“Who Will Break The Deer?”: Lord and Huntsman in Medieval English Hunting Ritual

“Who Will Break The Deer?”: Lord and Huntsman in Medieval English Hunting Ritual

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“Who Will Break The Deer?”: Lord and Huntsman in Medieval English Hunting Ritual

By Ryan Judkins

Hayes Forum Conference Paper (2009)

Abstract: The Question: The association between the hunt and medieval nobility was so close that the “hunting lord” was a literary and social commonplace. Myth wavers before reality, however, and not all lords enjoyed hunting or were good at it. Nonetheless, the hunt had diplomatic, political and social purposes (one can compare it to the cultural role of golf in modern business practice). So often a lord had to hunt – and, what’s more, had to appear to be good at it. When hunting rituals have been discussed, scholars, such as Susan Crane, have asked what function they fulfill if done properly. What if we ask instead what happens when they are botched?

The Method: This paper brings historical, literary, and technical sources on hunting together to answer how the amateur lord was accomodated, focusing especially on the ritual division of the animal carcass known variously as the “breaking,” the “unlacing,” and the “undoing.” In the process, it engages with both anthropological (mainly Clifford Geertz) and rhetorical perspectives.

The Argument: While medieval literary accounts and the general ideology of hunting consistently portray the lord as the active, central party in the hunt, particularly in the breaking, which is a microcosm of his maintenance of society, the hunting manuals belie this figuration, instead pointing out that the task of the breaking as well as many of the complicated procedures of the hunt were usually the responsibility of the professional huntsman. The manuals create a polite but powerful fiction to compensate for this disjunction, portraying the hunting lord as the one who instructs and supervises the huntsman, but who himself often stands back.

The Conclusion: Through a portrayal of the lord as the supervisor of his huntsman in the hunting manuals, the hunting manuals create a polite fiction that allows the amateur, and perhaps bumbling, lord to maintain his theoretical and ideological superiority without having to display his own (lack of) skill.

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