Kzoo 2023: Middle English Hunting Manuals and Natural History

Historiated initial from the Master of Game, master hunter instructing a young trainee, a dog at their feet
Bodleian Library MS. Douce 335, 45v, Master of Game

My paper for the 58th Annual Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo 2023, Session 338, Medieval Ecocriticisms III

Hi everyone. Today I’m offering preliminary observations for my contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Middle English Prose. My chapter is on hunting manuals. I initially approached the assignment by exploring the differences between these works and the animal facts — or lore, if you like — of medieval natural history. Today’s paper is on what I turned up about dogs.

I expected dog facts would differ widely between the two kinds of writing: natural history would present dogs in one way, because it’s primarily a textually retentive tradition, prone to repeating and recombining its sources, whereas hunting manuals, because they begin, or so I thought, in the nontextual practice of hunting, would do things another way. With these two different ways of knowing dogs, we’d develop a new sense of the distinction between scholarly and practical knowledge in the later Middle Ages, and we might in turn improve our sense of what medieval natural history was for. It was a good idea, but not every hypothesis, thank goodness, stands up to the testing. Still, I found some things worth further consideration, which in turn helped me sharpen my knives a bit about some common problems in talking about the so-called animal/human difference, as you’ll hear later.

First, though: on the matter of dogs, hunting manuals and natural history each follow a pattern set down by Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny begins by telling us that the dog is the wisest beast, a point he illustrates somewhat morbidly with several stories about dogs either remaining by their master’s corpse or taking revenge on their murderers. Next follows advice on canine pregnancy and parturition, and then finally remedies for diseases, especially rabies. This is the pattern too for the dog facts of Ambrose’s Hexameron, Thomas of Cantimpre’s Liber de natura rerum, Albert the Great’s De animalibus, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum and its many translations, as well as in anonymous works like the Aberdeen bestiary. What varies is the length, the degree of attention given to particular kinds of dogs, the various remedies for rabies, and the final sentences: Albert finishes his, for example, with what we might call folk magic for dogs — “a stone bitten by a dog and taken with wine forces the drinker to shout”[1]: no doubt — while Bartholomew ends sadly with the sad deaths of old dogs, abandoned and useless, dragged off to wretched drowning in whatever river may be nearby.[2]

The hunting manuals I consulted for today’s talk were, naturally enough, Gaston Phébus’s massively popular Livre du chasse — upwards of 40 manuscripts have survived, several lavishly illustrated — and Edward of Norwich’s c. 1406 Middle English translation as the Book of the Hunt — itself surviving in more than 20 manuscripts — whose best edition remains the 1996 University of Washington dissertation by James McNelis.[3] Throughout, my quotations will be from the Middle English, for ease of use, but because Edward’s translation is generally close to the original, I’m going to call the author Phébus.

Phébus’s dog material follows the model of natural history, at least initially. We have plaudits, stories of human homicidal betrayal and canine fidelity, but now centered on France, and then guidance for healthy births and remedies for rabies and other bodily ills.[4] He diverges from the traditional structure once he begins describing the variety of hunting dogs: running dogs, greyhounds, alauntes, and mastiffs, remarking at various length for each one on their utility, ideal shape, their habitual mood, and relative intelligence.

Phébus concludes his dog facts with a chapter on training professional huntsmen. Here is where I really began to take notice, because Phébus talks about huntsmen and dogs in much the same language. A hunter must be trained from youth in caring for the dogs: in Phébus’s manual, no older than 7 years, in Edward’s translation, slightly older, or even up to 12 years. He begins by learning the dogs’ names and colors, and then to clean their kennel and give them water. A passage new to Middle English says he must be “quick and observant in both field and wood, thoughtful in speech and in the use of technical vocabulary, and always glad to learn, and not be a boaster or a jangler,” than is, a chatterbox or jabberer.”[5] In itself, this is not surprising: attentiveness and discretion are preferred qualities in any guide to good servants and courtiers.

What’s surprising is how this passage echoes earlier rankings of dogs by their suitability for noble activities: mastiffs are ill-shaped and of a “cherlysh nature,”[6] spaniels “haue many euel condiciouns after þe contre þat þei be comen of,”[7] and alaunts are of “euell vndirstondyng, and more folish”[8] than other dogs: each is massive, but also graceless, and thus well-suited for low-status work like guarding households and baiting domestic pigs to tenderize their flesh. Greyhounds, on the other hand, should be “kind and friendly, and clean, glad, and joyful, and playful, enthusiastic and friendly to all kinds of creatures – except to wild beasts, to whom he should be cruel, pitiless, and fierce,”[9] all qualities admired in any good knight. We can observe, too, that a good running dog should “neuer playne naþir youle”[10] without good cause, that is, they too should not be janglers.

