It ought to be remembered, though, that for our ancestors in Catholic times, all aspects of life were symbolic of higher things; of these the chase was full. The horse and rider represented Christ; the horse corresponding to His humanity and the rider to His Divinity. The hounds were emblems of loyalty, and so a dog is often depicted at the feet of loyal wives' and vassals' effigies on their tombs. The white stag symbolized Christ, after Whom all must hunt in this life; moreover He protects the Catholic family, His spouse the Church and His children the faithful, even as the stag defends his does and fawns. Wolves, believed to derive strength from the light of Moon, stars, and lightening, might be seen again as a token of Christ, Who also is strengthened by light. But more often the wolf symbolized the forces of evil. So too was the wild boar called the symbol of Anti-Christ and evil. In those places where its chase was restricted to the King or the Princes of the Blood Royal, their victory over their prey was seen to symbolize the conquest of Satan by Christ the King. For this reason also, a boar's head would be brought in with great solemnity and song to the high tables of universities, palaces, guilds, and manors at Christmas; Christ's birth having vanquished sin, the boar's head was as much a trophy as a Christmas dinner. The custom yet remains among certain English guilds, and Queen's College, Oxford.
What of the more marvelous if seldom seen quarry, unicorn and dragon? The unicorn was seen as symbolic of Christ in His love of virginity (for it was said that he who would hunt one must needs have a virgin attract the beast). The horn too brought Christ to mind, symbolizing Our Lord' s divine power : "But my horn [force] shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn" (Psalm 92:10). The huntsmen who would pursue the unicorn must use a virgin as lure, even as we who would gain Christ must do so with the help of the Virgin with Whom He was pleased to dwell. Such a forest as legend-haunted Broceliande in Brittany, where a fairy maid had lured Merlin into captivity and a magic fountain gave powers unearthly to those who drank of its pure water, was often considered to the haunt of the unicorn.
The dragon too was an emblem---of evil. Numerous saints had battled them, starting with St. George, peerless flower of Knighthood. But so too had less exalted knights; the last dragon killed in England, it was said, met its fate in St. Leonard's Forest in 1416 (a couple of friends and I went on a dragon hunt of our own in that pleasant wood in 1992; none of the reptiles turned up, but a deer rushed out of a culvert, which for us was just as exciting!).
In the realm of legend, hunting was as important a pursuit as anywhere else. The fairies were held, like humans, to have Kings and courts, which went in their turn on hunts and processions. These were often confused and confounded with the "Wild Hunt," a phenomenon known to all of Christendom. The rush of fierce wind was seen as this particular eerie band's passage, chasing some strange spirit animal. If any scoffer halloed them, he might be forced to join the others forever, or else be thrown some grisly trophy; in one tale, it was the man's own infant. The chief huntsman's identity varied considerably, and with it the activities of the pack. Some said it was Satan, others Death or Odin. But in many places an actual historical character was given the credit. In Germany's Odenwald, it was a certain Count von Rodenstein; in the northern Black Forest a Countess von Eberstein did duty. Le Grand Veneur, the Great Huntsman, haunted the Forest of Fontainebleau; he was encountered once by France's King Henry II in an extremely frightening encounter. Gwyn ap Nudd coursed through the skies of Wales and the West of England; King Herla did the same in most of England, save around Windsor where Herne the Hunter held sway. The story is told of a saintly Scottish Capuchin, one Fr. Lesly, that after he was buried on a hill much haunted by such a chase, it was heard never more---the folk around attributing this to the holy relics. But a good doctrinal explanation of the wild hunt is given in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. Describing an incident in 1091 (he was writing in the 1130s), Orderic wrote of how a priest in Normandy had encountered a line of horsemen and women undergoing varying tortures administered by demons. Many were dead folk whom he recognized, some of good repute, others less so. Orderic concluded that riding with this hunt was a means of serving out one's Purgatory.
In parts of France and the Black Forest, however, the Wild Ride was called St. Hubert's Hounds. During harvest season, and on his feast day (November 3), the Saint's four horses, each without bit or bridle, and mounted by four knights in black armor with visors down might be heard as they galloped over the trees.
