Hunting in the medieval period was a sport exclusive to royalty and the aristocracy, and was more than a pastime. The elaborate rituals of the hunt were an integral part of court etiquette, and skill in hunting was regarded as the peacetime equivalent of prowess in chivalric wars. The supply of game was essential to ensure the variety of dishes necessary for the tables of the nobility.
Very little costume survives from this period, but this tapestry gives a good indication of the extravagant fashions of the Burgundian court – the nobles wear costly silks and furs rather than practical hunting clothes.
Wild boars were pursued for both sport and meat. Their size, strength and sharp tusks made them a dangerous quarry. Nobles lavished large sums of money on packs of specially bred hounds. Bears were hunted for sport only, and wild bears had already been hunted to extinction in England by the time this tapestry was woven. Like boars, they were dangerous. In 1391 Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix and author of a popular hunting manual, was killed during a bear hunt. Boar hunts usually took place in winter, though the tapestry shows a hunt set against a background of woodland in springtime. This was probably so that during the winter months the tapestry could bring colour to the interior in which it hung and remind people of more pleasant months ahead.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This poem, thought to have been written towards the end of the 14th century, is one of the finest surviving examples of Middle English poetry. Sir Gawain is one of the Knights of the Round Table, and the opening scenes of the poem are set at King Arthur's court at Camelot.
The poem's themes of bravery, chivalric virtue and courtly love are reflected in numerous objects in the V&A's collections. Hunting scenes were frequently depicted in medieval and Renaissance art, and like those depicted on the Boar and Bear Hunt tapestry, were often used as a metaphor for love and desire. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, scenes of courtship and hunting are skilfully and deliberately juxtaposed. Its vivid description of a lord's boar hunt is both a realistic depiction, conveying the thrill of the chase, and an ironic counterpoint to attempts by the lord's wife to seduce their guest, Sir Gawain.
In the audio below, the poet Simon Armitage discusses the boar hunt scene in Sir Gawain, and reads an excerpt from his translation of the poem.
Renaissance hunting songs
Hunting scenes were common subjects in medieval and Renaissance art. The excitement of the hunt was also captured in a special type of song known as a caccia, from the Italian meaning 'hunt' or 'chase'. In this example, the voices of the two singers seem to chase one another and are accompanied by a lute played with a plectrum. These types of song were written from the man's point of view and were sung by men. This caccia is called Hounds At Court and Dogs in the Forest. The Italian words vividly describes a hunting expedition; with sounds that evoke dogs barking, hunters shouting and horns calling.
The caccia was particularly popular in the 14th century and was written for the enjoyment of the European nobility; an audience that appreciated music, poetry and hunting.This recording was made by the Royal College of Music especially for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries thanks to an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.