And the hunter must be educated just as dogs must be. Dogs must be trained from their youth, “and yf þei lerneþ to cacche when þei been yong, and be noght chasticed þerof, þei shall euermore be lauey [unruly?] and wilde.”[11] They should be taken regularly into the fields, praised when they do well, and beaten when they fail, “for þei be beestes, and þerfore þeit haue nede to be lered to þat þing þat men woll þat þei shull do aftir.”[12] The same could be said for hunters as well, which likewise must be taught to be what they are to be, so to speak, and praised when they succeed and be punished, one presumes, when they fail.

Of course, we could overstate the resemblances between training people and training dogs: Phébus’s detailed attention to the ideal shapes of certain kinds of dogs, whose precision extends so far as specifying the appropriate size for canine scrota, finds no analogy in his description of the ideal huntsman. No wonder: the size and shape of people varies much less than that of dogs.

For now, I emphasize only that huntsmen and dogs belong to a system overseen by a nobleman who funds and oversees the training of all. The manual sees dogs and people both in terms of their function, and both in terms of their trainability — none are simply “naturally” suited for what they do. And behaviors and qualities requisite for the one are requisite for the other: reliability, dignity, and bravery are expected for human and canine alike.

Tracking the echoes between training people and training dogs led me back to what’s by far the longest portion of Phébus’s manual, which I reread with an eye for further human/canine correspondences. Several treatments are specific to dogs, like the recommendation that dogs be spayed to ensure they need no time off from hunting, or a treatment for rabies, passed down from Pliny, that recommends severing the “worm” under a dog’s tongue — that’s the frenulum.[13] This treatment, to my knowledge, was never recommended for humans. Phébus reports that some think a dog can be cured of rabies by applying the plucked ass of a rooster to the wound, and palpating the rooster so it sucks, I guess?, the disease from the dog—if the rooster dies, then you can be sure the rabies has been extracted;[14] by contrast, but perhaps less usefully, the French catechetical encyclopedia Sydrac le philosophe explains that we humans can escape death from rabies by staying clear of rats’ urine.[15]

But Phébus also recognizes that what affects one kind of body can affect another kind too. We see this in his frequent observation that certain canine diseases “streccheth to non oþer hounde, ne to no oþer man ne beste,”[16] an implicit admission that some diseases are general to all, like, famously, rabies. Likewise with cures. Dogs can be cured of lameness in the same way as horses are.[17] Or people: for if a dog’s bones are out a joint, we’re told that someone should be found who knows how to set it right, presumably, someone equally adept with misaligned human bones.[18] Dogs pregnant with unwanted litters should be starved for a while, and then given “titimal” – a variety of milk-wort, spurge, or euphorbia – to end the pregnancy: the herb, Phébus says, was well-known to apothecaries, and thus perhaps also used as a human abortifacient.[19] Phébus models his cures for problems with canine constipation on similar cures for humans: an enema should be administered, “as men done to a man.”[20] He finishes his complicated recipe by explaining that if it’s too hard to understand, an apothecary should be sought out. His final cure concerns various ills that befall the scrotum: the cure, which I won’t describe here, is “a wele good þing for a man, or for ane hors, þat hath his seknes”[21] And with that last sentence, one senses that Phébus’s medicinal advice is not so much particular to dogs as it is focused on dogs: what’s good for the hound is often just as good for the human.[22]

And now, my word of caution, and some general principles: critical animal theorists and ecocritics might respond enthusiastically and somewhat predictably to how Phébus shares vocabulary and methods when talking about the training, care, and taxonomies of both dogs and people. That “somewhat predictably” doesn’t target any particular work. Perhaps cravenly, I aim only at general tendencies. I might have something in mind like Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking Companion Species Manifesto, where a characteristic observation is “Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships—co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners preexists the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all.”[23] But I’m irked less by Haraway’s little piece, because it was so welcome and surprising when it appeared 20 years ago, than I am by habits of thought that follow Haraway’s model loosely—including Haraway’s own more recent work[24]—which tend to seek out entanglements and mutual dependencies amid or just outside what can only pretend to be neat, secure hierarchies, and call it a day.[25]

I’ll set out the temptation first. As is well known, mainstream medieval professional thought insisted on absolute differences between human and nonhuman animals — and not just medieval professional thought, as we know well: we are asserted to be rational, morally responsible, suitable objects for direct ethical concern. Whatever cleverness a nonhuman animal might display can never get them closer to us and our transcendent importance than mere quasi-rationality. In such systems, irrational animals can only borrow from a status from which they are otherwise homogeneously barred.

