Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Medieval and Montana Hunting Access

During Friday’s class, we discussed the motives for hunting:  killing animals because of their potential threat; the role of hunting as a social experience; culling; and the thrill or prestige of the hunt.  Clearly, in the Middle Ages, hunting and falconry were activities to showcase one’s power and prestige. However, in our discussions, we never focused on the role land access plays into this equation involving hunting and its way to prove one’s nobility.  While accessibility may have been only one of many factors contributing to hunting being an ennobling activity, I believe it cannot be overlooked in the Middle Ages or today.

The N.J. Sykes article, “The Impact of Normans on Hunting Practices in England” helps me better understand the importance of hunting access. Wild animals belong to no one; but the property they live on often is private. Thus, the private and pubic domains are both in play when it comes to privately owned hunting land and wild animals. This is an increasingly contentious topic in my home state of Montana where wealthy non-residents are buying up prime hunting land and purchasing state licenses that are heavily restricted due to high costs.

Access to the wild animals can show one’s prestige and elevated status over those who cannot gain the same level of access.  Montanans respect people for hunting, but one of the biggest challenges for hunters today is finding land to hunt on.  They must either be wealthy enough to own hunting land, have the social connections to gain access to hunting land, or pay a lot of money to go on a guided trip. With these local issues in mind, it was interesting to learn in the Sykes article that restrictions to hunting land began with the Norman kings; “Norman kings applied forest law to vast areas of land. Under forest laws, rights to take animals were punishable by imprisonment or maiming.” These newly instated forest laws did not bode well with the native, conquered population who viewed the forest laws with contempt. 

The idea of a conquered population being mad at restricted hunting access mirrors how Montanans view their current plight to find hunting access. Montanans often see themselves as a “conquered” population. Throughout Montana’s history, wealthy non-residents have exploited the state’s natural resources, which include hunting land.  An October 30, 2010 Billings Gazette article states that attempts to privatize wildlife have become too prevalent, “It is commonplace to hear of wealthy nonresidents purchasing land in Montana for exclusive hunting opportunities. This generally results in a loss of access to Montana residents for both the private property, and the public lands held within or beyond the deeded boundaries.”  While at first it may seem too strong to relate native Montanans to people conquered by the Normans in the Middle Ages, they are both experiencing the same frustration of dealing with a new phenomenon of limited access to hunting grounds.

Further, this Montana trend has sparked new attempts to privatize wildlife with the guaranteed Outfitter Sponsored License plan which grants guaranteed hunting licenses for these privileged nonresident hunters who get sponsored by Montana hunting outfitters. The Billings Gazette author asks, “Are the folks who sponsor these nonresidents really outfitters or merely wildlife brokers selling the people’s wildlife?”  It is fair to control access to private property for hunting, but is it fair to profit off wild animals that are not private property? In the November 2 election, Montana voters will decide this answer by voting on Initiative 161. This initiative would abolish outfitter-sponsored licenses, substantially increase nonresident license fees for deer and elk, and remove the presence of outfitter companies reserving licenses for wealthy out-of-state hunters.

Sykes would approve of me voting for the Initiative and would explain that Iniative 161 would be a good thing for Montana residents. The article states that when hunting access becomes restricted to upper class citizens, social statuses become more apparent, “Division between high and low status sites became particularly pronounced..hinting at the type of unequal access to wild resources that would have accompanied forest law.” The articles also discusses how hunting is a social action that expresses power and authority. It can be used to display power over lower classes or even conquered people, “Restriction of wild resources to the elite….would have been a powerful device through which the post-Conquest aristocracy could display control over the subjugated population.” Hence, hunting on restricted lands is not necessarily about showing power over the animals, but also other people.

According to Sykes, the Normans “both delighted in hunting and restricted rights to it.” I believe the allure of hunting can come from the thrill of the chase, but when access is restricted to the elite, the exclusivity also significantly adds to the allure and helps make is an ennobling activity. As someone articulately stated in class Friday, hunting in the medieval times had an end, but the end is not necessarily the purpose. In other words, the apparent objective in hunting is to kill an animal, but there may likely be other motives such as highlighting one’s nobility. I believe the Sykes article and the current debate in Montana show how hunting can become even more appealing and prestigious when access is restricted due to class. It is also interesting to see how an article for a class on animals in the Middle Ages can shape the way you look at a local issues and cast a vote on an absentee ballot.



*Initiative 161 Passed in yesterday’s election.


  1. Excellent point about the significance of the land! And very apt comparison with contemporary issues over access! Yes, absolutely, Norman forest law created enormous social resentment. It is the root of all those Robin Hood stories, after all. The Merry Men are not just jolly woodsmen out to make life difficult for the Sheriff; they are hunting the King's Deer in the King's Forest. Likewise, the comparison with the wealthy out-of-state hunters is entirely apt: the Normans were not just nobles, they were foreigners as well. I think you put it very well: because hunting involves access to land as well as the animals that live on the land, hunting is about power over other people as well as it is about power over (non-human) animals.


  2. The historical parallels mount:
    It would appear as though Ted Turner is modern-day Montana's interloping Norman land-and-game-grabber.