The medieval huntress

New research (as of 2009) has revealed that hunting was far from a male preserve in the medieval and Renaissance periods. Richard Almond looks at images that illustrate the various roles played by women

Detail from the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, showing hawking. Made in Tournai in the 15th century. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine

Hunting for sport, food and raw materials was a universal occupation in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, medieval hunting manuals and treatises, as well as contemporary narratives and romances – the vast majority of which were written by men – present hunting as the exclusive leisure prerogative of noble educated males. These sources ignore women’s roles in, and presence at, the hunt – and disregard any significant involvement of the commons (those who were not clergy, nobility or knights).

This article was first published in the December 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Hunting for sport, food and raw materials was a universal occupation in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, medieval hunting manuals and treatises, as well as contemporary narratives and romances – the vast majority of which were written by men – present hunting as the exclusive leisure prerogative of noble educated males. These sources ignore women’s roles in, and presence at, the hunt – and disregard any significant involvement of the commons (those who were not clergy, nobility or knights).

Even the most high-ranking women lacked a literary voice, so, initially, the case for women hunting appears difficult to pursue. However, despite the paucity of textual evidence, it is self-evident that women at all social levels must have contributed to a basic activity which supported economically both the rural and urban communities.

Aristocratic ladies pursued deer on horseback with hounds, and shot driven game

Newly interpreted evidence drawn from art historical sources – particularly illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, paintings, carvings, engravings and prints – shows that women from all ranks of society were engaged in hunting in all its forms: aristocratic ladies pursued deer on horseback with hounds, and shot driven game; while peasant women netted birds, ferreted rabbits, and poached and distributed venison.

Women are often depicted in images alongside men, usually as their companions, assistants or, significantly, as learners; but they are also shown hunting and hawking alone, or with female companions. Although it has been argued by more traditional historians that many of these images are satirical, representing the ‘world upside-down’ notion so beloved of contemporary male commentators, a significant number undoubtedly portray what women were actually doing in the countryside.

Given the overwhelming corpus of illustrative evidence, it is fallacious to accept images of ladies hawking as ‘reality’, while dismissing all, or most, of those of women hunting as ‘unreality’. A miniature from the Romance of Alexander in the Bodleian Library (main picture above) clarifies this issue. On the left, two ladies are hart hunting on foot: one holds two leashed hounds and blows a hunting horn while the second thrusts a cross-hilted hunting spear into a hart held by her hound. On the right, two ladies are hawking: one falconer recalls her hawk by swinging a lure, and her companion holds a long staff; meanwhile, two hawks swoop down on a wild duck sitting in a pond. It’s probable that both these pictures are telling the audience what noblewomen did – rather than did not – do.

By interpreting images, used alongside textual sources, we are able to clarify our understanding of the culture of hunting and food collection – by both men and women – in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We now know that women had significant roles to play, and these were dictated by their gender and social status.

The courtly huntress

The general impression gained from late medieval and Renaissance art sources, as well as some romantic literature, is that high-ranking women were often to be seen in the hunting field. Most recent historians agree that hunting and hawking were high-status social activities expected of aristocratic women. Hunting to hounds was, and continued to be, a typical courtly activity which involved the active participation of women, if they so desired.

Notable examples of royal and aristocratic huntresses include Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II; Mary of Burgundy, the young wife of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who died as a result of a hunting accident; and Mary I and her sister Elizabeth I. Both of Henry VIII’s daughters were applauded by their male peers as ‘lerned’ in hunting knowledge and as skilled, courageous huntresses of deer.

Many of Elizabeth I’s contemporary admirers, including Sir Walter Ralegh, regarded her as a chasseresse, the living embodiment of Artemis or Diana, goddess of hunting. This was a recurrent notion: the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, mistress of the French king Henry II, had herself portrayed in marble (pictured here) reclining on a hart with her favourite hounds as The Diana of Anet (1550–54), and as Diana the huntress in several portraits. Marie de Rohan-Montbazon (1600–79), Duchess of Chevreuse, another keen huntress, was famously portrayed in oils as Diana.

Yet not all men were impressed by the image of the brave, sophisticated huntress. Torquato Tasso argued in his Discourse about Feminine Virtue (1582) that some royal women [from the 16th century] were really men by birth and that they should be judged as such. In doing so, he reflected not only contemporary chauvinism but also perhaps an unease of women’s skills in traditional male preserves such as hunting.

Ladies as audience

Many contemporary images present women in a purely passive role, apparently as part of a decorative audience, admiring and applauding the exploits of husbands, lovers and male relatives.

