Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hunting Prey, Wild or Domestic?

In 968, Emperor Otto I sent Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona, on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople.  In his report to the German emperor, Liudprand misses no opportunity to disparage the eastern empire, painting a picture of a gaudy, weak, and effeminate culture.  One of the ways he does this is to criticize their hunting practices.  When the Byzantine Emperor Nicepheros invites Liudprand out on a hunt, he promises that the bishop will marvel to see the enormity of his hunting preserves, and his wild donkeys.  Liudprand is unimpressed by the quality of the landscape, complaining that it is “hilly, overgrown, and unpleasant” (Liudprand, 261).  When the prey appears, Liudprand reports to Otto, “there rushed toward me some of those creatures they call wild donkeys… the very same kind as are tame at Cremona.  The same color, the same shape, the same ears, equally vocal when they begin to bray, not uneven in size, the same speed, equally tasty for wolves” (Liudprand, 261).  The same can be found in the market at Cremona, but they “are called domesticated, not wild donkeys, and are not bare-backed, but bearing loads” (Liudprand, 261).
This distinction between the hunting of wild and domestic animals sheds some light on the practice of deer farming in Norman England described by Jean Birrell.  Deer seem not to fit easily into either of these categories.  They were certainly managed and actively cared for, and on such a scale that Birrell argues they must be considered “a significant aspect of medieval agriculture” (Birrel, 113).  At the same time, she emphasizes that despite the immense skill and effort put into managing deer herds, medieval sources did not consider the management of deer equivalent to the raising of other livestock.  There are few records of deer in medieval agricultural treatises, although some estate records do describe the wardens’ duties regarding their care.  These included driving out predators and competing foragers, stocking the parks and forests with food, and even constructing covered shelters.  On some occasions the landscape itself was altered for the deer’s sake, fields were plowed for grass, and streams and pools were dug or modified.
Despite their deeply involved management and care, there are many ways in which deer are distinct from any other kind of managed livestock in the middle ages.  For example, there is no real conceptual distinction between the deer enclosed in deer parks (those that we can most appropriately call “farmed” deer), and the deer in the open forests.  It is true that fallow deer, introduced to England by the Norman conquerors, were more commonly found in deer parks than the native red and roe deer, but all three species were both farmed and managed in open forest in differing degrees.  Indeed, farmed herds were often supplemented by driving wild animals into the park, constructing “deer leaps” which allowed them to jump into the enclosed park but not out again, and by shipping individual deer between parks.  Thus, it seems that there are not distinctly “wild” and “domestic” deer.  There are just those that are enclosed and those that aren’t.
There was reluctance in medieval thought to characterize deer as livestock animals.  Why is this the case?  They were managed with similar methods, although not to the same degree, as other livestock.  Perhaps it is because there weren’t visible differences between the wild and farmed animals, like there may have been in other species.  In this regard, I think it would be interesting to look at medieval attitudes toward boars.  We haven’t read much about them, but from what I understand, there was generally a conceptual distinction between the wild boar, a beast to be hunted, and the domestic pig, a farmed livestock animal.  There were presumably distinguishing visible characteristics and behaviors by which to define the two types.  However, in his article on the impacts of the Normans on English hunting practices, N. J. Sykes says that evidence of wild boar is sparse in the archaeological record of post-conquest England, and that this may be because it is difficult to distinguish between the remains of wild and domestic pigs.  He goes as far as to say  “it must be assumed that… the wild boar recorded in many medieval documents, for example, as at the Christmas feast held by Henry III in 1251, were in fact domestic pigs” (Sykes, 166).
If wild pigs were so biologically similar to domestic pigs, why the conceptual distinction and different treatment?  Why were some farmed and others hunted, some killed on the chopping block and others chased and fought as noble adversaries?  Conversely, why weren’t deer killed on the chopping block?  Even when they weren’t being chased by nobles par force, deer were still taken by a regularly employed huntsman.
Birrell suggests that this reluctance to regard deer as tame animals, despite their pampered existence, was due to the social symbolism of the hunt: “in hunting literature, the beasts were, indeed had to be, wild animals for the brave and the skilled to seek out and hunt down” (Birrell, 114).  The idea of the noble conquering the wild beast fits well in the other two examples.  Perhaps it would have been unseemly for Henry III to admit that the centerpiece of his Christmas feast was nothing more than a farmed hog, as opposed to the nearly identical (but much more ferocious!) wild boar.  It is to Nicepheros’s benefit to characterize his donkeys as marvelous wild beasts, a gift of which “will be no small glory for Otto” (Liudprand, 261).  On the other hand, to imply that someone is hunting a domestic animal would be to insult his courage and prowess.  Liudprand relates how he was immediately dismissed after snidely commenting to the Byzantine emperor that he’d seen similar donkeys in Italian markets: “he gave me license to go, having sent me two wild goats” (Liudprand, 261).  To maintain the symbolism and social significance of the hunt, it was necessary to maintain the fiction that the hunted animals were truly wild beasts to be subdued by the noble lord.  In reality, they were anything but.



