Wolf – D.1 – II.3 Gebrauchsschrifttum

Jagdtraktate: Our knowledge of medieval wolf-hunting techniques relies on patchy reconstruction from legal texts, records of collected bounties and hunting treatises, with comparable accounts drawn from recent ethnographies. There are occasional depictions of wolf-hunting, predominantly illustrating texts in late medieval English (→ E.3 II.3) and French hunting manuals. These sources, particularly Gaston Phébus’ Livre de la Chasse, provide us with detailed insights into the range of techniques used to hunt wolves from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. These can, in turn, be cross-referenced with a wide range of sources containing details of specific hunters, equipment and techniques. The hunting treatises also indicate the relative value attached to quarry species. Although caught by peasants, the wolf appears to have been perceived as a viable aristocratic quarry in both late medieval England and France.

The most comprehensive description of the wolf and the range of techniques used to hunt it can be found in a series of chapters within Gaston Phébus’ Livre de la Chasse (1387-1389). This late-fourteenth-century source is particularly useful because it encompasses both aristocratic and peasant methods of hunting. Gaston introduces the ‘nature of the wolf’ with a somewhat eclectic collection of behavioural traits, some of which are well established motifs (ch10). The wolf is presented as an extremely dangerous and intelligent quarry. The section on hunting outlines a range of techniques chapter by chapter, some of which are elaborately illustrated in the best known manuscript of the Livre – MS fr. 616 (1405-10). Par force (ch 55) is the classic form of hunting individual animals from horseback with packs of hounds. This method was favoured by aristocratic hunters pursuing wolves in parts of medieval France, but - judging by the omission of the practicalities of wolf-hunting in The Master of Game - may have been less common in England (CUMMINS, 137). Gaston describes how wolves had to be baited (ideally with living, weak or crippled animals) in order to lure them to a specific spot which could then be surrounded, followed by a targeted pursuit with hounds. Here Gaston states that both aristocrats and peasants actively collaborate in the hunt, the latter motivated by the menace posed by the wolf to their flocks. Other chapters outline methods of trapping. Pitfall trapping (ch 66) involves dropping carrion into a pit and covering it, but leaving a gap big enough for the wolf’s head; the trapped wolf can then be killed or fettered. Seesaw snares (ch 63) could be set up in the middle of a track so that the wolf could not avoid it. A snare was attached to the thin end of a pivoting beam which was held down by a cord. The release beam jerked upwards upon entanglement. The use of bait is a recurring feature in trapping wolves; this could be poisoned or implanted with needles (ch 68). Gaston describes how these could be tied together with horsehair under tension, concealed in small chunks of meat and dropped along a carrion-scented trail from horseback. Wolves would gulp down these pieces and the needles would pierce their intestines. More elaborate techniques include an enclosure trap,  which consists of two high, circular fences of dense wickerwork with a live lamb or kid hidden in the innermost enclosure. The wolf, attracted by the lamb’s bleating, is drawn into the outer enclosure, but the narrow passage means that it closes the door on itself if it attempts to escape. This method could be used to catch wolves alive to train hunting dogs or for baiting. Jaw traps (69) involved camouflaging tense boards which would close and grip the wolf when pressure was applied. Nets (70) could be placed upwind of bait and wolves then driven into them.

The diverse range of techniques described by Gaston reveals an underlying contempt for the wolf. With the exception of pitfall traps set up by communities in response to local wolf presence, it is clear that wolf hunting required a great deal of experience, patience and a relatively sophisticated knowledge of wolf behaviour.

Ausg.: Gaston Phébus: Livre de la chasse (manuscrit français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale), ed. W. SCHLAG, 1998.

Lit.: J. CUMMINS: The Hound and the Hawk. The Medieval Art of Hunting, 1998; A. G. PLUSKOWSKI: Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, 2006.

Aleks Pluskowski

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