Whatever the identity of his hounds, horses, and their dark riders, the Saint himself is well known as the patron of hunting. Devoted to thechase, he was pursuing a stag on Good Friday in the Ardennes, when between the animal's horns appeared a crucifix from which spoke Our Lord, commanding him to give up the world and devote himself to God's service:
After the mysterious stag had revealed Christ to Him, he became, from a hunter of wild animals, a hunter of souls; and merited to be called the apostle of Ardenne, whose forests had often echoed to the baying of his hounds. He became the disciple and successor of St. Lambert; and transferring from Maestricht both the relics of the holy martyr-bishop and theepiscopal See, he raised Liege from an obscure village to a great town. His blessed death took place on May 30, 727; and on November 3, 743, his precious remains were taken up for the first time, which led to the celebration of his feast on this day. In the following century, the Abbey of Andain was put in possession of the sacred deposit, and took from him the name of St. Hubert, as did likewise the town which sprang up around andsoon became a centre for pilgrimages. Two orders of knighthood were established in honour of St. Hubert; the first perished with the fall of the Bourbons, its last chiefs; the other still exists, and the Kings of Bavaria are its Grand Masters [since their deposition in 1918, the head of the Bavarian Royal House has continued to preside over the order] (The Liturgical Year, vol. XV, "Time After Pentecost," bk. VI, pp. 164-5).These two last were the most famous of a large number of knightly orders and brotherhoods of St. Hubert, who were popularly supposed to have themselves the power to cure rabies. Although now long since a basilica,its abbey having been abolished, the splendid church of St. Hubert in the Belgian Ardennes remains the center of devotion to this patron of hunters, who guards against rabies.
St. Hubert's day is the formal commencement of the hunting season even today in Catholic Europe. All the hunting hounds of the neighborhood are brought to church for his Mass, at the elevation of which the hunters, resplendent in their green or red hunting jackets, sound their horns. At the end of the Mass, the priest goes down the aisle, and another note is played, after which the dogs rush out of the church into the yard. There the priest, having blessed special St. Hubert's Bread, Water, and Salt, against rabies (with a formula found in the rituale) administers the same to the dogs. The huntsmen, parishioners, and hounds are then all blessed. It is traditional to offer to St. Hubert the first fruits of the hunt. In the Middle Ages, not only this feast but the Saint's conversion,death, and translation of his relics were similarly marked by the various brotherhoods and orders, who maintained, as did the guilds of the day, their own special devotions and rites, emblematic colors, and so on.
These Masses are still offered, most notably at the basilica. But in Brussels, the old church of Notre Dame de Sablon plays host to it, for all that this parish is in the middle of the capital. In France they are widespread---Gary Potter witnessed one at the Chateau d'Arthies in theIle de France, and saw in its wonderful combination of the Faith and civilization a major reason for his eventual conversion; the Abbey of Chaalis near Chantilly plays host to a similar Mass. The Hubertus Messe's continuation in Germany was attested to me by my friend Axel Mullers who attended once in his hometown of Duisburg. Here we have then a rite whichunites all the diverse cultures of Christendom.
The saint is still resorted to for cures of rabies. Bestowed upon him was a miraculous stole, woven by Our Lady herself. The cure is accomplished by inserting under the patients skin a thread of the same stole, preserved at the basilica of St. Hubert. No less an authority than Louis Pasteur prescribed this treatment in addition to less spiritual measures.
At the basilica itself, the Brotherhood of St. Hubert maintains its headquarters. Its aim is to honor St. Hubert, and "to obtain, through his intercession, the removal of all scourges (particularly of rabies), the eradication of all sacrilege, and the conversion of sinners." Admissionto the Brotherhood is done by being inscribed in the register at the basilica; the rituale has a formula for this. Members are to pray often to St. Hubert and wear his medal; celebrate his feast by attending Mass, confessing, and receiving Communion; and make at least once in their lives the pilgrimage to St. Hubert. In return they receive the Saint's special protection, participate in the merits of all the members of the Brotherhood, and may avail themselves of the Masses for all dead members said during the Octave of All Saints, the monthly Requiem said for all who have died in the month, and the many indulgences bestowed by the Pope. These include plenary indulgences on the day of entrance, at death, and on St. Hubert's Day, and partial indulgences for other pious acts.
Sadly, although much of the Catholic ritual of hunting continues on the continent, and is assisted by such notables as the Duke de Brissac (Master of the Fontainebleau hunt), the Reformation took away much of these In the British Isles, for example, while much of the secular show of the chase remains, with horns, red coats, and all, the religious element is gone. The stirrup-cup is a reminder of the blessed wine once used as a sacramental at the hunt's commencement. This change is particularly ironic in Ireland, which, while the vast majority are Catholic (as are a number of the hunters) the tradition of the chase is maintained by the Protestant Anglo-Irish. This is the case also here in America, where formal hunting in such places as New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina slavishly follows the post-Reformation English style. Less formal hunting has even less connection with its roots in Christendom. For the English, the hunting season begins the first weekend in November, ignoring St. Hubert entirely. Still, as late as the 1930s, the W.P.A. Guide to Maryland was able to report that at the Carroll ancestral home, Doughoregan Manor, which boasted a Catholic chapel (reminder of the family's religion until all of Charles Carroll of Carrollton's children married outsidethe Faith), "On Thanksgiving Day, members of the Howard County Hunt Clubattend pre-hunt services here, perpetuating an English custom of blessing the hounds" (p. 331). Not so English a custom anymore, perhaps, but encouraging nevertheless.