But in Phébus’s manual, “boundaries blur” in so many ways between young huntsmen and dogs. Each must be trained to join the hunt competently: like the hunting parks themselves, the relationship between human, dog, and entertainment cannot be mapped onto a nature/culture binary but must be understood as one in which everything necessary to the hunt needs training to pass as natural. And in the matter of hunting a hart, when the hounds finally have their prey cornered, it is just about dead, “if,” write Phébus, “þe hunters serue aright þe houndes”:[26] although the dogs might not be morally responsible, they have come to know their task well enough that we are, at this most crucial moment, effectively their companions or servants. No university cleric would ever speak about our failing an animal: not so here. We also know from elsewhere that sick dogs, like sick hawks, were sent on pilgrimage, attesting to a concern for individual animals that hardly matches the dismissiveness of university thinking.[27] With all mess of relations between human and dog, with the training and the medicine, we could very easily insist on all this being a deleuzoguattarian entanglement in which human and dog and park mutually become in the hunting machine.

Before we do that, though, we ought to mark, first, that mainstream medieval university thought — doctrinally supervised, churning along in philosophical ruts laid so deeply and so long ago by Aristotle and the neo-Platonists — is just one approach to the medieval human / animal question. The hierarchy promoted and defended by someone like Aquinas, for example, is not what we find, necessarily, in late medieval aristocratic culture. It’s not entirely absent, of course: when Phébus promotes hunting as healthy for both body and soul, for humans,[28] though he may be just trying to speak the language of clerics to get them off his back, we must note that he’s not suggesting that dogs need to be kept busy too to keep them out of trouble. But does the rest of the work, having left behind one hierarchy, leave behind hierarchies in general? Certainly not: warrior masculinity loved to align with animals — you’ll recall Richard, the lion-hearted, and a host of knights heraldically allied with bears, bucks, and pikes, or Palemon and Arcite in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, fighting like lions and tigers. Everyone in the room presumably knows the story of Bisclavret, where species differences come to matter much less than those between men and one very unfortunate woman. A certain nonhuman indomitable ferocity is necessary to warrior culture. The aristocratic warrior bestialized is still an aristocrat, and more of an aristocrat for all that. Blur one boundary, and if there’s to be any coherence or sense at all, others will slide into view or coalesce into place.[29]

Amid his dogs and huntsmen, all of whom he trains, maintains, encourages, and trusts, as he might his other courtiers, Phébus remains himself, the lord of Foix, the pinnacle of system of exploitation of human and nonhuman resources that we call high culture. Certain animals are for cherishing and training, as certain humans are too. Certain animals are suitable and ennobling targets for the hunt. Certain animals, including some of the hunted animals, are suitable for eating. And certain others, human and animal alike, merit no more than indifferent or hostile attention from the master hunter.

Phébus’s interest in how bodies should be ranked, trained, and cared for, all in the service of the practice of a very corporeal entertainment, leaves the typical concerns of the professional defense of the human largely irrelevant—largely irrelevant but not absent, because, for example, the inedibility of a human of whatever status is very different from the inedibility of a badger, fox, or wolf. Nonetheless, Phébus is doing something different with animals than Aquinas et al did, and, as I sharpen and expand this talk into a chapter, I hope to attend as carefully as possible to internal logic of Phébus’s corporeal know-how, to its notions of what a body can and should do, and how it can be cultivated, and what counts for Phébus as a fact.

Thank you, and thanks in advance for any comments or suggestions.

