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People > Huntsmen

Huntsmen 1

On this panel the 17th century huntsman sets off for the hunt, a spear in his right hand, a hunting horn hanging below his left hand, followed by five cheerful and enthusiastic hunting dogs.  These are probably running-hounds waiting to set off once the lymers, dogs used for their ability to pick up a scent, have located the quarry.

The huntsman is wearing light armour as he might be in danger of being shot, speared or gored.  Occasionally some of the dogs wore mail, a very little plate armour or leather body armour and a brightly-coloured feather so that the hunters could easily distinguish them from their prey.

The running-hounds needed to enjoy their work because it might well last all day.  The best could follow the scent in the air and on the ground and would not be distracted by the scent of a different animal.  Hunting dogs were highly esteemed and well-looked after and would be rewarded with part of the kill at the end of a successful day’s hunting.

Foxhunt 2

In this scene a fox, identifiable by its bushy tail, is being chased as it is making off with a countryman’s sheep, but its chances of escape seem slim as the dogs are closing in.The countryman, in puritanical garb, is brandishing a weapon as if to beat the fox rather than to spear it.

The man, animals and trees are carved in high relief, while the man’s house and general vegetation are incised into the background, a technique often used on 17th- century panels.  The wood is pared away so that the background is wafer thin and the incisions sometimes pierce right through.  It is a quick and economical way of creating a panel that looks richly carved while keeping the skilful carving to a minimum.

The fox, as today, lived in close proximity to man and was a constant threat to his livelihood, taking domestic sheep, hens, geese and ducks.  As the battle to outwit the fox was part of everyday life men felt a grudging admiration for its cunning and resilience, naming it Renard and giving it a literary role to play in the medieval romance  Le Roman de Renard.

In art the fox traditionally symbolizes cunning and guile and appears on numerous misericords dressed as a person trying to dupe his fellowmen.  He also makes a frequent appearance in La Fontaine’s Fables, some of which occasionally appear in woodcarving.

Wolf Hunt 3

In this fanciful scene a scantily-clad, winged hunting cherub is blowing the horn to summon up help from the rest of the pack while his dog, a mastiff, still on the leash, is pouncing on a lupine dragon.  As in the previous example some of the foliage is scratch-carved into the background of the panel.

In the Middle Ages the wolf had presented a real threat to the rural economy as it would kill animals up to the size of a cow or horse and was strong enough to run off with a sheep or goat in its mouth without fear of being caught unless, as here, a mastiff gave chase.  Wolves, unlike foxes, lived apart from man and were feared and hated, for not only would they kill deer, pigs and stags but they would take children too.  They were widely distributed in Britain and the rest of Europe but, by the 15th century had become much less common in England though they continued to be a problem in Scotland.

France was one of the few places where wolves were hunted with dogs; elsewhere it was usually deemed too dangerous for the dogs, traps and snares being used instead.  In 15th century Germany the wolffenger worked full-time trapping wolves.

By the 17th century the wolf had largely become a creature that figured in superstitious tales: whores were called she-wolves since they destroyed their lovers’ wealth; the Bible refers to false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing; tax-collectors and bailiffs were similarly named.

Boar Hunt 4

This panel shows the critical moment when the hunter is ready to strike with his spear as one of his dogs – an alaunt – bites into the boar in an attempt to bring it down.  As in the other hunting panels the man, animals and trees are carved in high relief while the background foliage is scratch-carved. 

The man is clothed rather casually for such a dangerous encounter but he holds his spear at the correct level and is standing one foot in front of the other and leaning forward in the approved manner.  It is imperative not to let the boar charge at both legs. The huntsman should keep one hand forward on the spear at waist height and the other further back to aim the spear.  This hunter has one hand too close to the end of the spear as if the boar is not killed outright it will have the chance to maul his hand.

The boar is ferocious, fearless, unmoved by pain and capable of killing a dog, horse or man with one stroke.  It could split a man from knee to chest with a tusk and was greatly feared by hunters and dogs alike.  It has two sets of tusks (canine teeth), the upper being 8–10 cms long, the lower 20–23 cms.  In the hunt, however, it was admired for its bravery and stamina which inspired the huntsmen to try to match it for courage.  It would maim many of the dogs during the hunt so more had to be kept in reserve for the final kill.

In art the boar hunt is usually shown as an illustration of a rural pursuit or to demonstrate the courage of the huntsman.

Hare Hunt 5

The English were keen on hunting the hare par force (by scent) though in other European countries hare-coursing (by sight) was more favoured; in the latter case greyhounds were used.  Here the hare is pursued by a running-hound but the hare’s ears and tail are held up indicating that it is feeling strong and confident of escape.  The hunter is blowing his horn to alert the rest of the hunt.

Hares were difficult to track because of their habit of running a zigzag course, retracing their steps and generally confusing the hounds, but this very contrariness delighted the hunters as they watched the dogs unravelling the trail.

Hares were thought to be hermaphroditic as its genitalia are ambiguous. When it appears in art it frequently denotes lust and fecundity and in this guise sometimes sits at the feet of the Virgin Mary to indicate her triumph over lust.