Thursday, April 30, 2015

Parks and Nature

Yellowstone National Park is seen as a place where nature has been undisturbed and where truly wild animals can live. Of course, the very act of ordering a park alters the animals within as their populations are maintained by human influence. Injured or sick animals are rescued and treated, and special efforts are made to encourage breeding. In medieval Europe, these effects were far more pronounced. The creation of artificial fish ponds and glades would have transformed the medieval landscape. In the park, there is a tension between artifice and the natural world.

Syke describes the legal transformation that overtook the English environment. Before the Norman conquest, wild animals were considered “nobody’s property.” (162) Both Sykes and Birrell agree that the introduction of the park system to Britain was a method of expanding noble property. By declaring parts of the forest necessary to protect, the king established dominion over more and more land. The new protections afforded to quarry animals led to an increase in game on owned property.

Birell describes the extent to which deer parks were altered and maintained for the deer population. Nobles would create artificial pools for the deer to drink from, provide food for the deer during winter, and “watchers” would be hired to make sure young deer survived into adulthood. Even though the deer were considered “ferae”, or wild creatures, their treatment had many of the hallmarks of domestication. These populations were kept so artificially large and stable that it was possible to produce detailed records of just how many there were in a given area. Birell also observes the amount of venison that park-owning nobles were able to consume. The availability of the meat suggests that the hunting of deer was not so difficult.

Wolf hunts would have dramatically transformed the European environment. The nobles went to great trouble to hunt down wolves, extinguishing their populations in some parts of Europe, but it’s not clear why. Wolves were seen as dangerous, but there were very few records of actual wolf attacks harming humans or livestock, even as human expansion brought them closer to wolf habitats. This proximity was probably responsible for much of the anxiety, but this would also probably have not been enough to motivate noble efforts to hunt wolves. Despite the challenges involved in hunting wolves, Pluskowski writes that hunting wolves was not seen as a glamorous activity. Phoebus’ illustrations reflect this, as he depicts the huntsmen trapping wolves, instead of the nobles engaging them in close combat as they did the pigs. Wolf pelts were sold, but very rarely. Still, the nobles did expend resources clearing their parks of wolves, destroying the British wolf population. There was something about wolves that endangered the noble way of life.

It may be that the cause for the wolf hunt was to further enforce the boundaries of the park. Wolves hunting deer are doing the same thing as peasants poaching on noble property: depriving the nobles of hunting targets. The wolves are just as much poachers as criminal peasants. Pluskowski finds that deer and wild boar made up the majority of the wolf’s diet. As such, the only property the wolves truly threatened were the deer and the boar. With the preponderance of legal protection put in place for the deer, it’s easy to imagine that the gravest anxiety wolves presented was their threat towards quarry populations.

Bravery is often attributed to the hunter in medieval literature. This bravery was required by two aspects of hunting. The first was the physical challenge. Many stories were told of hunters who died in the pursuit of a particularly rare quarry. Theibeaux describes an attraction to the myth of Heracles, who is “forced to expiate his wrongs by pursuing and controlling fantastic and noxious beasts…” As we’ve discussed, most of the beasts that the noble might encounter on a hunt were already controlled and pursued by his huntsmen. To prepare for the hunt, the huntsmen would track down the quarries, prepare a route by placing dogs and men at certain points, and then allow the noble to give chase. The more noxious beasts would have been already killed. Still, there would have been some merit to the idea that the hunt could be dangerous. A wild boar could kill with its tusks, and one famously killed a king of France. However, most of the danger of hunting would have been mitigated by the properties of the hunt.

The idea of the untamed wilderness also allows for a personification of nature. In the hunting legends, hunters pursue their quarries and evade perils and vices. While medieval Europe did not have the same dichotomy between nature and civilization we had today, the wild world was anthropomorphized to hold a seductive danger. The transpierced stag that Theibeaux describes symbolizes this temptation. For this sort of personification to work, there had to be some difference between the woods and the manor. The image of the harried stag, for example, simply can’t exist in a forest where every challenge to its existence has been solved by the owner of the park.

The economic reason for parks was to generate deer and establish larger domains for nobles. A cynical approach to the concept of the park may suggest that the mythologizing of the hunt was necessary for justifying this kind of economic expansion. Today’s national parks also serve an economic purpose, generating tourism money and leasing parts of the park to the lumber industry. Poaching on these parks is still illegal, for the same reasons as it was in medieval times. However, the popularity and importance that parks receive can’t be solely explained by an economic rationale. Scientists carry out real environmental studies in national parks, despite their artificial nature. We genuinely see these places as wild and natural, and the human interference that allows these parks to exist is justified as sustaining this natural environment. With the romantic attention paid to the park in medieval times, the same might be said for then.



