In the Medieval period the hunt was seen as excellent training for combat and would often involve the use of hand weapons by the hunter to dispatch the quarry. In the later Middle Ages right up through the modern period specific types of hunting swords evolved that were commonly distinguished from other period arms by the forms of decoration on the hilt which often included naturalistic elements such as acorns, vining "writhen" quillions and grips, and zoomorphic chisel work in the shape of animal heads or hooves.
A hunting sword of Emperor Maximillian I with by knives and sheath, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, mid 15th century
These hunting swords had several uses. First, and most obviously, they were used to kill the animals that were being hunted, a category that included a wide array of beasts, some of which were large and dangerous. In particular, boars, bears, and stags were all very dangerous when cornered and threatened, and a hunting sword offered a backup weapon after using a crossbow or spear. Having such a sword to hand could mean the difference between a successful hunt and a maimed or dead hunter.
Detail of the tip of the hunting sword pictured in the title, showing the lug details.
An 18th century hunting sword with zoomorphic pommel, Metropolitan Museum, New York
The second use of hunting weapons was probably as a defense against other people who one might encounter while on the hunt. Hunting was an elite pastime, especially for those who carried specialized and highly decorative hunting weapons. The expensive horses, hounds, clothing, and accoutrements of the medieval or Renaissance hunting would surely have been an enticing target for Highwaymen, brigands, or even other nobles who might come across such a party in the forest. Famous medieval hunters such as Gaston Phoebus were also commonly involved in warfare with their neighbors in which the primary goal was often to capture and put to ransom any enemies you might encounter. Being armed was therefore and important precaution when hunting.
A hunting scene from the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry
Hunting Sword by Arms & Armor Inc.
Thirdly, hunting swords became a central part of noble hunting costume. In effect, hunting was an elite pastime with elaborate rituals and fashions associated with the practice. Dressing the part was an essential aspect of hunting in a manner that reinforced lordly status.
An Illustration from the hunting book of Gaston III, Count of Foix showing elegant attire
The emphasis on hunting fashion is quite explicit in the medieval sources that are extant. For example, the 15th century Devonshire Hunting Tapestries held at the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as Master of the Hunt, and the Livre de la Chasse, all illustrate lavishly dressed elites participating in medieval hunts. The weapons that were used in pursuit of game displayed the wealth and taste of the hunters just like their clothing.
Hunting hanger done in the style of gothic bough.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.