What a fine hunting day and balmy as May
And the hounds to the village will come
Every friend will be there and all trouble and care
Will be left far behind us at home.
See servants and steeds on their way
And sportsmen their scarlet display
Let's join the glad throng and go laughing along
And we'll all go a-hunting today.
(anon. English folk-song)
The name of the holy St. Francis has been much abused in this century; for the manly and deep-hearted friar, who merited to receive the stigmata and underwent much for the sake of his God and King has oftentimes been transformed into a sickly wall-lily, much given to languishing about in communion with birds and animals. Now fond he was of them, certainly, and all of nature. But when he preached to them, it was because no man would hear what he had to say, not because he thought they were human. This is an important distinction, because St. Francis' name is constantly invoked in the cause of Animal Rights, surely one of the oddest of all the odd causes ever to spawn in this oddest of centuries.
It must be admitted that I am an animal lover. Dogs, cats, horses, mice, rats, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, birds---I have enjoyed them all. But nevertheless, Animal Rights and pseudo-Franciscanism annoy me no end, for one signal reason. Although generally not accepted entirely in Catholic circles, these ideologies have spread quietly the notion that one of the greatest of arts and sports is somehow un-Christian: hunting. Inevitably, we are told of how terrible the notion of the chase is; its cruelty is surely unbecoming to civilized man. Our ancestors, more Catholic than we, knew better. The knights of old were much addicted to hunting with hounds---venery; and with birds of prey---falconry. Disputes between lovers of the two were many, and Leon Gautier describes the case made by a supporter of the former:
|"One may easily perceive...that you have not been accustomed to associate with intelligent animals like my hounds and harriers. The education of one good blood-hound, I can tell you, requires as much care as do all your falcons, and at least the beast is fond of you, and reciprocates your caresses. Do you tell me of your going out hunting, indeed? The really animated and delightful scene is on a hunting morning when we go forth to chase the stag or the wild boar. There is the pack baying round you with the beaters, and the attendants with the relays. The favourite hound is encouraged by name, 'Eh, brochart, hie away, lad.' Then the hounds are uncoupled and set upon the scent of the game. On, on! Then the hunt plunges into the wood, and reposes there in the middle of the day in the leafy glades beneath the overhanging trees.
"Then after a while the baying of the hounds again arises, they are again in the scent, they bark, they bay, they have reached the boar, they attack him! The enormous beast defends himself stoutly and fiercely: he places himself against a tree and rolls over and disembowels ten of the boar-hounds. Blood flows, not only that of the dogs: the boar's blood ensanguines the sward, and the noble blood of the huntsman mingles with it, The hounds redouble their cries and their efforts to avenge their master. The animal is at length overcome; pierced with twenty spears he is nailed to the ground; dead! (Chivalry, pp. 151-2).
This may seem bloodthirsty, indeed; but we do need to remember, firstly, that the world of our ancestors was not the safe place we think of today. Let us go back in memory to Europe of the Merovingian Kings. The barbarian invasions had settled down, and whatever traces of paganry remained were slowly being worked upon. The small towns, villages, and forts linked by dirt tracks across the face of Christendom were islands of light in a sea of wooded darkness, and a squirrel leaping from bough to branch could travel from Brittany to the Urals.
Nor were these the woods we think of today, with their smaller green trees creating a pleasant shade over maintained forest paths; no, these were veritable temperate jungles. Perhaps only one tract of this sort remains today: the Bialowiecza Forest straddling the border of Poland and Belarus. One modern writer has recorded his impressions thereof:
My eyes had to adjust to the gloom under the dense canopy of the trees. My skin registered the drop in temperature and the increase in humidity. (In summer, humidity inside the forest may reach 100 per cent.) My nose picked up the rank, dank vegetable odour of leaf mould, humus, bog water and decaying wood. In that silent place my ears registered every sound, so that even the minutest noise seemed magnified: a pine cone fell on the soft forest floor with a thud like a hammer blow, a maple leaf fluttered down among the branches with a clatter like broken crockery, the mad cackle of a jay and the rattle of a woodpecker echoed and re-echoed between the myriad noise-reflecting surfaces of the tree-trunks like the uproar of a blasphemous congregation in a cathedral. But it was on my innermost sense that the forest made the strongest impression. It seemed to me that in the Bialowiecza Forest one was confronted with a kind of mirror image of the inner recesses of the human mind; and in the continuous cycle of growth, death, decay and regeneration that I saw all around, I was painfully reminded of our own mortality, and of the biochemical function we would each have to perform sooner or later when we give back to the common pool the cells of which we, like all other living things, are composed (Douglas Botting, Wilderness Europe, p. 85).
