Spanning a 15th-century crossbow with a goat's foot lever. ©Lonnie Colson 2018.
For a member of the knightly class in the fifteenth century, hunting was far more than a simple hobby or pleasurable pastime--it was the very essence of life. Gaston III, compte de Foix, wrote in his treatise Livre de Chasse, or Book of the Hunt:tout mon temps me suis delite par especial en trois choses, l'une est en armes, l'autre est en amours, et l'autre si est en chasce..., or in "all my time I am delighted in three things, the one is in arms, the other is in love, and the other is in hunting." Gaston was a retired mercenary captain who retired to vast estates in southern France. Of his three delights, he would only claim to be an expert in the last.
Hunting as preparation for war
During the 14th century, the King of Castile wrote a treatise on hunting in which he made it very clear that mounted hunting was an activity as close to war as one could engage outside of the battlefield:
For a knight should always engage in anything to do with arms and chivalry, and if he cannot do so in war, he should do so in activities which resemble war. And the chase is the most similar to war for these reasons: war demands expense, met without complaint; one must be well horsed and well armed, one must be vigorous, and do without sleep, suffer lack of good food and drink, rise early, sometimes have a poor bed, undergo cold and heat, and conceal one's fear.Libro de la Monteria, Hunting Book of Alfonso XI, King of Castile (1312-1350).
Almost a century later, the King of Portugal wrote a similar hunting treatise that emphasized the importance of mounted hunting:
For every kind of military encounter, hunting is better training than jousting. If the tourney teaches a man how to strike with a sword on a helmet, how much better he will learn by striking down a boar when his only chase of saving himself is by a good thrust with the spear.Livro da Montaria, Hunting Book of John I, King of Portugal (1385-1433).
Edward of Norwich, Duke of York, gave his reasons for hunting: first to eschew the 7 deadly sins, second to make a man better at riding, more just, more understanding, and better knowing of all countries and passages. And, for the health of a man and his soul. In case one would be inclined to believe he was speaking of the proverbial soul, he went on to write:
And then he shall go and drink and lie in his bed in fair fresh clothes, and shall sleep well and steadfastly all the night without any evil thoughts of any sins, wherefore I say that hunters go into Paradise when they die, and live in this world more joyfully than any other men.Edward, Duke of York.
John "the Good," Duke of Brittany gave practical clothing advice for hunters: one should wear green cloth for summer and leather leggings to protect himself from branches. He should also be equipped with a sword, a knife, and a horn.
The Noble Chase
Mounted hunting was known as the chasse, or chase. Nobles were expected to have quality horses and weapons and wear clothes representative to their station. It is easy to see why all five elements of the hunt would appeal to the knightly class:
- the quest, locating the animal prior to the hunt;
- the stalk, using relays of hounds to track down the quarry;
- the pursuit, racing on horseback across varied terrain;
- the fight, using sword and spear to take down one's prey;
- and, thedeathkilling and unmaking, or butchering, the game.
Understanding the Terminology
A forest was owned by Crown and subject to Forest Laws. Only the king and whomever he granted license to could hunt therein. Each was administered by a number of appointed officials.
A chase was a free liberty, but many were granted to nobles required Forest Laws to be observed.
A park was completely enclosed by a wooden fence to contain populations of deer. It was usually situated near the main residence of its tenants-in-chief and administered by a parker.
Outside of these areas, freeholders were allowed to hunt on unenclosed land. Additionally, the right of free warren, entitlement to hunt for lesser game, was sometimes granted to lower classes.
Beasts of the chase were game animals kept on a chase to be hunted, such as fallow deer, roe deer, fox, marten, etc. Beasts of venery were game animals hunted in the forest such as red deer, boar, wolf, etc. Beasts of warren , or vermin, were animals such as hare and coney.