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26 February 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 2:56pm

Hunting now provokes revulsion – but in medieval Europe it had very different social connotations

What may surprise us today is the admiration medieval hunters felt for the great boars, even as they chased them relentlessly.

By John Burnside

It is a commonplace that we bring to history the attitudes and moral biases of the present and, for many modern folk, there is every reason to be repelled by the ancient practice of hunting  wild boar, often with horses and dogs, in the forests of medieval Europe. 

At the same time, it is difficult not to wonder how our predecessors tolerated the many severe injuries incurred during these pursuits, and the recklessness of hunting etiquette at the highest level. The largest and most dangerous boars, once cornered, were not despatched with readily available spears, but by a single individual, often a high-ranking noble or even the king, who waded into the fray armed only with a long dagger.

Arthurian romance enthusiasts will recall that Arthur himself engaged in any number of such dangerous sports, managing no more than a draw in his first battle with the enchanted boar Twrch Trwyth, before slaying the Great Boar of Inglewood (singlehandedly, of course) in a later romance. In those hunts, everything was done to increase the risks to the hunter, and it was a mark of honour not to flinch or withdraw, but plunge headfirst into the pursuit. 

What may surprise us now, however, is the admiration medieval hunters felt for the great boars, even as they chased them relentlessly. The Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus reveals an interesting mix of wonder, praise and horror in his accounts: the wild boar, he says, is “so fierce a beast, and also so cruel, that for his fierceness and his cruelness, he despiseth and setteth nought by death, and he reseth full piteously against the point of a spear of the hunter”. When a wild boar is successfully pierced with a hunter’s spear, Anglicus marvels that “yet for the greater ire and cruelness in heart that he hath, he reseth on his enemy, and taketh comfort and heart and strength for to wreak himself on his adversary with his tusks, and putteth himself in peril of death with a wonder fierceness against the weapon of his enemy”. 

These qualities were, of course, exactly those that were admired in the hunter – but, in the case of the human protagonist, it was recognised that some balance was needed, so that he would not slide into unmitigated brutality. This gave rise, in part, to the high traditions of courtesy among Arthur’s companions. (Interestingly, in perhaps the most famous of the romances, Gawain and The Green Knight, during the three days that our hero must courteously resist the Green Knight’s seductive wife, the Knight himself is out hunting boar, among other beasts: clearly, there is more than one way for a knight to test his character.) 

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Yet the boar hunts performed another social function, in showing that, while the forest was wild and dangerous, it remained navigable for those with the courage to enter into its dark and forbidding depths. And when we consider how dark and dense the European forest was at that time, this was an important principle. 

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These days, when so many “hunters” go armed into the wild with all the latest technology and bring home nothing but useless trophies, it is no wonder we tend to despise them for it. But the medieval hunt was part of a different world that, for all its flaws, at least attempted to valorise honour and courage (unlike the long-distance antics of, say, Eric and Donald Trump Jr), as they set out for yet another of their wild-seeming, but perfectly safe pursuits. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy