Slaughter and Romance
Hunting Reserves in Late Medieval England
William Perry Marvin
Among discursively defined and contested spaces in medieval rural England, hunting reserves long figured as foci of significant material and ideological investment. William of Normandy must be credited with having imported this once Frankish institution into England in the form of royal forests, a policy that was to have a significant impact on English constitutional history.1 Of comparable cultural moment was how this institution of reserves set a precedent for varied imitation. The next centuries saw a gradual proliferation of privately chartered hunting grounds (parks and zones defined by free chase and free warren), to the extent that by the fourteenth century hunting reserves had become a ubiquitous and characteristic feature of the English countryside.2 Requiring specialized personnel and maintenance, hunting reserves were costly. The cull of venison produced a highly esteemed supplement to table fare, but this alone did not balance the economic investment. Subsidiary material gains came from timber, grazing, and some agricultural use, whereas it was elite sport that afforded the cultural advantages. A potent symbol of the high social status of those who owned them, these reserved spaces figured as wooded arenas in which the high and low nobility might stage their pursuit of the rigorous delights of medieval hunting. The ability to exercise ritual violence in the scope of exclusive franchise, and chiefly for purposes of entertainment, became a significant matter of honor. In the words of Thorstein Veblen, this honor was tantamount to a “high office of slaughter, [which] as an expression of the slayer's prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act.”3 Because of the premium placed on symbolic violence in these sporting sanctuaries, medieval hunting reserves were notoriously vulnerable to trespass.4 This essay addresses representations of violence in these spaces by examining how medieval hunting was textualized in discourses of law and romance.
We can visualize a broad spectrum of factors relating to problems of “social control” in hunting reserves. The secular ritual of the hunt, whose historical development was closely associated with the formal segregation of hunting space,5 required a self-reflexive discipline in the hunter to accommodate its elaborate regimen. Careful attention to speech and gesture showed the hunter's knowledge of the complex codification of