N.J. Sykes, “The Impact of the Normans on Hunting Practices in England,” in Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition, eds. C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, and T. Waldron (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 162-75.

Jean Birrell, “Deer and Deer Farming in Medieval England,” The Agricultural History Review 40.2 (1992): 112-26.

Squatriti, Paolo. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.


  1. This post brings additional arguments to the debate of how and why forms of hunting were ennobling. From our discussion two weeks ago, we seemed to be convinced on the nobility of falconry, but your post shows that par force hunting has made us skeptical once again. The animals involved, deer and pigs in your post’s case, reveal more about the status of the people involved: elite hunters needed a consistent supply of animals at their disposal, but the animals must retain their wildness or else embarrass the hunter and ruin a courageous reputation. A managed and domesticated deer or boar supported the hunter’s nobility in ways a tame animal could not. However, support is not the same thing as ennoblement, just as falconry is not in the same vein as par force or trapping. For example, Frederick II was insistent that falconry was superior to hunting with dogs since it did not require the same discipline as training birds of prey. The art of falconry was as much about training the human as training the bird; however, in Gaston Phebus’ manual the common huntsmen were the more likely actors of training, discipline, and interaction with the animals. These commoners did not benefit from ennoblement in the same way Frederick II did despite practicing the discipline. Perhaps, then, we are looking at managed hunts in the wrong way. Hunting deer or boar was not a source of ennoblement for those involved because the elite were already noble and the huntsmen could not become noble from it. The animals did not need to be especially ferocious because the nobles only need to support their status instead of improving upon it.

    K. Beach

  2. "To maintain the symbolism and social significance of the hunt, it was necessary to maintain the fiction that the hunted animals were truly wild beasts to be subdued by the noble lord. In reality, they were anything but." Your post makes me wonder what modern hunters who go on safari think about the "wildness" of the animals they pursue. We have records of medieval hunters killed by the wild boar on hunts, which suggests that there was a real element of risk involved even if the animals were not strictly speaking free to roam wherever they willed (as the bestiaries put it). After our discussion of Gaston, however, I, too, am not sure how much "hunting" was actually involved in the chase, particularly if the lymerer had already found the deer to chase. The deer were not domesticated in the same sense as the cattle (they did need locating, after all), but I believe the parks and forests were large enough for them to be relatively hard to find. This needs more research! Perhaps to do a study of the size of the forests and deer parks relative to the distance one might ride in a day's chase? RLFB

  3. It seems to me that the distinction may have to do with an idea that engaging with beasts and birds in their own element was more admirable somehow. If nobles considered it better to eat a stag or boar caught in the wild than one farmed and slaughtered in the kitchens, I imagine that they may well have thought thus not merely for the animal's greater wildness, but also because it was taken in its own element. As for what the difference there is, I think a noble would not consider it very praiseworthy to kill a deer which had been dragged into a corral--even though it would have been praiseworthy to kill that very same deer in open country.

    That, of course, brings us to the paradox that many of these hunts were more or less contrived. One could quite justifiably say that deer flushed out by beaters are not truly in their element. We might say that it is a compromise, a purely practical matter--that is, that such a hunt is the only way a noble can be more or less guaranteed the reward of a kill in recompense for the time taken from his busy schedule. We might also say that this is one reason for the higher status (as some consider it) of falconry, as the game in that practice is met with more naturally.