There were fearful inhabitants in forests of this kind. Most fearsome of all, perhaps, was the aurochs, or wild bull. Ancestor of our modern cattle, it was a large black animal standing six feet at the shoulder with spreading, forwardly curved horns. Just as fearsome was the European bison, forest-dwelling cousin of our own American buffalo. Somewhat resembling our version, it too could be found throughout the European forest. Much smaller but nastier in disposition was the wild boar; hunted with spear, it had a cunning lacking in the large bovines. The great hulking brown bear was smarter yet.
There were the moose, which Europeans call elk; the red deer, the roe deer, and the fallow deer. Lesser game were present also; the genet, the marten, the fox, the otter, the badger, hare rabbit, and squirrel. Nor were beasts of prey absent either---the lynx and wild cat prowled. But perhaps dominant in our ancestor's minds was the wolf. As Fr. Montague Summers writes:
For long centuries throughout all Europe there was no wilder brute, no more dreaded enemy of man than the savage wolf, whose ferocity was a quick and lively menace to the countryside such as perhaps we cannot in these latter days by any stretch of the imagination even faintly realize and apprehend. Whilst yet large tracts of every country, steppes and moorland, sierra and wold, upland, fell and plain, were utterly deserted and only trodden by man with peril and mortal danger to himself, the wolf proved a fearful foe. He dwelt in those formidable forests which long continued his veritable strongholds, fortresses from which he could not be dislodged, Riddlesdale and Bowland, Sherwood and Bere and Irwell in England; Ettrick, Braemar, Rothiemurchus, Invercauld in Scotland; in Ireland Kilmallock, the wilds of Kerry, the Wicklow mountains, Shillela [from which latter place originated the famous Irish walking-stick]; in France, Fontainebleau, Vincennes, the thick-hedged slopes of the Jura and Vosges; in Germany and central Europe the Schwarzwald, the Ahmerwald, the Wald-Viertel, and many more. Monarchs hunted him, and legislated and offered rich rewards for his destruction. But for many a hundred years and a hundred years again did the wolf defy all attempts at extirpation (The Werewolf, p. 22).
But other, less easily dealt with animals dwelt also in the forest, as our ancestors believed; the unicorn, for one, and the dragon. Moreover the fairies and rather more unpleasant characters in the way of goblins and demons could be found there also. While holy hermits might take up their residence in the forest's depths, so too might robbers---and not always benevolent ones like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, all under the merry greenwood tree, either. There too was the mysterious Green Man, a half-human, half supernatural figure analogous in European folklore to the North American Indian Sasquatch or Bigfoot, and the Tibetan Yeti. So it is not too surprizing that in the days of Clovis, everyone was allowed to hunt and to clear what forest he could, regardless of station.
The Kings and nobility, however, had a special responsibility to defend the peasants not only from invaders, but also whatever evil lurked inthe woods. Still, the forest and its denizens were not merely fearsome, they were also valuable resources. Hunting was as good a practice for warfare as was tourneying; moreover, the opponent was not human. As they shrank, forests were set aside for Royal and noble use. Bialowiecza Forest, eventually the last refuge of the European bison, and Jaktozowka Forest, which similarly served for the aurochs (less successfully; the last one died in 1627, although German geneticists have "bred back" animals at least similar in appearance and habits---if one could derive modern cattle from the old animal, could not the reverse be done?) were so reserved to the Polish Kings. The French Monarchs created a whole administration, the Eaux et Forts (waters and forests) to cover the network of forests around the Kingdom: such forests as Fontainebleau, Vincennes, Villers-Cotterts, Retz, and St. Germain were monitored by a large team of foresters. The Louvre was built originally as a hunting box for the pursuit of wolves. In England, even more rigid forest and game laws were passed. As in France, a full civil service of foresters in varying ranks was appointed. Such well known English Forests as the New Forest, Epping Forest,the Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest (home of Robin Hood) and Shakespeare's Forest of Arden were all so set aside. The Holy Roman Emperor himself had a rather similar setup; among his domains was the grand and spacious Forest of the Ardennes. In all countries, small or dangerous game was permitted to commoners to hunt : fox, wildcat, badger, squirrel, hare, and sometimes rabbit or wolf. Landowners could (and were) granted hunting rights on their own land.
