One of the stranger elements of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last month at the Cibolo Creek Ranch in Texas has proved to be his connection to the International Order of St. Hubertus, a 17th-century Habsburg ceremonial order named after a 7th-century bishop of Liège—who became the patron saint of hunters and fishers. This centuries-old order is only open to men and is very secretive (the names of the other guests at the ranch with Scalia are still mostly unknown). Members wear green robes, hold archaic titles like “knight grand officer,” and hunt by the motto “Deum diligite animalia diligentes” (“Honoring God by honoring his creatures”).
The story of how Hubert became Saint Hubertus actually rests on a case of mistaken identity. Saint Hubertus is now seen as a kind of Saint Francis for hunters, though most people will have heard of him because of his association with the Jägermeister stag. This image is based on a misattributed story (originally it was Saint Eustace’s) in which a white stag with a cross between its antlers appears to a man, leading to his conversion to a spiritual life. The International Order of St. Hubertus is not the only group to embrace the saint, and the symbol of the stag with a cross has become a touchstone for hunting groups’ environmental activism—like preserving endangered species and hunting sustainably. (Although how ardently members adhere to those values is not clear.)
Hubert and his cross-bearing stag may seem like something out of a Harry Potter novel or a quaint relic of a bygone superstitious era. But today, he and other medieval saints can be models for how to think about the complex motives in the national discourse about resource rights and use. Saints demonstrate that moral and cultural leaders not only tell truth to political power; they also participate in and shape the patterns of that power.
Medieval hunting was not simply a prerogative of greedy kings, contested by the brave proletariat. As I argue in my book, hunting and other forest rights were instead intricate issues that involved a delicate balance of conflict (occasionally violent), money, and social networking. Church leaders and saints participated in hunting alongside kings and dukes. Controlling and regulating forests and other natural resources were the result of complicated negotiations that on the ground often looked less like Robin Hood fighting an unjust royal authority and more like the Malheur refuge in Oregon, where armed ranchers squatted on a nature preserve in an attempt to thwart established pasturage contracts. Though it was the conflict that made news, it is underpinned by a larger story of negotiation and cooperation over land use between many different interest groups.
Saint Hubert, known as the Apostle of the Ardennes, was both a monk and a bishop. He established churches throughout the Ardennes, protected monastic privileges and rights, and worked for cooperation between monasteries and the kings and local magnates. After his death, he was buried at the monastery of Andages in Belgium, which would become known as Saint-Hubert, and his cult was based there. About 100 years after his death, the monastery produced a collection of miracle stories—not coincidentally at a moment when they were renegotiating their economic, political, and territorial positions with the new Carolingian dynasty.
The miracle story the monastery gave their patron saint went something like this: The Count of the Ardennes wanted to go hunting in the forests surrounding Saint-Hubert. The Count’s master of the hunt knew that if the hunters said a prayer to Saint Hubert before the day’s hunt, it would bring luck. They did so, and a remarkably large wild boar appeared and was, incredibly, snared in the hunters’ nets. Yet, there was a second part of the custom: The hunters traditionally offered the first fruits of the hunt to Saint Hubert and his monks. The Count, however, scoffed at this, saying that he would keep the magnificent animal and catch a smaller one for the saint, who surely wouldn’t notice. As soon as he said this, the boar broke free of the nets and ran off into the forest.
What seems at first a straightforward story about punishment for ignoring a saint is actually a public-relations salvo that was part of a complex negotiation of rights and privileges between two interest groups. Many medieval monasteries were built on lands originally belonging to kings and counts, who donated the land in exchange for community goodwill, the enormous benefit of monastic prayers, and a place where family members could someday be placed as abbot—church was a hub of socioeconomic power. The monasteries received immunity from taxes and freedom from secular oversight in addition to owning the lands, which they taxed, farmed, hunted, and protected, and from which they often gave rights and privileges to others. The parable about Hubert is about due respect for hunting customs, but it is primarily about a willful attempt by a local magnate to ignore the claims of the monastery (whose land he was hunting on) while also avoiding a tithe and subverting a social ritual that helped order societal relations.
The monks repeatedly publicized this story in the 9th century in order to win the moral upper hand in ongoing disputes over land use. The Ardennes monastery of Chelles used the technique, too, telling a story about how two local knights were hunting and accidentally crossed into lands that had been transferred to the monastery. The knights camped out, and overnight, their horses and hunting dogs died. It was a warning to locals against violating the monastery’s boundaries (and, of course, usurping their hunting rights).
Scalia had a lot more in common with Saint Hubert than hunting. The justice was responsible for several landmark decisions about land use, including 1987’s seminal Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, which distinguished between “a valid regulation of land use” and “an out-and-out plan of extortion.” Medieval monks like Hubert would be proud. Long before Scalia made his groundbreaking decision, they were aggressively protecting their land interests from overbearing rulers.
It was important for monastic communities and kings to protect forests for hunting but also as sources of key agricultural and economic resources. Fuel, timber, livestock, honey, minerals, and fisheries were all actively cultivated and harvested in woodlands. Control of forest rights was hotly disputed, often over generations. The monks of Ardennes’ Stavelot engaged in a protracted generational struggle with royal administrators over rights to use a forest for grazing pigs—a lucrative use of woodlands. The king ultimately settled the issue with a compromise: The disputants had to split access to the forest’s grazing land, alternating rights every year. During the 11th century, the German monastery of Corvey was in a dispute with a regional lord over property-use rights that escalated into animal theft, armed pursuit, and a siege of a bishop’s castle—culminating in the deaths of 12 men who worked for the monastery.
Though they clearly participated in hunting, bishops, abbots, and other religious leaders were also more than willing to condemn hunting practices that they viewed as immoral. For example, Abbot Poppo of Stavelot visited the king while he and his court were on a long hunting trip. Poppo stumbled into a violent contest—a bear had been captured, poked, prodded, and set upon a man who had honey smeared all over his arm. Appalled, Poppo made them stop and berated the king—not for abusing an animal but for the violence enacted on a fellow Christian. This was not about protecting nature; this, like Hubert’s boar, was about managing human relations and power systems.
It is easy to look at the distant past and see storybook chivalry, simple ideals of good and evil, and easy narratives of political conflict to reinforce one’s own ideas of justice and good government. But Saint Hubert and his peers offer different stories from the past that elude simple categorization and that highlight the complexity of the struggle to govern natural resources.