  1. Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, trans. Kenneth F. Kitchell and Irven M. Resnick, Revised (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018), 1464.
  2. Stephan Batman, Batman Vppon Bartholome His Booke De Proprietatibus Rerum (London: Imprinted by Thomas East, dwelling by Paules wharfe, 1584; Ann Arbor: Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011), 356,
  3. Gaston Phébus, Livre de Chasse, ed. Gunnar Tilander (Karlshamn: E.G. Johanssons Boktryckeri, 1971); James I McNelis, “The Uncollated Manuscripts of the Master of Game: Towards a New Edition” (PhD diss, University of Washington, 1996). The manuscript list on the Arlima website ( needs careful comparison to McNelis’s list. For a serviceable study of the Phébus book, see Hannele Klemettilä, Animals and Hunters in the Late Middle Ages: Evidence from the BnF MS Fr. 616 of the Livre de Chasse by Gaston Phébus, Routledge Research in Museum Studies (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  4. During the q and a for this paper, I was told, I believe by Camile Marcone, that the same pattern obtains for Alfonso XI’s Libro de la montería.
  5. McNelis, “Master of Game,” 229. “both a felde and at woode deliuered and wele eyed, and wele auysed of his spech and of his termes, and euer glad to lerne, and þat he be no bostere ne janglere.” Translations are my own. For more on the care of the good hunter with speech, see 239, “he shall speke but a litill, and boste litill; and werke wele and sotely; and he most be wyse.”
  6. McNelis, 227.
  7. McNelis, 225.
  8. McNelis, 222. On Phébus’s general praise for the intelligence of dogs, in terms that could “caractérise l’homme et le chien, ainsi que le vieux cerf,” see Armand Strubel, “Gaston Phébus et l’intelligence Des Bêtes,” in Miscellanea Mediaevalia. Mélanges Offerts à Philippe Ménard, ed. Jean-Claude Faucon, Alain Labbé, and Danielle Quéruel, vol. 2 (Paris: Champ, 1998), 1290.
  9. McNelis, “Master of Game,” 221. “kynde and goodly, and clene, glad, and ioyfull, and playing, wele wyllyng, and goodly to al maner folks—saue to wilde beestes, vpon whom he shuld be fell, spiteous, and egre.”
  10. McNelis, 215.
  11. McNelis, 218.
  12. McNelis, 214.
  13. McNelis, 201.
  14. McNelis, 203.
  15. Ernstpeter Ruhe, ed., Sydrac Le Philosophe: Le Livre de La Fontaine de Toutes Sciences: Edition Des Enzyklopädischen Lehrdialogs Aus Dem XIII Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2000), 75, “Ou persone ou beste garde soi de la pissace au rat, et ele puet eschaper de la mort” Thank you to Anna Kłosowska for saving me from a howler in my translation. I am still researching medieval rabies cures: I plan to begin with Behnam Dalfardi, Mohammad Hosein Esnaashary, and Hassan Yarmohammadi, “Rabies in Medieval Persian Literature – the Canon of Avicenna (980–1037 Ad),” Infectious Diseases of Poverty 3, no. 1 (2014): 7,
  16. McNelis, “Master of Game,” 202.
  17. McNelis, 212.
  18. McNelis, 208.
  19. McNelis, 199. I am in the process of trying to find another reference to “titimal” used this way.
  20. McNelis, 210.
  21. McNelis, 213.
  22. See an analogous observation about bloodletting, “”On voit, une fois de plus, comment médecine humaine et médecine animale se rejoignent et s’appuient sur les mêmes substrats hippocratiques,” in Jacques Voisenet, “L’animal malade au Moyen Âge : bilan et perspectives de recherche,” in Les animaux malades : En Europe occidentale (vie-xive siècle), ed. Mireille Mousnier (Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Midi, 2005), 57–85,, paragraph 18. For a list of manuscripts on canine medicine with a brief discussion of their contents, see Baudouin Van den Abeele and J Loncke, “Les traités médiévaux sur le soin des chiens : une littérature technique méconnue,” in Inquirens Subtilia et Diversa: Dietrich Lohrmann zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. H Kranz and L. Falkenstein (Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2002), 281–96.
  23. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003), 12.
  24. See my note on her Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016) in my Karl Steel, How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 190–91, n32.
  25. For an allied critique of these kinds of moves, see David Hollingshead, “Domestic Ecology and Autoimmunity: Eugenic Feminism in the Sixth Extinction,” Modernism/Modernity Print Plus 7, no. 2 (2022),, where he writes, “humanities scholarship needs to abandon the assumption that appeals to an entangled world of human and nonhuman actors is necessarily the foundation of progressive politics.”
  26. McNelis, “Master of Game,” 265.
  27. Briony Aitchison, “Holy Cow!: The Miraculous Cures of Animals in Late Medieval England,” European Review of History: Revue Europeenne d’histoire 16, no. 6 (2009): 875–92,
  28. McNelis, “Master of Game,” 140–42.
  29. As I said in a review for Speculum, “[many writers] take as an axiom that categorical strain, instability, openness, and “blurred boundaries” — still such a persistent metaphor — are good, and that constriction, understood broadly, is bad. Each believes, then, that its analysis somehow frees their objects of concern from constraint. I find this logic at least vaguely supersessionary, participating as it does in a language of freedom inherited from, among other places, the Christian scriptures. We ought to be more suspicious of the enthusiasm for “blurriness” or its accompanying fantasies of liberation” (Karl Steel, “Alison Langdon, Ed., Animal Languages in the Middle Ages: Representations of Interspecies Communication; Michael J. Warren, Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations [Review],” Speculum 95, no. 3 (2020): 844–46, I am also indebted to Mari Ruti, The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), who is skeptical of queer notions of self-shattering in, say, Lee Edelman: antisociality doesn’t do away with community altogether!