Medieval Hunting in Modern Times

New World Challenges -- Prey, Seasons and Methods

by

R. Swinney

 

Three major challenges to the historically accurate pursuit of Old World medieval style hunting in the New World are:

            Prey
            Seasons
            Methods

-Many Old World medieval prey species are simply not available.
-Medieval hunting seasons frequently have minimal overlap with modern hunting seasons.
-Many medieval hunting methods are severely restricted or specifically prohibited.

This treatise will summarize these obstacles and highlight the available legal options for medieval style hunting in North America.

 

GENERAL

This article is not exhaustive.  Doubtless, a number of hunting options exist that are not listed here.  Consider this a starting point for individual research.

Scientific classifications included herein are subject to change.  Until 2004 Red Deer and Elk were regarded as the same species.  Likewise, Old World and New World otters shared the same genus until the last couple of decades.

For purposes of this article North America is divided into two major parts: 

            the continental United States (lower 48 states)
            Canada and Alaska

As hunting regulations in Alaska more closely resemble those of Canada (i.e. are more permissive) than those of the lower 48 states, this division is both geographic and functional.  If not specified, the entry “Canada / Alaska” means that the activity is legal in one if not both regions.

 

BACKGROUND

Theoretically, the most accurate form of medieval hunting would involve pursuing the exact species discussed in a specific medieval hunting manual in the precise season and fashion(s) described.  Herein lie the three aforementioned obstacles:

            Prey
            Seasons
            Methods

The 14th century Livre de chasse (hereafter called the Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus) is the best known, most comprehensive extant medieval Western European hunting text.  It is widely held to be the the definitive treatise on medieval hunting.

In the early 15th century, Edward, Duke of York translated much of the Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus, made some additions of his own, and titled the work The Master of Game These two primary sources serve as the principal references for this article.

 

PART I -- HISTORICALLY ACCURATE PREY 

Gaston Phebus identified 15 types of animals worthy of mention as quarry in 14th century continental Europe.  Edward, Duke of York, adapting the work for hunting in England, omitted the Reindeer, the Ibex, the Chamois, and the Bear -- and only mentioned the Rabbit to spurn it.  The modern scientific designation for each prey animal mentioned by Gaston Phebus is included for ease of reference.

            *Hart (red deer) -- Cervus elaphus
             Reindeer (caribou) -- Rangifer tarandus
            *Fallow deer -- Dama dama
            *Roe deer -- Capreolus capreolus
            *Ibex -- Capra ibex (Germany) or Capra pyrenaica (Spain)
            *Chamois -- Rupicapra rupicapra
            *Hare -- Lepus europaeus
            *Rabbit -- Oryctolagus cuniculus
            Bear -- Ursus arctos
            Boar -- Sus scrofa
            Wolf -- Canis lupus
            Fox -- Vulpes vulpes
            *Badger -- Meles meles
            *Wild cat -- Lynx lynx (and a second unidentified species)
            *Otter -- Lutra lutra

Two-thirds of these species are NOT NATIVE* to North America.  This leaves North American medieval hunting enthusiasts with several options:  

a.  travel to another continent where these species occur naturally AND can be legally hunted (not always possible -- seldom practical)

b.  hunt the historically correct species on a hunting preserve in North America (frequently not possible -- not palatable to some hunters)

c.  hunt a similar (equivalent or analogous) North American animal of a different species 

d.  strike non-native species from the list of possible quarry

 

EQUAL, EQUIVALENT & ANALOGOUS ANIMALS

EQUAL prey will be defined as animals of the same species.  Although regarded as genetically roughly EQUAL, it would be prudent for all hunters to keep in mind that these animals may not be physically EQUAL.  Even animals of the same genus and species can have very significant regional variation.  There exist innumerable subspecies to help biologists keep track of these often not so subtle differences.   A perfect example is the brown bear.

If looking only at the genus & species to identify equality, the Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) would be regarded as the biological EQUAL of the North American Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).  Before setting out with dogs, crossbows and spears on a medieval style bear hunt, however, it would be essential to know that the North American Brown Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis -- also known as the Grizzly Bear) averages almost twice the weight of its Eurasian EQUAL (Ursus arctos arctos).  A medieval style hunt of a Eurasian Brown Bear would be quite dangerous.  A medieval style hunt of a North American Brown Bear would border on suicidal. 

EQUIVALENT prey will be defined as animals of the same genus.  Although not as closely related as animals of the same genus and species, these animals share many of the same physical and behavioral characteristics of the original European prey.

To continue the above example, although the North American Brown Bear is genetically closer to the Eurasian Brown Bear, the smaller North American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) could serve as an equivalent to the Eurasian Brown Bear -- and because it is closer to the size of the Eurasian Brown Bear, the North American Black Bear may actually be more representative of the medieval quarry.

ANALOGOUS prey will be defined as animals that do not share a common genus, but that share sufficient physical and behavioral characteristics of the original European prey to serve as a reasonable substitute.

Roe deer have no close genetic relatives in North America.  They share a subfamily (Odocoileinae) with the Whitetail Deer, but there are very significant differences.  The most striking of these is physical size.  A fully grown adult Roe buck may weigh 65 pounds.  Although Whitetail Deer in southern Florida may be comparably small, fully grown northern Whitetail bucks range from 2 to 5 times that weight.

 

LIMITS OF THE ABOVE SYSTEM

To illustrate the limits of this system, compare the Roe Deer, the Fallow Deer and the Whitetail Deer.  The Roe Deer and the Whitetail Deer are more closely related -- but the Fallow Deer and the Whitetail Deer are closer to the same size.  So which is the better analogous prey? 

Hunting is not simply a matter of genetic similarity or size, but of behavior.  Unlike either Roe Deer or Whitetail Deer, Fallow Deer stay in large herds much of the year, providing a significantly different hunting dynamic when compared with  the more solitary Roe and Whitetail Deer.

 

EXAMPLES:

 EQUIVALENT (same genus, different species)

 


 

European hare
Lepus europaeus
Snowshoe hare
Lepus americanus

 

ANALOGOUS (biologically similar, but different genus / species)


 

Roe deer
Capreolus capreolus
Whitetail deer
Odocoileus virginianus

 

European rabbit
Oryctolagus cuniculus
Cottontail rabbit
Sylvilagus floridanus

  

NORTH AMERICAN MEDIEVAL PREY OPTIONS

A list of the medieval name, the modern genus and species, the common North American name and (when applicable) the equivalent / analogue genus and species follows:

"EQUAL"

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)   =   Caribou
Bear (Ursus arctos)   =   North American Brown Bear
Boar (Sus scrofa)   =   Feral Swine / Eurasian Boar
Wolf (Canis lupus)   =   Grey Wolf
Fox (Vulpes vulpes)   =   Red Fox

EQUIVALENT

Hart / Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)   ~   Elk  (Cervus canadensis)
Hare (Lepus europaeus)   ~   Snowshoe Hare / Jackrabbit (Lepus americanus)
Bear (Ursus arctos)   ~   North American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Wolf (Canis lupus)   ~   Coyote (Canis latrans)
Wildcat (Lynx lynx)   ~   Bobcat (Lynx rufus) / Canadian Lynx  (Lynx canadensis)

ANALOGUE

Roebuck (Capreolus capreolus)   ~   Whitetail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Badger (Meles meles)   ~   American Badger (Taxidea taxus)
Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)   ~   Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)
Otter (Lutra lutra)   ~   North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis)

 

NO EQUIVALENT OR CLOSE ANALOGUE IDENTIFIED

Ibex -- (Capra ibex - Germany /  Capra Pyrenaica - Spain)
Chamois -- (Rupicapra rupicapra )

Which of the above species can be legally hunted and / or trapped in North America?  With the exception of the Chamois, all of the above EQUALS, EQUIVALENTS or ANALOGUES may be hunted in some parts of North America (wild or preserve) -- though often with very significant restrictions on regions, seasons, methods of take, etc.

