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Beaver Hunting in the Middle Ages

Beaver Hunting in the Middle Ages

The beaver is one of my favorite species and one that is rather common where I live in Wisconsin.  In the history I usually reenact and blog about here in North America, the beaver was the largest commodity and the main object of desire in the fur trade.  One of the greatest reasons of exploration in French North America was the fur trade and the need to supply Europe with beaver fur and castor.  Historically, beaver were widespread in Europe and were commonly hunted for their meat, hides, and castor glands. Beaver are commonly seen in bestiaries and hunting scenes but rarely show up in treatises on medieval hunting. This may be because they were virtually extirpated from these regions by the end of the Middle Ages when most of these treatises were written. Either way, the beaver is common in North America today and may provide an interesting quarry as well as fur, meat, and castoreum, just like the beaver of medieval times.  As I expand my historical hunting and trapping interests into the Middle Ages, I can not help but think about the possibility of “hunting” beaver as they did during this period.

The Beaver

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is very similar to its more common North American counterpart (Castor canadensis). Eurasian beaver were also called Fibri or “Pontic dogs.” The beaver became extirpated in most of Great Britain by the sixteenth century and earlier in much of continental Europe.

Giraldus Cambrensis reported in 1188 that the beaver was to be found only in the Teifi in Wales and in one river in Scotland, although this appears to be somewhat false as biologists have established that Wales continued to have a significant beaver population up to the late 17th century in Northern Wales and elsewhere in Britain (Yorkshire) until the 18th century. The Welsh law codes of Hywel Dda (ca. 945) mention that beaver skin was worth half a pound or 120 pence, much higher than any other animal (stag and ox hides are 12 pence, marten is 24 pence). The law also says that beaver are reserved for the king because his garments are trimmed with them. Perhaps this indicates scarcity of beaver in certain areas Wales (especially the South) at this time. On the continent, it appears that beaver were extirpated from the more southern regions rather early. Beaver are all but gone in the Northern Germanic states and Denmark by around 1000 AD. In Norway and Sweden, beaver still existed and were hunted into the 19th century.

In Medieval Text

Although the hunting of beaver was not uncommon in Europe, where and when beaver existed, few to no hunting texts mention beaver. This is not surprising as most of our medieval books on hunting come from places and at times where beaver were extirpated. The greatest images and information on beavers in the period come from bestiaries.

The purpose of these bestiaries was to teach religious instruction and give moral stories through Christian allegories of animals. The beaver is a great example of this.   The story of the beaver in most fables and allegories explains that the beaver, when hunted, would bite off its own testicles and throw them at the hunter. The beaver would then roll onto its back to show the hunter that what he desired was no longer there.   In doing this, the beaver gave away the part the hunter most wanted and would be spared to live another day. In these allegories the beaver stands for prudence, proactively taking measures to avoid bad/evil. The beaver is also a symbol of chastity and self-restraint, cutting off the inclinations of sin to prevent evil. Isadore of Seville (d. 636) states that the beaver’s name (castor) comes from the Latin, castrando, meaning castrated.

In spite of over a thousand years of this fable being told in countless sources, it is not true to the natural history of beaver. The beaver does not act like this when being hunted and cannot even bite off its own testicles, as the beaver’s testicles are internal. Additionally, it was falsely believed that what the hunters, apothecaries, etc. wanted from the beaver was its testicles. In truth, they wanted the castor glands, a very testicular looking pair of glands found inside the beaver, near its anus.

The realization of the true natural history of the beaver was present in the Middle Ages. In his Natural History, written 77-79 AD, Pliny says that his predecessor Sextius had previously debunked the myth that “ ‘the animal, when at the point of being taken, bites off its testes’ since the castoreum sacs which are being sought after are inside of the beaver.” Albertus Magnus (d. 1280 Cologne) repeats this saying, “… Indeed, as has often been learned in these parts, it is false that the beaver, having been excited by the hunter, castrates himself by his own teeth…”

Methods of Hunting

Having little to say about beaver hunting in historical documents and treatises, we are reliant on the pictorial record. The beaver hunting that appears in the illuminations of various bestiaries appears to be par force hunting with hounds. Hunters are shown with hunting horns and are usually armed with spears. Amongst the images, clubs, axes, and even bow and arrow are also seen.

Due to the similarity of images and the similarities of the animals, it is very possible that beaver were hunted much like otter. Otter were also hunted par force with hounds. Hunters would get ahead of the quarry and wait along narrow, shallow rivers and streams where they could then spear the otter as they passed. Tridents and common spears were both used for this hunting and occasionally nets were used across the river in order to assist the hunters in spearing the fast moving otter. This type of otter hunting continued in Europe through the 18th and 19th centuries and can be seen in paintings of those periods as well. In ponds and lakes, otters were trapped, often with snares.

Although these methods of otter hunting appear to be what is shown in the beaver hunting images of the period, it is possible that this form of hunting is incorrect. Par force hunting for otters using hounds works due to the fact that an otter will often range miles from their home, travelling across land and water. Beaver, however, rarely range far from their homes (other than a short while in the spring when the yearlings are forced to leave their family’s home) and quickly disappear into water and their homes when threatened.

Looking at the period images of beaver and how inaccurate they are, it is likely the artists had never seen a beaver hunted. Also, with many of these images coming from periods and areas were beaver hunting was less common, they may have just assumed they were hunted like otter due to their similar nature.   In spite of this, many elements of the beaver hunt are likely correct. The use of snares and nets where beaver dwell would be a very successful means of catching beaver. Beaver could certainly have been speared with tridents and single pointed spears, shot with arrows, or even bludgeoned with clubs or axes. Hounds may have been used some for the location of beaver and where they frequent. These methods were well chronicled as common in North America during the 17th-18th centuries.

Recreating the Medieval Beaver Hunt

Beaver are fairly common in most of the United States and Canada today. Most states and provinces allow for trapping and hunting of beaver in varying levels of strictness and with varying regulations.   Due to this, and the fact that beaver were commonly hunted in many areas during the Middle Ages, beaver are a potentially interesting quarry for us today. Beaver meat is delicious, the fur is luxurious, and many other parts of the beaver have practical applications.

In Wisconsin, residents are allowed to trap beaver in a variety of ways, including with the use of snares. Snares are the most historically correct of modern methods allowed for most people in Wisconsin. To be legal today, snares must be made of aircraft cable less than 1/8 inch in diameter. Although of a modern material, the use of these snares, the method of setting them, and how they function is the same as in the Middle Ages.

Most methods of snaring beaver have the beaver held but living when the trapper/hunter returns. Methods of dispatch could then be done with the aforementioned hunting weapons. In Wisconsin, a simple club or the backside of an axe would be very efficient and legal. The hunter/trapper would only have to approach the beaver in its snare and position their self where they could give the beaver a blow to the head.   Using the same club or axe, the animal could then be pushed underwater until it is sure the animal had expired.   This would follow the methods likely used by medieval hunters.

Owners, lessees, and occupants of property in Wisconsin have more liberal regulations in “removing” beaver from private property. According to state law removal means to “capture, shoot, set a trap for, relocate, or otherwise destroy or dispose of.” This potential opens up the use of bow and arrow or spear as well. Both of these were used historically and are recognized medieval hunting weapons for beaver. Regulations mention use of rifle and shotgun and only restrict the use of explosives and poison.  Arrows and spears appear to be legal for hunting if you are an owner, lessee, or occupant of private land.

Conclusion

Although seemingly forgotten by chroniclers of the historic hunt as well as by modern “medieval hunters,” the beaver is a very historical and potential quarry for the modern medievalist. Beavers are an intriguing animal with a fascinating history and lore. Hunting them can be enjoyable and rewarding, providing a range of products such as their fur and delicious meat.

One Response to “Beaver Hunting in the Middle Ages”

  1. Robert W. Walker says:

    Beaver is what motivated the tremendous profits of the Hudsons Bay Company. Early on, the French, in what would become Quebec Province, hunted this fascinating creature for it’s beautiful fur. They are extremely intelligent Engineering Masters. Cores taken from original 1/4 mile dams in Northern Quebec shoe histories of 5,000 years. This is awesome! Here, in Colorado the Beaver is healthy and their communities are thriving. Your article is excellent and proves the Beaver in Europe will be with us for a long time to come. See: Hairy Wet Rodent Day in Canada.

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