But for all that, what about the legitimacy of hunting animals? We no longer live huddled in little villages and manors surrounded by the deep, deep woods. Do we then have a right to take the lives of animals? The unspoken notion here is that animals have souls and thus equal rights with men. A proper answer is given by James B. Whisker:
...Roman Catholic theologians W.E. Addis and T. Arnold, in the 1884 edition of the Catholic Dictionary were forced to respond to increasing allegations of animal rights. In that updating of a standard Roman Catholic reference on points of faith, doctrine, and morality, the authors deny the whole issue of rights for animals. "As the lower animals have no duties, since they are destitute of free will, without which the performance of duty is impossible, so they have no rights, for right and duty are correlative terms." The authors note further that animals are "made for man. who has the same right over them which he has over plants and stones." Man could use animals for any legitimate purpose. "He may, according to the express permission of God, given to Noe, kill them for food...to put them to death or to inflict pain on them." The only limitation on the use of animals is that "it is never lawful for man to take pleasure directly in the pain given to brutes" but only because then "man degrades and brutalizes his own nature" (The Right to Hunt, p. 115).Well and good, one might say. But surely the fact that something is morally permissible does not make it a positive good, does it? Is not hunting a least a threat to wildlife as a component of the environment? The answer is that it need not be. The first parks and nature reserves were established (as we have seen) by hunters so as to conserve their quarry. So many of today's major European refuges began life as Royal Forests: Exmoor in England, Chambord in France, Gran Paradiso in Italy (where the Kings of that country single-handedly saved the alpine ibex from extinction), Coto Dona in Spain, and of course Bialowiecza, to name a very,very few. These were not set aside for any great reason save the wish to hunt for sport; without that wish, all the species would long ago have vanished into the cookpots of the European peasantry.
But even granting that hunting served a conservation purpose once, why hold on to it? There are two reasons; the first is purely natural, though none the less valid for that. It is simply that through hunting a man may re-establish his connection with nature which has been severed by the Industrial Revolution. Now this aspect of the question ought not to be misinterpreted. It is not a simple naturist rant of "nature: good---human: bad." The culture we inherit has willfully cut itself off from thesupernatural, but in so doing has also cut itself off from the truly natural, no matter how much they may lay claim to nature. For the man who wishes to slough off the veil of unnature which would block out both the Creator and His creation, hunting can be very helpful:
When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning. But all this is due to the fact that the hunter, while he advances or waits crouching, feels tied through the earth to the animal he pursues, whether the animal is in view, hidden, or absent (Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting, p. 141).Beyond this natural need, however, hunting is important to the would-be militant Catholic man:
"The hunt," said St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life, " is the relaxation of the Christian." In effect, the hunt is a thing Our Lord Jesus Christ practiced very well spiritually. He was required to carry the title of "hunter." David, in the 18th Psalm, calls the Son of God hunter. St. Jerome said, in speaking of Him, "You illustrious and noble in the mountains, catching and hunting." The chase makes men strong in resisting vices produced by idleness, and the hunters are agreeable to God. Besides which, the hunt is a little bit of war. It is training for the moment when we ought to pass from "tallyho" to "Montjoi Saint-Denis" [war-cry of French soldiers under the King] (Wallerand de Saint Just, Chants de France et de Chrétienté, p. 48).Strong stuff, indeed. But whether we are able to to hunt or not (and the exigencies of urban life and lack of early training often keep us from hunting---ever), we should at least value the abilities of the hunter---his alertness, his stamina, his courtesy and honor, his love of nature, and his devotion to God. Devotion to St. Hubert is a good idea in these days of paganry and sacrilege (and Catholic hunters really ought to be devoted to him anyway).
For in truth, the hunter is the great exemplar of manhood. Anything a man wishes to do, he must emulate the hunt in so doing. Ortega y Gasset states that, "Like the hunter in the absolute outside of the countryside, the philosopher is the alert man in the absolute inside of ideas, which are also an unconquerable and dangerous jungle" (op. cit., p. 152). This is true in all else, whether it be a father who hunts for a living, or an artist who hunts for inspiration, or a writer who hunts for ideas, or a priest who hunts for souls. In attacking the very notion of the hunt (let alone its reality) the modern day world is really attacking masculinity itself.
The target here, however, is not merely Catholic men, nor men as a whole, but God Himself. In the face of God, all humanity is to a degree feminine; hence the use of "she" indiscriminately by the old spiritual writers to refer to the soul. The soul is His spouse, just as He is the font of all masculinity: Father, Son, King, Priest, Warrior, and Hunter. Whatever our minor quarries in this life, we are all His; and as Francis Thompson showed so well in The Hound of Heaven, He will take us if He can; if we will only let Him:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;In that hunt let us hope we are all run to earth.
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Charles Coulombe Archives