  1. There are a lot of ideas at play here, not all of them fully resolved: the comparison between national parks now and the deer parks of the Middle Ages, the effects of deer parks on the landscape, the need to control the wolf population against "poaching" the deer, the symbolism of the "wilderness," the meaning of bravery in the hunt. Do all of these come together somehow? Are they analogous in some way (medieval/modern)? RLFB

  2. I have one point on this that I'd like to bring up, although you have already covered a number of things, so I don’t think it really needed to be brought up here. Instead, just an idea to think with: one thing that stood out to me from our readings on the hunt was “The Stag of Love” piece, in which the hunt was analogized to various social concerns. You mention that the wilderness was “anthropomorphized,” but you don’t really discuss how that may have motivated the particular protocols of the hunt or, alternatively, caused the hunt to be incorporated as a theme in literature, for example. As an early modernist, a really interesting example that comes to my mind is King Louis XV’s “deer park.” He did have an actual deer park, but this term was also used to refer to his mistresses. Similarly, in the medieval era, the pursuit of the hart was compared in many ways to courting and love. Can we see from this a possible identification of women with the wilderness, or anything similar?
    I’d also just like to briefly push on your statement that poaching is illegal in national parks today for the same reasons as it was in the middle ages- I’d say that depends. Some areas are protected from poachers in order to preserve them for “legitimate” hunters, and populations are artificially managed, much like they were in the middle ages. However, I think it’s important to note that we also have specific wildlife preserves and wilderness areas where hunting of any kind is disallowed, which is, I believe, a completely modern concept- that wilderness, or wildlife, needs to be preserved for its own sake or for ecological reason. I think you see this idea coming around sometime in the 18th century or so?

  3. Picking up on this idea of the "anthropomorphized" natural world from this post's penultimate paragraph, I wonder if we might think of hunting literature – both didactic works like Gaston Phebus' treatise and the myriad poetic treatments of the sport – as a taming exercise of its own, a verbal park that likewise mediates between civilization and wilderness. Within the delineated space of the page, and often securely regulated by meter and rhyme, our written “evidence” for medieval hunting culture perhaps bears the same relationship to the activity it describes as the deer park does to the “desert” - the true wild spaces, unfenced and uninhabited. Naturally, all aspects of medieval life dissolve towards mystery at the boundaries of the documentary record. But in the case of the hunt, there is a particularly strong tension between the activity and its outcome or purpose. Hunting today is primarily done for some combination of food, entertainment, and population management. But the medieval hunt adds to these a strong component of ritual, imperfectly understood and seemingly unarticulated even by its most fastidious chroniclers. The quarry, the raven's portion, the parade mimicking the living form of the deer – we know how but not why. Exactly in the places where we would long for a personalized account of participation in these mysteries, a glimpse of beast and beast, we are instead treated to another deer park – the stag of love, the snares of sin. The truth of the matter is differed again to allegory and stock image, and the Questing Beast eludes us once again.

    - SLasman

  4. I want to pick up on SG's suggestion of "a possible identification of women with the wilderness." I read a paper a while back about the conceptual feminization of indigenous peoples and landscapes from the time of European conquest to present day conservation movements. The idea was that Western gender relations formed a template of domination into which both non-Western peoples and environments were inserted, thereby affirming their conquest, the displacement of peoples from "wild" lands, and the subsequent management of those lands. Part of this way of thinking involves conceiving of indigenous peoples as inept or reckless in their utilization of the resources of their environment. I suspect that a similar argument could be made about the establishment of game parks in the middle ages. At the very least. there are many parallels: elites with leisure hunting interests bar people from access to land and resources upon which they subsisted in order to have at their disposal a wild to experience. In both contemporary and medieval cases, the disempowered individuals who previously lived or got their livelihood from the environment or animals of the park are displaced and their activities are re-defined as illegal, irrational, reprehensible and thus, when they continue, subversive. Also, I want to note that the notion of protecting wilderness for its own sake is far from innocent and is, I think, not actually so different from setting land aside for the purposes of hunting. In both cases the idea is to maintain--create--the arena for a wild, dangerous experience. Anyhow, the creation of parks involves taking possession and control of wilderness so that it can be consumed in near ritual fashion by a few. BK points out the "seductive danger" and "temptation" of the wild world in the elite European imagination. Whether it is in going into and hiking in a conserved area or hunting in a game park, the man-wilderness relationship is consummated in man's consumption-penetration of the enclosed, supervised wild. Lastly, without getting too Freudian, I also want to gesture to the sexual aspect of the act of killing an animal. A comparison of the medieval hunt to bullfighting might be insightful. The killing of the animal in the latter, an even more controlled and ritualized hunt/encounter between man and a dangerous, wild (a wildness that has to be induced) animal, has been explicitly compared by matadors to a sexual experience.