A Huntsman's Home: Richard Almond Describes How Some Rare Wall Paintings Help Shed Light on Medieval Hunting

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Hunting was an almost universal activity in the later Middle Ages. It provided food and raw materials for the common people and, for the ruling class, food, sport, exercise and a positive outlet for aggressive tendencies. Social status prescribed who hunted which quarry and the methods employed. However, forest court records show clearly that all classes illicitly hunted the three native species of deer. Hunting on horseback with hounds, shooting driven game from stands and hawking were what medieval gentlemen (and ladies) were expected to do, both in their public and private roles. These leisure activities were marks of a 'gentle' or noble birth and education. The Institution of a Gentleman, an anonymous tract of 1568, makes this point:

There is a saying among hunters that he cannot be a gentlemen which loveth not hawking and hunting, which I have heard old woodmen [yeomen foresters] well allow as an approved sentence among them. The like saying is that he cannot be a gentleman which loveth not a dog.

In 1653 Izaak Walton included a commendation of hunting in The Compleat Angler: 'Hunting is a game for princes and noble persons; it hath been highly prized in all ages.' Demonstrating the continuity of aristocratic mores, Walton then cites the medieval conventions of the chase:

Hunting trains up the younger nobility to the use of manly exercises in their riper age. What more manly exercise than hunting the Wild Boar, the Stag, the Buck, the Fox, or the Hare? How doth it preserve health, and increase strength and activity!

For the English aristocracy and gentry, hunting methods remained largely unchanged into the 17th century and beyond. Late-medieval hunting manuals and treatises continued to influence conduct, forming the bases for 'lerned' vocabulary and behaviour and as references for both gentlemen and the professional staff who maintained hunt establishments and manned hunts.

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Literary evidence of hunting and hawking is enhanced by contemporary iconography, particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, paintings and engravings. In contrast, few murals exist in England of such pastimes. Several years ago, quite by chance, I was privileged to view a remarkable, possibly unique, cycle of wall paintings in the Turret Room at Madingley Hall, near Cambridge. Executed by an unknown hand, these lively scenes have remained hidden from the public gaze since their production between 1605 and 1633. The Turret Room is inaccessible to the general public, although some Madingley students have benefited from conducted tours. The three murals show bear hunting, boar hunting and hawking with two panels of decorative work. They were almost certainly commissioned by Sir Edward Hynde, the owner of the hall between these dates and a local enthusiast of animal-baiting.

In both the bear and boar hunting scenes gentleman hunters on horseback and servants on foot use spears to slay the beasts, aided by mastiffs and greyhounds. Bears had been extinct in the British Isles for many centuries, but bear-baiting in 'bear-gardens' (arena-like pits with seating) using hunting dogs was a popular entertainment until the 19th century. Hunting a bear on horseback with a pack of hounds in a park was thus an unusual activity.

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Wild boar were also long extinct in England by this date, although they continued to be regarded as noble beasts by aristocratic families, living on symbolically in heraldry and romances. Boar were especially bred for hunting and kept in semi-captivity in parks.

The incomplete hawking mural illustrates a classic scene of hounds flushing a partridge for a mounted falconer, while a gentleman on horseback flies his bird at a mallard on a lake, a method known as 'hawking at the brook'. …

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