For ease of reference, the following table has been included.

 

TABLE 1

 

Prey

Can be hunted / trapped in at least 20% of the Continental U.S.

Can be hunted on preserves in the
Continental U.S.

Can be hunted / trapped in parts of Canada, Alaska or both

Red deer / Elk

Elk (equivalent)

Red deer
Elk (equivalent)

Elk (equivalent)

Reindeer=caribou

 

 

Caribou

Fallow deer

 

Fallow deer

 

Ibex

 

Ibex

 

Chamois

 

 

 

Roebuck (analogue)

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer

European Hare (equivalent)

Snowshoe Hare

Jackrabbit

 

Snowshoe Hare

European Rabbit  (analogue)

Cottontail Rabbit

 

Cottontail Rabbit

Eurasian Brown Bear

 

 

North American Brown Bear

Eurasian Brown Bear (equivalent)

North American Black bear

 

North American Black Bear

Wild Boar

Feral swine / Eurasian boar

Feral swine / Eurasian boar

Feral swine / Eurasian boar

Wolf

 

 

Grey wolf

Wolf (equivalent)

Coyote

 

Coyote

Red Fox

Red Fox

 

Red Fox

Eurasian Badger (analogue)

American Badger

 

American Badger

Eurasian Lynx (equivalent)

Bobcat

 

Bobcat    Canadian Lynx  

Eurasian Otter(analogue)

North American River Otter

 

North American River Otter

 

Part II -- SEASONS

The Hunting Book of Gaston Phebus did not always specify the season during which each quarry type was to be taken.  As The Master of Game was an adaptation of Phebus’ work, it too is incomplete in this regard.

In the early 20th century, editor F. N. Baillie-Groham added an Appendix to The Master of Game in which he assembled a list of hunting seasons compiled from various medieval sources.  Author Richard Almond further expanded and refined this list in his 2003 overview Medieval Hunting.  Almond’s list (with some additions) is rendered in Table 2.

Immediately evident is the lack of uniformity of these sources which results in significant variation in the defined seasons. 

For example, for wild boar the text of The Master of Game lists:

29 September (Michaelmas) to 30 November (St. Andrew’s)

Other sources start as early as 14 September (Holyrood) and end as late as 2 February (Candlemas) -- stretching a 2 month hunting season to 4 1/2 months.

Likewise, depending on the source used, fox season may vary from 3 months to 6 1/2 months long.  Phebus says that the fox may be hunted year round, though January through March is best.

For the truly detail oriented medieval hunting enthusiast wanting to hunt period game ONLY in the period season specific to a particular region and time period (e.g. 14th century France), adherence to a single contemporary source may be the best answer, though as previously mentioned, all well known primary sources are incomplete in this regard. 

Furthermore, it is worthwhile to note that period guidelines were not necessarily slavishly followed.  Chapter 36 of The Master of Game discusses what to do with rascal and folly deer taken during a drive -- though by definition, these deer were theoretically not supposed to be targeted.

Ultimately, each hunter must decide how strictly to adhere (if at all) to period hunting seasons, as these can significantly further restrict an already intensely regulated modern hunting calendar.

 

TABLE 2

Prey

Season begins

Season Ends

Red deer stag / hart

14 June -- though probably from May onward

14 September (Holyrood)

Red deer hind

14 September (Holyrood)

6 January (Epiphany) or           2 February (Candlemas)

Reindeer / caribou

No season listed

No season listed

Fallow buck

24 June (St. John’s tide)

14 September (Holyrood)

Fallow doe

14 September (Holyrood)

2 February (Candlemas)

Roe buck

Easter -- though some sources say all year

29 September (Michaelmas) 

Roe doe

29 September (Michaelmas)

2 February (Candlemas)

Ibex

Easter

Midsummer

Chamois

No season listed

No season listed

Hare

29 September (Michaelmas) -- though many sources say all year

2 February (Candlemas) or     24 June (St. John’s tide)

Rabbit

All year

 

Bear

May

December

Boar

14 September (Holyrood) or  29 September (Michaelmas)

30 November(St. Andrew)or   25 December(Christmas) or     2 February (Candlemas)

Wolf

25 December (Christmas) though probably all year

25 March (Annunciation)

Fox

8 September or                      25 December -- though some sources say all year

25 March (Annunciation)

Badger

All year

 

Wildcat

No season listed

 

Otter

22 February

24 June (St. John’s tide)

So, is it possible to hunt period quarry (EQUAL, EQUIVALENT and / or ANALOGUE) in North America during period season? 

YES, but with significant limitations.  Some hunting seasons are much shorter than their medieval counterparts, as explained below.  Other hunting seasons are much longer -- though hunters pursuing strict adherence to medieval seasons may choose to limit their hunts to the traditional dates.

In general, the medieval practice of hunting male deer (Red, Fallow, Roe) during the summer and early fall is greatly restricted.

For example, per the table above, the three months of Red Deer stag season (14 June - 14 September) have only a few weeks of overlap with modern elk archery season.

Further restricting matters, except for physically handicapped hunters, crossbows can only be used during modern firearms season in most areas.  Modern firearms season is well after the end of the period stag hunting season, so the ONLY period season period method option for elk hunting on most public land would be the longbow. 

By contrast, feral swine are a highly destructive non-native species.  In many areas, they may be hunted year round on private land with a wide variety of methods -- a far more liberal modern season than its medieval counterpart.

Non-native species (Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Ibex, Eurasian Boar) maintained on private hunting preserves can be hunted year round at the discretion of the owner(s), providing both a greater variety of game and greater flexibility to observe medieval hunting seasons than would otherwise be available.

Using the above information, tables and local hunting regulations, North American medieval hunting enthusiasts can explore the possibilities of pursuing period quarry during period seasons.

 

PART III -- METHODS

Dogs

A wide variety of dogs were employed in various capacities in medieval hunting.  Many performed specialized roles in locating, chasing, baying and tracking game.

The Chase

The Chase was the quintessential medieval method of hunting and was employed against a wide variety of game:  Red Deer, Reindeer, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Wild Boar, Bear, Wolf, etc.  Although Gaston Phebus emphasized its use for male deer, other sources indicate that it was used in England, Germany, etc. for both genders.

Gaston Phebus devoted a substantial portion of his treatise to the Chase of the hart (a mature male red deer of at least 5 years of age).  Phebus went into great detail about how to identify, track and pursue the hart with dogs.  To keep up with the pursuit, the majority of the hunting party was usually on horseback. 

After a specific hart was clearly identified and located in the hunting area, dogs were employed to drive off lesser game, including hinds (female red deer) and lesser male red deer.  With the field “cleared” of distractions, the hunt could proceed in earnest.  Dogs would then be used to flush the hart and pursue it until it turned to fight.  Often the Chase would cover such distances that relays of dogs would be employed to continue the Chase when the first group of dogs tired.

When the hart finally turned to fight, it might be in water (creeks, rivers, ponds, etc.) or on land.  If the hart turned to bay in water, bows or crossbows could be used to dispatch it.  If the hart turned to bay on land, a particularly bold hunter might choose to dismount and take it with a sword.

This was no mean feat, and certainly not for the faint of heart.  Like the boar, a hart might well run upon its hunters (be they dogs or men) and seriously injure or kill them.  Being gored / trampled by a stag weighing upwards of 400 pounds was a very significant risk.  “The Master of Game” mentions what was an old saying in the 15th century “after the boar the leech and after the hart the bier” -- in essence, hunters wounded by boars required surgical attention;  hunters wounded by harts required burial. 

Gaston Phebus specifically cautioned against the use of a sword when hunting wild boars and bears as it was, in his opinion, even more likely to end badly for the hunter.

The Chase was immensely resource intensive, requiring numerous hunters, horses, dogs, dog handlers, etc.