This hunting was generally conducted on horseback with hounds---in a manner similar to that of fox-hunting today. Together the hunters would ride after their quarry, signalling to each other by means of horns---when the quarry was first sighted, and so on. Kings and nobles grew to love the sport; Elector John George II of Saxony (reigned 1656-80) was hereditary Lord High Master of the Chase for the Holy Roman Empire, and so loved hunting that he refused the crown of Bohemia because their stags were inferior in size to his own Saxon breed. He established the magnificent Hunt Museum remaining today in Dresden. In this he only emulated Bl. Charlemagne, first of the Holy Roman Emperors. In between fighting at the frontiers of Christendom, the great Emperor would gallop through the forsts in pursuit of game. His city of Aix-la-Chappelle (Aachen) owes its origin to one of his hunting trips. While pursuing a stag across a stream, his horse imnmediately pulled his hoof out of the water and retreated. Examining the leg, Charlemagne found it scalded and the water hot; he built a chapel in the shape of a horseshoe on the spot. After he built his palace there, the city grew up around it. To this day the rotonda around the hot spring is in the shape of a horse shoe, reminding us of its origins. The Emperor was summoned one time to the Vosges mountains, where a bear was terrorizing the neighborhood. With his huntsmen and hounds, Charles pursued him; the bear disabled many of the hunters and dogs. At last, Charles alone standing up to him, face to face on a hill-top, where thethe bear took the monarch in a crushing bear-hug. At last, Charles struck him with his dagger and flung the animal off the precipice. The witnesses cried out, "long live Charles the Great!," which is how he came to be called Charlemagne. Although he was jealous indeed of his hunting rights, he allowed the monks of the Abbey of St. Denis to chase the stags who were overgrazing their woods, on the proviso that the venison would be fed to the postulants and novices, and the hides used to bind missals.
His successor on the throne of France, many centuries later, St. Louis IX was just as great a huntsman. In Palestine during the crusades he hunted lions, while at home he allowed commoners to hunt, provided always that they give a haunch of any animal they killed to the lord of the place. From this comes the custom in Europe today of giving the foot of theslain quarry to whomever leads the hunting party. Louis XV stopped on his way back from his Coronation in Rheims to chase the stag in Villers-Cotter90t before returning to Paris. The martyred Louis XVI was also particularly fond of hunting. Even such Popes as Pius II, Julius II, and LeoX were avid huntsmen, and it was permitted even to religious, so long asthe animals pursued presented a threat either to people or crops.
The chase helped develop the code of honor chivalry had bestowed on the high-born. If hunting for pleasure and not for food, the means at the hunter's disposal must be limited so that the quarry might have a chance to escape; further, wounded animals ought not to be pained more than strictly necessary. Thus even today, one does not shoot a sitting duck or wait for a game-animal to drink at a water hole. The hunting code yet demands that one track down and shoot a wounded animal, rather than leaving it to die in pain if pursuit should be inconvenient. Alongside this code grew up a hierarchy of each "hunt," as a group of hunters, horses, and hounds were and are called. Master of Hounds, beaters-in, and so forth all developed particular roles; similarly, the hunt itself became ceremonial to a great degree, the coup de grace (stroke of grace) being given to the quarry with a ceremonial knife or short sword---designed to be swift and as painless as possible. From hunting has developed much of what we call gentlemanly behavior.