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.