobility. In the High Middle Ages in Europe, this practice was widespread.
What was Royal Hunting and Noble Hunting?
In the Middle Ages, royal hunting was an exclusive practice of the aristocracy observed across the known world. Royal forests served as private hunting grounds for the king and privileged guests, where only the monarch or those granted a license by the king were allowed to engage in hunting activities. These royal forests were governed by stringent forest laws, and foresters, designated officers, were entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing these laws. Residents within the forest boundaries enjoyed certain rights, but violations of forest laws were met with severe penalties.
Among the leisure pursuits of the privileged classes, hunting and hawking stood out as the most popular. However, hunting was more than a war-like collaboration for game-killing; it functioned as a social institution, shaping the interactions and dynamics of the aristocratic class.
Hunting retained its popularity in Europe throughout the medieval ages, finding favor especially among Frankish and Carolingian kings during the early period. Charlemagne, the renowned Frankish king, was notable for his love of hunting, a passion he pursued until his final years. Likewise, the practice of hunting experienced a surge in popularity after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.
Types of Medieval Hunting
Before and during the early phases of the medieval ages, hunting mainly served as a means of gathering food. However, in the later period of the Middle Ages, it underwent a change into a stylized and elaborate activity mainly done by the nobility. The shift was notable, evolving from a practical pursuit for food gathering to a leisurely hobby reserved for the wealthy. Given its widespread popularity among medieval nobility, a substantial body of literature dedicated to hunting emerged, accompanied by the development of specific vocabulary associated with this refined pastime.
Hunting for sport: Chasing a game held a crucial place in noble life during the Medieval period and frequently included grand feasts and other social gatherings. The hunt was considered valuable training for combat, and hunters often utilized hand weapons to dispatch their quarry, merging the skills required for both hunting and warfare.
Hunting for falconry: Falconry, an ancient sport in the Middle Ages, revolved around hunting small wild game or birds using trained birds of prey. The birds of prey employed in falconry ranged from falcons and hawks to eagles and gyrfalcons. It also held social significance during the Middle Ages. The types of birds used in falconry showed social distinctions, mirroring the hierarchical order of the people. For instance, the exclusive privilege of hunting with a gyrfalcon was reserved for a king.
Hunting for food: Hunting emerged as an almost universal activity in the later Middle Ages, serving as a means of sustenance and obtaining raw materials for the common people. Meanwhile, for the ruling class, it encompassed not only a source of food but also served as a form of sport, exercise, and a constructive channel for aggressive tendencies. The social hierarchy dictated which quarry individuals could pursue and the methods they could employ in the pursuit of this age-old practice.
Medieval Hunting Techniques
Royal hunting in the Middle Ages employed weapons similar to those used in warfare, including bows, crossbows, lances, spears, medieval hunting knives, and swords. Bows were the most prevalent weapon, with the crossbow gaining popularity for hunting around the mid-15th century, following its introduction during the First Crusade in 1100. Cudgels, or clubs, were utilized for clubbing small games, a practice particularly embraced by women in the hunt. Boar spears were also a common tool. The 16th century saw a shift in medieval hunting with the introduction of handheld firearms. Even special medieval hunting clothes were used during these events to ensure that the royalty was safe and properly equipped for the game.
Communication during the hunt was enabled by the use of horns, essential for coordinating with fellow hunters. Additionally, the medieval hunter relied on the assistance of specific domesticated animals, with three being crucial: the horse, the hound, and the hawk or falcon.
In the later Middle Ages, extending into the modern period, distinct types of hunting swords developed, marked apart from other arms by the ornate decorations on the hilt. These embellishments often featured naturalistic elements like acorns, winding quillions resembling vines, and intricate chisel work depicting animal heads or hooves, adding a unique and decorative touch to these specialized weapons. Hunting swords were also seen as an important part of medieval hunting clothes, providing a proper look for hunters, especially the royals.
Who hunted what was a large part of the hunting folklore. But who were the hunting companions of these royal hunters has been an equally interesting topic. From horses to hounds to hawks and falcons, these hunting companions played a vital role in how the game went.
Horse: Horses were the most common companions used during medieval hunting. And courser horses were among the most popular choices during that time. While not as mighty as the destrier and smaller compared to contemporary horses, the courser had to possess specific qualities. It needed to be powerful enough to carry the rider swiftly over long distances, agile for navigating challenging terrains with ease, and fearless when faced with encounters with wild beasts. These attributes were essential for the courser to effectively serve its role.
Hound: Dogs played crucial roles for various purposes during hunting. Their keen sense of smell made them invaluable in locating the quarry. Once found, they assisted in driving the hunted animal, and in the final confrontation, the dog would either directly engage in the attack or distract the quarry, allowing the hunter to make the decisive move. Breeds such as greyhounds, mastiffs, and foxhounds were commonly employed for these hunting tasks.
Hawks and Falcons: Training a hawk for medieval hunting was a meticulous and time-consuming process. It sometimes took several years to prepare a falcon or hawk for hunting. The training process involved encouraging the bird to fly from its perch to the falconer’s hand over increasing distances. Initially, hunting instincts would be stimulated using meat, followed by a lure, and eventually progressing to live prey. This live prey could include herons, sometimes with their legs intentionally broken to make the kill more feasible in the training process.
Originating as a basic means of securing sustenance and survival, hunting transformed into a sophisticated leisure activity that reflected the prevailing social structure. This pursuit seamlessly integrated the pragmatic aspects of obtaining food with the grace of falconry and the excitement of the chase. The weaponry, the animals involved, and the rituals associated with medieval hunting left behind a profound cultural heritage that reached from the royal forests of Europe to the far-flung landscapes of the Far East.