This weekend marks the beginning of the fall hunting season in Minnesota with the pheasant opener on Saturday, October 15th (2022). Nathan will be heading up to the cabin to chase some of these tasty birds, so we thought it was appropriate to highlight medieval hunting weapons and the rituals of the hunt. There are some awesome historical resources for those interested in medieval hunting, including Gaston Phoebus' "The Book of the Hunt" (1387), "The Master of Game" by Edward of Norwich (1413), and related later texts like the "The Compleat Angler" by Izaak Walton (1653).
Pursuing game was an important aspect of noble life and often involved significant feasting and other social events. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.