Sports and Pastimes of the People of England
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Pages (PDF): 486
Publication Date: Originally published in 1801, this edition, 1903
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This book is a key source for information on leisure time activities in 'Olde England,' including sports, hunting, games, dancing, gymnastics, music, festivals including Christmas and May Day and customs such as Mumming, The Boy Bishop, and The Lord of Misrule. Strutt documents the constant conflict between popular culture and the religious and secular powers. Since English spelling was still in a state of flux when this book was originally published in 1801, and the book quotes from many older documents, spelling varies widely in the body of the text. The asterisks which appear in front of many of the paragraphs were in the original book and do not indicate footnotes; rather, they indicate material added in this second edition.
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HUNTING AMONG THE BRITONS.--Dio Nicæus, an ancient author, speaking of the inhabitants of the northern parts of this island, tells us, they were a fierce and barbarous people, who tilled no ground, but lived upon the depredations they committed in the southern districts, or upon the food they procured by hunting. Strabo also says, that the dogs bred in Britain were highly esteemed upon the continent, on account of their excellent qualities for hunting; and these qualities, he seems to hint, were natural to them, and not the effect of tutorage by their foreign masters. The information derived from the above-cited authors does not amount to a proof that the practice of hunting was familiar with the Britons collectively; yet it certainly affords much fair argument in the support of such an opinion; for it is hardly reasonable to suppose that the pursuit of game should have been confined to the uncultivated northern freebooters, and totally neglected by the more civilised inhabitants of the southern parts of the island. We are well assured that venison constituted a great portion of their food, and as they had in their possession such dogs as were naturally prone to the chase, there can be little doubt that they would exercise them for the purpose of procuring their favourite diet; besides, they kept large herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep, both of which required protection from the wolves, and other ferocious animals, that infested the woods and coverts, and must frequently have rendered hunting an act of absolute necessity.
We do not find, that, during the establishment of the Romans in Britain, there were any restrictive laws promulgated respecting the killing of game. It appears to have been an established maxim, in the early jurisprudence of that people, to invest the right of such things as had no master with those who were the first possessors. Wild beasts, birds, and fishes, became the property of those who first could take them. It is most probable that the Britons were left at liberty to exercise their ancient privileges; for, had any severity been exerted to prevent the destruction of game, such laws would hardly have been passed over without the slightest notice being taken of them by the ancient historians. HUNTING AMONG THE SAXONS.--The Germans, and other northern nations, were much more strongly attached to the sports of the field than the Romans, and accordingly they restricted the natural rights which the people claimed of hunting. The ancient privileges were gradually withdrawn from them, and appropriated by the chiefs and leaders to themselves; at last they became the sole prerogative of the crown, and were thence extended to the various ranks and dignities of the state at the royal pleasure.
As early as the ninth century, and probably long before that period, hunting constituted an essential part of the education of a young nobleman. Asser assures us, that Alfred the great, before he was twelve years of age, "was a most expert and active hunter, and excelled in all the branches of that most noble art, to which he applied with incessant labour and amazing success." It is certain that, whenever a temporary peace gave leisure for relaxation, hunting was one of the most favoured pastimes followed by the nobility and persons of opulence at that period. It is no wonder, therefore, that dogs proper for the sport should be held in the highest estimation. When Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred, had obtained a signal victory at Brunanburgh over Constantine king of Wales, he imposed upon him a yearly tribute of gold, silver, and cattle; to which was also added a certain number of "hawks, and sharp-scented dogs, fit for hunting of wild beasts." His successor, Edgar, remitted the pecuniary payment on condition of receiving annually the skins of three hundred wolves. We do not find, indeed, that the hawks and the hounds were included in this new stipulation; but it does not seem reasonable that Edgar, who, like his predecessor, was extremely fond of the sports of the field, should have given up that part of the tribute.
* By the laws of King Ethelred hunting was prohibited on the Sunday's festival; an enactment that was renewed by King Cnut. Hunting was considered so unsuitable a pastime for the clergy that Archbishop Theodore assigned a year's penance for anyone in minor orders that indulged in it, two years for a deacon, and three years for a priest. Archbishop Egbert, of York, improved on this by assigning seven years of penance for the like offence on an episcopal offender. King Edgar's canons forbade a priest to hunt, hawk, or dice, but to study books as becometh his order.
HUNTING AMONG THE DANES.--The Danes deriving their origin from the same source as the Saxons, differed little from them in their manners and habitudes, and perhaps not at all in their amusements; the propensity to hunting, however, was equally common to both. When Cnut the Dane had obtained possession of the throne of England, he imposed several restrictions upon the pursuit of game, which were not only very severe, but seem to have been altogether unprecedented; and these may be deemed a sufficient proof of his strong attachment to his favourite pastime, for, in other respects, his edicts breathed an appearance of mildness and regard for the comforts of the people.
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