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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Recreation and Predation

Hunting Scene, Jerusalem, 12th century

You know how some things are etched as if by a red-hot brand into your memory, and when little else can be recalled there is some sound, or vision, or smell that is retained as sharp as the moment it was experienced. I once lived for about half a year in a tiny apartment in Cassia, a suburb of Rome. I hardly remember a single event while I lived there, and my recollection of the apartment itself is limited to a handful of vague details: a small balcony, white stucco walls, a thorny pot plant with red flowers, a picture window... little of substance. But one moment is so clear in my mind that although half a century has passed, I can still see it in perfect detail. A crisp, bright, clear and cloudless sky, rooftops of terracotta tiles, cypresses like dark flames, distant buildings, a church tower, a dome... further away, mountains. And across the middle distance there is a low grassy hill with some bushes and small trees. And I can see two men walking with a dog. The air is clear, incipient Spring, and I can see the tiny figures as sharply as if I am viewing them under a microscope. Suddenly, one man raises a rifle, aims. I think I can hear the distant crack. And they are gone, disappearing into the trees.

In times of food shortages hunting is an understandable necessity. In the age of hunters and gatherers, before man learnt how to farm, hunting was essential, and it has always been a means of supplementing other food sources. In modern societies hunting is sometime carried out for conservation purposes, as a means of protecting an environment overrun by a particular species, and in order to preserve other species, natural vegetation, livestock or crops. But somewhere along the way man has learnt to regard it also as a form of entertainment. The English foxhunt, now happily discarded, and "big game" hunting, sadly still permitted in many places, are misguided activities that have no other purpose than to provide an excitement that could less harmfully be found in a game of football or chess.

Hunting in the Latin East was often a pleasurable pastime rather than a necessary means of providing food. Only rarely were efforts made to regulate and control it in any way. A statute in the Rule of the Temple stipulated that it was "forbidden to hunt a bird with another bird".* This ruled out falconry, a very popular sport in the East, but one that was hardly suited to the monastic lifestyle of a military order as it was "...not fitting for a man of religion to succumb to pleasures". Hunting in general was not favoured by the military orders: "...we command especially all brothers not to go in the woods with longbow or crossbow to hunt animals... nor spur on a horse out of a desire to capture a wild beast". It was, however, perfectly acceptable to hunt a lion: "for he comes encircling and searching for what he can devour". But in lay communities there were few such restrictions, and among noble society hunting was deeply ingrained. The German pilgrim, Ludolf of Sudheim, visiting the crusader kingdom of Cyprus around 1340, recorded that the royal court and nobles residing in Nicosia engaged daily in hunting, their choice prey being the famous wild Cypriot ram or mouflon (Ovis gmelini ophion) which they caught using leopards (domestici leopardi, probably actually cheetahs - Acynonyx jubatus).** Nicholas Martoni, a notary from Campania who arrived in Nicosia towards the end of the century wrote that King James I had twenty-four leopards and three hundred hawks of all kinds, some of which he took out every day to hunt.***

King Fulk, like most Frankish nobility had been particularly fond of falconry. Usama Ibn Munqidh recalled a gift of a remarkable goshawk given by the king to the amir of Damascus.**** The king was also responsible for issuing a law relating to lost falcons. It is interesting to consider that the identification of the famous Melisende's Psalter, today in the British Museum, as being a gift from Fulk to the queen, is partly based on the appearance of a falcon carved on its beautiful ivory cover. "Fouque" was the Old French form of the word "falcon", as well as being the king's name. It is perhaps ironic that while he expressed his love for his wife with a form of the falcon, Fulk would pay for his love of hunting with his life, albeit in a rather unexpected way. In the Middle Ages the forests of the Holy Land still harboured some dangerous animals, lions and bears, and hunting had its risks. But even encounters with more harmless prey could result in unexpected disaster. In 1143, while the royal court was in Acre, Melisende, finding herself bored with court life decided to leave the city and visit, in the words of William of Tyre, "a place in the suburbs where there were many springs."***** The king accompanied her along with a retinue of servants, and when one of them disturbed a hare lying in a furrow, Fulk joined the spontaneous pursuit. His steed, "driven by reckless speed", stumbled and in the fall the king was thrown head-first to the ground and his heavy saddle thrown free struck his head a mortal blow. He died three days later, never regaining consciousness.

Detail of ivory cover of the Melisende Psalter in the British Library, Egerton Ms 1139 [Wikimedia, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

* Janet M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge, 2002, pp. 32-33 for this and the following quotes.

** Claude Delaval Cobham, trans., Excerpta Cypria. Materials For A History Of Cyprus, Cambridge, 1908, p. 20.

*** Ibid., p. 26.

**** Usama Ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, trans. Paul M. Cobb, London, 2008, pp. 205-6.

***** William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, vol. 2, 15.27, p. 134-35.

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