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Ferrets-Hunt-art - 1/3/98


"Rabbit Hunting with Ferrets” by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper.


NOTE: See also the files: ferrets-msg, Ferret-Basket-art, rabbits-msg, Ferrets-Hunt-art, Ferets-Genets-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



First published in the Shire of Tempio’s newsletter, Dreamspinner.




                     FOR  RABBIT HUNTING

                   by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper


   In England, the tradition of rabbit hunting with ferrets goes back unbroken to a law in 1390 which restricted the ownership of ferrets only to those with an income greater than forty shillings per year, This was to prevent the working classes from using them to poach rabbits. Rabbit hunting with ferrets became less popular after World War Two when meat rationing ceased. English ferreters generally used a sack or a box to carry a ferret. Poachers are said to have carried ferrets in their trousers to carry them into the field to escape the notice of gamekeepers. Ferrets will ride in a large pocket or tucked in your shirt.  An untamed ferret can be a savage and fearsome creature not something to tuck in your trousers. Once they bite, they can hold on like a miniature bull dog. According to an English acquaintance of mine, this reputation made the ferret yard an ideal place to hid your savings from your spouse. Properly trained and handled ferrets are not savage. Owning ferrets is forbidden in some of the United States. It is unknown whether it is legal to use ferrets to hunt where ferret ownership is legal. In Great Britain keeping ferrets and hunting with ferrets continues in an unbroken line into the past.


   Documentation for this ferret's basket is provided by three tapestries which are thought to be Franco-Flemish (probably Tournai) and produced around 1460-1470. These are located in three separate museums on two different continents.  Illustrations of the three tapestries and can be seen in Anna Gray Bennet's Five Centuries of Tapestry.


   The commentary in Five Centuries of Tapestry, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco suggests that the source for the tapestry cartoons for these three tapestries was the 14th century The Hunting Book by Gaston Phoebus.  There are somewhere between 37 to 44 copies of this manuscript. A beautifully illustrated copy exists in the Bibliotheque National de France as Ms. francais 616. If you are acquainted with Ubiquitous Webster he can help you find and view these pictures, but not the text.  The Bibliotheque National's Ms. francais 616 does not show the same  ferreting equipment as shown in the three ferret basket tapestries. It does show a muzzled ferret being introduced into a rabbit warren where purse nets have been spread across the holes. Some of the holes have been blocked with crossed woven sticks.  In the top left hand side of the picture a man is setting fire to a rag soaked in incense and sulphur.  This was put down the rabbit hole, if a ferret was not available. It seems likely, that the this was not the manuscript the cartoons for these tapestries were taken from. Muzzles are not shown on the two ferrets visible on the Ferret Basket Tapestries.  Muzzles are considered inhuman since they leave the ferret defenseless against rats and other wild life that inhabit rabbit warrens. Phoebus also was troubled by rabbit poachers and devotes one illustration to their "wicked traps."


   The First Tapestry, The Ferret Hunt Tapestry, is located in Scotland at The Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum. It shows peasants clearing brush and grass from the rabbit holes using a long curved knife. This knife appears in all three of the tapestries. They  are in use or attached to a belt. The modern equivalent is called a pruning knife and is shorter and used for trimming grape vines, or cut carpets. The knife may be an abbreviated form of sickle, an item that can be used to clear vegetation from around the rabbit hole. A sickle is included in some modern lists of equipment for ferret hunting.


   The peasants are spreading purse nets over the entrances to the rabbit burrows. Purse nets are secured  by a peg and will draw up like an old fashioned purse when a rabbit hurdles into it. Purse nets are present in the second tapestry and are shown in use in the Gaston Phoebus' The Hunting Book. An apprentice's first rabbit net is on display. This net was constructed using illustrations provided by a British author who learned to make nets from a ferreter. It seems likely that much of British ferreting lore has been transmitted verbally and that the construction of this net is reasonably authentic. Phoebus' book also shows a fanciful page showing net making.


   The Ferret Hunt Tapestry also shows a white ferret being taken from the basket. A white ferret is part of this Arts and Science Display when animals are permitted on site.  White ferrets were preferred for hunting because white was said to be easier to see than then the multicolored ferret, whose  black masked face shows it be a cousin-of-a-polecat.  The scent and presence of the fierce little female ferret, called a Jill, will bolt the rabbits from their burrow into the nets. Two dogs are in the center of the lower edge of the tapestry and will catch any rabbits that escape the nets. The dogs and the ferrets must be raised together from a very young age to prevent the dog from mistaking the ferret for its prey.


   The Second Tapestry, Rabbit Hunting With Ferrets,  is located in The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It  was probably produced by the same workshop as the first tapestry, as part of a series of  tapestries showing hunting . Here we see the result of the hunt. Many rabbits are trapped in the purse nets. A woman holding a basket identical to the first tapestry is standing beside a man who is bending down and retrieving a white ferret from a rabbit hole. The woman bends down ready with the basket. The man grasps the ferret firmly behind the head in order to avoid getting nipped.