There appears to be little doubt that female approval, applause and even adoration were important to the aristocratic medieval hunter and sportsman, as they were to the tourneying and questing knight, as indicated by romantic narratives and poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The four hunting tapestries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the Devonshire Hunts, illustrate this point clearly. Probably made to celebrate an aristocratic marriage in the mid-15th century, the tapestries contain many vignette scenes of aristocratic ladies watching and admiring the various hunting activities of their husbands and lovers. Unsurprisingly, sex emerges at the ceremonial climax of the hunt. While watching the breaking up of the hind and the curée or feeding of the hounds by the hunt servants, several noble hunters and their ladies are caught indulging in enjoyable love-play.

Ladies as learners

The Florentine, Antonio Tempesta, (1555–1630) was a painter, draughtsman and printmaker, one of whose interests and specialities was the portrayal of hunting methodology. Much of his work has a didactic theme, clearly indicating that some courtly women were taught the arts and skills of hawking and hunting by older men and in a significantly different manner from aristocratic males, who were traditionally instructed from an early age as part of their formal education.

In Hunters with Crossbows Shooting at Birds (right), the hunters, accompanied by their hounds to pick up the fallen quarry, shoot at birds flighting or perching in the treetops. A courtier, his left arm around her shoulder and right hand pointing at the quarry, instructs and guides his lady, who is holding a loaded crossbow and peering upwards.

Peasant women as assistants

The main female contribution to most peasant hunting activities appears to have been acting as able assistants, rather than actually killing quarry. A 15th-century Burgundian tapestry of peasants ferreting rabbits shows that it was the men who netted and dispatched the animals from a warren.

The Hare Hunt (right) by David Vinckboons (1576–1633) illustrates the close relationship between men and women of both classes. The courtly hunters are superbly mounted and elaborately dressed for the occasion, whereas the servants – a man and woman – are plainly dressed for their messy job of paunching hares. Their task of slitting open the hares’ bellies and taking out the guts is portrayed with detailed accuracy. This is an unusual illustration in that it shows a man and woman from the commons using the same skills to perform a specialised task in the hunting field.

Peasant women poaching and hunting

Thirteenth-century forest court records show that some peasant women were involved in poaching venison. The few cases appear to have been the result of opportunism, such as when, at night, deer moved from the cover of the forest into the fields, orchards and even gardens of peasant communities in search of food.

The crop damage deer caused was much resented by the peasantry – yet deer were protected by Forest Law wherever they roamed. The obvious solution – with the added attraction of fresh venison – was to take such trespassing beasts covertly. The records indicate that peasant women assisted their menfolk in killing isolated deer and picking up dead and wounded beasts from the courtly hunt, rather than doing the killing themselves. This is not to say they didn’t take the lives of less dangerous quarry. Peasant women were, after all, used to wringing the necks of chickens, ducks and geese, as well as trapping and netting wild birds for extra protein and feathers.

Images of peasant women engaged in hunting are unusual. The ruling classes rarely commissioned artists to record the activities of peasants, so their appearance in artworks is almost always peripheral to the main courtly subject. However, although the Bodleian version of the Romance of Alexander manuscript is overwhelmingly aristocratic in theme, an unusual marginal illumination (above) shows a young woman engaged in two methods of hunting traditionally carried out by the peasantry.

On the left, the girl calls to two songbirds flying above her. She holds cords which are tied to a tree-stump upon which rests a decoy fox, probably a dead or stuffed animal. Clamouring birds are descending to mob the predator. A medieval audience would have undoubtedly realised that the cords are covered in bird-lime, a sticky substance made by bird-hunters from lime sap, employed to ensnare birds.

This method, used from time immemorial to the present day, was widely employed to catch songbirds, not only for food but – perhaps more importantly for personal and local economies – also for sale in the urban markets, particularly London. By the woman’s side is a wicker basket with its door open, ready to receive the birds once caught and removed from the birdlimed cords. On the right, two songbirds fly near a tree; a youth approaches carrying a large partitioned bird cage and over his shoulder a smaller cage on a stick, used to house and transport songbirds of various types and sizes.

A married woman had immunity under Forest Law at the eyre courts (medieval courts that travelled from county to county), as she was considered to be under her husband’s control and so could not be held guilty of any offence she committed. Using this legal immunity – known as femme covert – was convenient for unlawful husband-and-wife business partnerships in which the man poached venison and other game and his wife received it, selling it on the black market. Thanks to femme covert, historians can only guess at the extent to which peasant women were actively involved in poaching and the receiving and distribution of venison and other game meat.

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Richard Almond is an independent scholar and author of Daughters of Artemis: The Huntress in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (DS Brewer, Cambridge, 2009). His research interests are centred upon hunting in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.