Driving

Driving game required more subtlety than the Chase.  A number of forms of Driving were described, though perhaps the best known version is referred to as the “bow and stable”.  Because deer are less wary of horses than of humans, horses were used to cover the hunters’ movements.  Further concealment was provided by the participants wearing green in summer or grey in fall / winter.

To perform the “bow and stable” version of Driving, one or more horsemen traveled downwind of a herd of deer, providing visual cover for a small group of hunters carrying longbows / crossbows.  The hunters walked next to the horse(s), dropping off one by one about a stone’s throw apart in a line or arc.  The horsemen then circled upwind of the herd, putting gentle pressure on the deer to move in the direction of the hunters.  Ideally, the deer walked away from the horsemen and toward the hunters, providing slow moving targets at close range.  Deer hit by arrows / bolts were then tracked down by one or more scent hounds kept nearby.

Although effective, this technique had it’s liabilities.  Obviously, the accuracy and self control of the hunters was paramount.  As the technique involved surrounding, then shooting at a group of deer, there was tremendous potential for hunters to accidentally hit each other or the horses / horsemen.

Other forms of Driving employed the use of hedges, pre-placed hurdles or other obstructions to channel game toward a particular area where hunters lay in wait, usually with bows / crossbows for large game -- though spears, javelins, swords and clubs can also be documented.  Some forms of Driving required large numbers of “beaters” to advance on line while beating the ground or brush in order to frighten prey into fleeing in a particular direction.  Other forms of Driving involved pursuing prey into nets where they could be captured or killed.  In Germany, one version of Driving included channeling the game into a large body of water where hunters waiting in boats shot the now much slowed quarry.

Driving was less resource intensive than the Chase, but still required numerous hunters, often one or more horses, usually at least one dog, beaters, etc.

Stalking

Less resource intensive than the Chase or Driving, stalking involved stealth, distraction or both.  A number of techniques were described.  Perhaps the simplest version of stalking described was a group of crossbowmen walking upwind through the forest, taking cover behind trees while searching for game.  This was best done during weather that was a bit breezy, drizzling or raining “because in such weather game will move about.”

The “bow and stable” appeared as well, this time with one horseman and one hunter.  The horseman provided visual cover for the hunter until the hunter was close enough to shoot the quarry.  The hunter then stopped while the horseman continued forward.  Distracted by the movement of the horseman, (ideally) the deer stood to watch him pass, providing a stationary target for the hunter.

A variation of the “bow and stable” using a cart was also mentioned.  Again, the presence of the horse was used to distract one or more deer while a hunter concealed in the cart took aim.

Another option was the “stalking cow”, though in English it is infinitely better known as a “stalking horse”.  Instead of a real animal, a lightweight portable dummy was used as visual cover for the hunter -- or two helpers could be dressed as a horse to serve the same purpose.

Stand Hunting

Brief mention was given to hunting from a stationary position, either at ground level or from an elevated position on a mound or platform, without the use of dogs, beaters or other assistance.

Trapping

Snares, nets, purse nets, pitfalls, spear traps, needle traps and jaw traps were all mentioned in Gaston Phebus, though he was far less enthusiastic about their use than the previously mentioned forms of hunting.

Miscellaneous

Baiting, using ferrets in rabbit warrens, and a few other techniques received passing mention.

 

MEDIEVAL HUNTING METHODS AVAILABLE IN NORTH AMERICA

The Chase

Hunting some types of animals with hounds is legal in much of the continental U.S. and Canada -- but there are myriad restrictions that vary widely regionally.  Furthermore, there is increasing pressure in the United States to ban not only this method but eventually all hunting sports.

Whitetail deer can be pursued with dogs in a handful of states / provinces, but there are very few guide services that still offer this option, so unless you have your own dogs, this is a rapidly disappearing opportunity.

Snowshoe hare, rabbit, bear, boar, fox, badger and bobcat can be hunted with dogs in many states -- and there are far more guide services available that offer this option.