   Here there are three dogs present to catch any rabbits who escaped the nets. A man carries a coiled line. Lines and collars have been traditionally used to send a hob, male ferret, down to chase out the jill, if she should be laid-up with a kill. As Gaston Phoebus points out the jill may dine on her kill and sleep it off for a couple of days before she makes her appearance. Jills are half the size of a hob and weight about one and a half pounds. Her small size allows her to run through the two inch mesh of a purse net with out dislodging it. A hob is much more muscular and weights about three pounds and has a mind and teeth of his own.  It is not difficult to teach a ferret to back out of a hole by jerking gently on the line. The ferret would much rather come than be dragged. I know this because my ferrets love to explore the toad holes at the bottom of an old tree.  They were allowed to get most of their body into the hole until they started hauling out and injuring the toads.  But it is hard to imagine putting one down on a line as long as the one shown in the tapestries.  Modern hunters may have to dig the hob out by digging and following along the line. A t-shaped probe with a tear shaped point or proggling stick is used to push into the soil to determine where the tunnels are. No spades or proggling sticks are shown. A man is using the curved pruning knife in the upper right hand corner while near him a man appears to be "chinning" or administering the coupe de grace to the back of the rabbit's head. Next to him on a bush there appears to be a leather water bottle.


   The third tapestry, A Peasants Picnic, is located in Paris, France at the Musee de Louvre. This third tapestry differs in quality and artistic detail from the first two and is probably from a different workshop and series of tapestries depicting hunting.  The style of head gear and clothing is different. The detail in the ground cover is also very different. This tapestry shows the peasants picnicking and relaxing from the hunt. At bottom center, a woman is cutting a large wheel of cheese. She has a basket next to her which is similar to the one in the first tapestry that shows a ferret issuing from it. The basket has a leather strap threaded through the two holes in the top of the basket. The strap is strung on a walking stick, probably to suspend the basket over the ferreter's shoulder. Considering the wondrous odor of a ferret in its natural state, it would stand to reason that the ferret basket would not be hung at the hunter's side like a fishing krill. A rabbit has also been "legged" and suspended from the same staff.  A whippet stands at attention next to the basket. What parts of the bunny will he get for his lunch?


   According to The Book of Tapestry, hunting is not a common theme for tapestries. It is worthwhile to mention, that there are a few other know examples of hunting tapestries. There is a tapestry depicting a Boar Hunt in Glasgow, Scotland, and a set of four hunting tapestries  located in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Called The Chatsworth Hunts, these tapestries were from Chatsworth House  Darbyshire. These were mentioned in the very first inventory of Hardwick Castle. Mr. Wigfield Digby, a curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, maintains that they were brought across the channel by Marguerite of Anjou when she married Henry VI of England in 1444. These are also said to be based on Gaston Phoebus' The Hunting Book. The four tapestries like Gaston's book, show hunting deer, hunting otter, hunting wild birds and hunting bears.  No ferreting equipment appears to be present. A lady in the Hunting Wild Birds tapestry is carrying a small pointed faced animal  that could be a ferret or a small dog. Perhaps it is just a personal pet.


   Another series of tapestries preserved in the Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters shows hunting of an imaginary kind. This series is called: The Hunting of the Unicorn. This is one of the most complete series of tapestries to survive to the present day. Legend has it that they were used to insulate potatoes during the French revolution. There is a ferret like creature, a genet,  just below the Unicorn's horn in the tapestry titled: "The Unicorn at the Fountain." The genet is there along with other noble creatures like the lion.  As everyone knows, a virgin is required to catch a unicorn and unicorns are used as a symbol for virginity.  A white weasel is also a symbol of virginity, This is because it was said to transfer seed into the female's ear and that she gave birth through the mouth. A female weasel was thus technically  a virgin.   An illustration shows this wonder in the 1340 Queen Mary's Psalter (British Museum, Royal Ms. 2B). A portrait shows Queen Elizabeth with  an ermine (a stout with winter white coat). This is probably not a pet, but an ichnographic reference to the queen's virginity. Illustrations of Virgins with white spotted genets, white weasels or white ferrets have been collected by Margaret B. Freeman in The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1976.


   The three tapestries showing the Ferret's Basket are the only known tapestries of rabbit hunting with ferrets. A search for a period manual dealing with rabbit hunting with ferrets and ferret handling goes on. A Short Treatise of Hunting, 1592 by Sir Thomas Cokayne of Ashbourne may be such a book; it distills Cokayne's 52 years of hunting "The buck in summer and the hare in winter."  Did Cokayne visualize himself as another Gaston Phoebus who also wrote his hunting treatise at about 50? It is possible that Cokayne describes the use of ferrets since he discusses hunting rabbits.




  Anna Gray Bennet. Five Centuries of Tapestry From the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. San Francisco, Ca.: Chronicle Books, 1992.


  Gabriel Bis after Gaston Phoebus. Translated by J. Peter Tallon. The Hunting Book. London: Regent Books, 1984.


  Margaret Freeman. The Unicorn Tapestries. NewYork.. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1976.


  James McKay. Complete Guide to Ferrets. London: Swan Hill Press, 1995.


  Pierre Verlet et al. The Book of Tapestry, History and Technique. New York: The  Vendome Press. 1978.


  Graham Wellstead. Ferrets and Ferreting. London: T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Ltd, 1982.



Copyright 1998 by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper, Pamela Keightley Hughes, 3305 Pecan Drive, Temple, TX  76502-2341. e-mail: shughes at vvm.com (2 "v"s not a "w") Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided

author is credited and receives a copy.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org