We all share the view that a hunt is a truly grand occasion, and there are no more such grand occasions than those practiced in the nation of France.
France is a country that prides itself on its heritage and its traditions. It is a country that forgets nothing of its past, except maybe that which happened in the latter part of the last century, which will go unmentioned in this article. I was fortunate to have lived in France for a number of years, enough to have learned its language, absorbed its culture and experienced so many wonderful things about France that it became almost as much home to me as the United States.
One of the things I loved most about living in France was how often the experience took one back in time, sometimes even centuries, and one of the more memorable examples of this was my having the opportunity to participate in a French hunt.
In France, a hunt is known as “le chasse”, which is a walking hunt, as opposed to the “chasse au cour”, which is hunting on horseback, that which is referred to most often by Anglo-Saxons as a hunt. By far the more popular form of hunting sport, le chasse is an extremely popular pastime in France, and is highly regulated in terms of its tenure, its product and its locales.
The hunt in which I was fortunate enough to have participated was at the ancestral home of my former French fiance, known as the Chateau de Chantemesle. Chantemesle was a magnificent 12th century chateau near the cathedral city of Chartres, about an hour’s drive from Paris.
The castle had been in my friend’s family for many generations, his family being one of the great ones of France. His familial wealth had long since evaporated, and though the castle and grounds were in good shape, the upkeep of the chateau and its grounds and outbuildings, known as “les communs,” was prohibitive, and something that took over the chatelain’s life.
The punitive taxes purposely imposed on the families of aristocrats by the truly evil Socialist President Francois Mitterand made it impossible for many of those of the castle owner’s class to keep their properties for their offspring, and many just gave up. What this disgusting Marxist leader did to the leading families of France, simply because they were aristocrats, during his tenure, was in its way as devastating as was the brutal revolution of two centuries before.
Thus, noble descendants of the greatest families of France had to come up with ingenious ways to hold on to their properties, and one was to organize hunts at various stately properties. One such hunt was held at the Chateau de Chantemesle, and it did indeed take one back in time in numerous fascinating and charming ways.
Like many aristocratic properties in France still family owned, Chantemesle had numerous “communs,” or outbuildings where the peasants lived and worked, often times with the same service that had been offered centuries before. This was the case at Chantemesle, where “le guardien,” who lived full time on the estate and took care of the property when the owner was not in residence. In the case of Chantemesle, one of the guardien’s primary and loftier responsibilities was to lead the hunt during the proscribed time in the autumn.
The guardien led the hunt, and was garbed in the appropriate costume of wool plus fours, loden jacket and hunting hat, and it was he who sounded the French horn signaling the start of the hunt, and at other necessary times. He led his “copains” (fellow peasant buddies) forward, who were in effect the beaters startling the various crawling and running beasts out of their hiding places to give the hunters chase.
These estate bred small game such as rabbits and hare, and larger game such as deer, chamois and wild boar. At the same time, which is a practice that is different in France than it is in the U.S., they beat the bushes to make flying creatures take flight so they could be hunted at the same time that the grounded beasts are hurtling themselves out of the bushes, and these would of course be pheasants, ducks and partridges.
When this has been accomplished, the hunters can start firing and the bullets are flying straight ahead, down to the ground and up in the air. While the shooters took great care, one could find right away game on the ground to be gathered by the beaters and their accompanying dogs, while the pheasants and other birds bred for the hunt fell from the sky to contribute to and be collected for the results of the hunt.
The rhythm of the hunt in France is centuries old, and its medieval origins are reflected in so many of its practices.
And the garb of the hunters? Their elegant dress was always Hermes; the guns largely Purdeys; the game, home grown.
The time of the hunt is always the fall, at which time the French countryside is magnificent, with innumerable autumnal colors displayed subtlely, but beautifully. The terrain in this part of France is quite flat, with occasional copses of leaf laden trees a part of the landscape.
The hunt always starts early in the morning, and continues until, as always happens in France for any activity, it is time for lunch. Spouses of the guardien and his assistants arrive at a pre-ordained area, and an elegant al fresco lunch is set up as can be done only in France. With beautiful monogrammed linen, crystal goblets and silver cutlery, the aristocratic owner and his friends and guests dined on simple but delicious fare, which included cold meats, fresh salads, hard boiled eggs and copious amounts of “vin ordinaire,” an always delectable local red table wine. It was the latter indulgence that made it somewhat disconcerting for a newcomer to a French hunt when the hunters returned with their re-loaded rifles to the afternoon hunt.
When the hunt was completed, those who survived (everyone did in this case) returned to the chateau for “le tableau,” which was the centuries’ old practice celebrating the culmination of the hunt, demonstrating the results and awarding its prizes. This occurred at the residence of the guardien, in the communs, and it was at this occasion that each one of the successes of the hunt was displayed in a linear fashion on the ground, and accounted for, and accredited to the appropriate shooter.
There was a highly coveted prize at this occasion, which had, again, occurred at each such formal hunt, and it was called “l’honneur.” In the particular case of the hunt in which I participated, the honor was a coiled, furred, twisted foot of a deer, and it was given, with great presentation, to one person at the hunt, and it was, with great fanfare, given to me.
It was indeed an honor to have been thus awarded, as it was to have been allowed to participate in this magnificent event. This centuries’ old tradition, in this wonderful country, continues to occur, repeatedly, in France to this day.