Driving

The Chase (hunting with hounds) may be thought of as the most intense form of Driving.  Regions that permit hunting with hounds are generally much more tolerant of other forms of Driving than regions that prohibit hunting with hounds.

Many states permit driving of some game species -- though the use of nets, snares, etc. is usually specifically prohibited, as is the previously mentioned German strategy of taking the quarry in water or from boats.  All of these restrictions dramatically reduce the effectiveness of this kind of hunting.

Stalking / Stand Hunting

These are the medieval hunting techniques most commonly employed by modern medieval hunting enthusiasts as they are the least resource intensive AND the most widely legally accepted.  However, before attempting a “bow & stable” stalk or tracking wounded game with dogs, it is essential to research local regulations VERY thoroughly.  The use of horses and / or dogs to hunt or track even wounded deer is prohibited in some areas.

Trapping

Like hunting regulations, trapping laws vary widely from region to region.  Trapping may provide an alternative means of taking period quarry in areas where medieval hunting methods are prohibited.  For example, otter trapping is widely permitted, whereas hunting otter with dogs and / or spears is (to my knowledge) not a legal method of taking otter anywhere in North America.

Almost universally, modern traps are required.  Considered less cruel than their medieval counterparts, modern traps are a necessary concession for any medieval hunting enthusiast contemplating trapping medieval quarry.

Medieval hunting enthusiasts considering this method of taking game are encouraged to accompany an established, experienced trapper to learn the technical and legal intricacies of this particular form of taking game.  A number of professional trappers offer 5 to 7 day courses that cover both the physical skills required and the legal minefields to be navigated.

Miscellaneous

Baiting various species is severely restricted or prohibited in many regions.

Ferreting (hunting using ferrets) is illegal in the United States and Canada.

TABLE 3

 

Prey

 

Hounds
United States

 

Hounds
Canada / Alaska

Driving     US / Canada / Alaska

Stalk-Stand  US / Canada / Alaska

 Trapping          US / Canada
Alaska

Red deer* / Elk

 

 

LTD

YES

 

Reindeer / caribou

 

 

LTD    Canada / AK

YES      Canada / AK

 

Fallow deer*

 

 

Very LTD

Very LTD

 

Ibex*

 

 

Very LTD

Very LTD

 

Whitetail Deer

Very LTD

Very LTD

YES

YES

 

Snowshoe Hare  Jackrabbit

LTD
Very LTD

LTD

YES

YES

YES

Cottontail

YES

 

YES

YES

YES

North American Brown Bear

 

 

 

LTD     Canada / AK

 

North American Black Bear

Very LTD

Very LTD

 

YES

Very LTD

Feral Swine /  Eurasian boar*

LTD

 

 

YES

LTD                US

Wolf

 

 

 

YES       Canada / AK

YES     Canada / AK

Coyote

LTD

LTD

 

YES

YES

Red Fox

LTD

LTD

 

YES

YES

American Badger

LTD

 

 

LTD

LTD
US

Bobcat

LTD

LTD

 

YES

YES

Canadian Lynx

 

Very LTD

 

LTD     Canada / AK

LTD      Canada / AK

North American River Otter

 

 

 

 

LTD

YES - Widely available

LTD - Significantly limited by region, legal restriction, etc.

Very LTD - Severely limited.  Extraordinary resources required.

Examples of Very LTD:

1.  *Non-native species only available on hunting preserves. 

2.  Excessive restrictions have made this form of hunting almost inaccessible.

One Example of Excessive Restriction

In the U.S. state of Georgia, Whitetail Deer can only be hunted with hounds on private land of 1000+ contiguous acres.  By prohibiting this form of hunting on public land and requiring a vast estate to pursue this form of hunting on private land, it effectively outlaws deer hunting with hounds for more than 99% of hunters.

 

SUMMARY

By using the above information, medieval hunting enthusiasts can clearly identify

            Equal, Equivalent and Analagous Prey Species
            Period Seasons
            Period Methods

to further enhance their pursuit of the period hunting experience.

R. Swinney