What is Coursing?
There are few in this kingdom that have experienced the excitement and beauty of watching hounds course. Many in our kingdom don't even know what coursing is. Our noble forefathers could appreciate the speed, agility and grace of watching the hounds run, to them coursing was a favorite sport. Coursing is running specially bred hounds at top speed to simulate the hunt. These powerful animals are fast, agile and thrilling to watch.
In period servants were sent to find a nice open field with rabbits in it, they would call the hound handlers (called Fewterers), to bring the hounds then flush out the hare to give it a running start. A brace of hounds (two dogs at a time) would chase them. These hares would usually run straight until they saw the hounds coming up behind them, then with lightning speed dart off in another direction looking for a safe place to hide. The well-trained hounds would work in unison to catch the elusive hare. This would continue until either the hounds caught the hare or the hare disappeared into the thick underbrush. The Nobility would follow on horseback and wager on which hound would give the best chase or catch the hare first. This was a very spectacular sight as it tested not only the hounds speed but also agility and intelligence at the hunt.
Since it would be cruel to use a live hare, and our delicate sensibilities would not stand for the actual killing of an animal for sport. The SCA uses a humane way to demonstrate the amazing ability of these animals, with no harm to any beast.
Coursing hounds or Lure Coursing as it is called mundanely is when sighthounds chase a "hare" lure (a white piece of material) on a long string over a 300-500 yard course. The lure gets its speed by being hooked up to an electric motor that turns a string running through pulleys set about the field. This is to simulate the "hare". The hounds chase this "hare" up to 45 miles per hour.
Although greyhounds are the fastest breed of sighthounds, other hounds were bred to hunt by sight as well. These include Afghan hounds, Basenjis, Borzois (Russian Wolfhounds), and Salukis among others. The American Kennel Club recognizes these breeds as sighthounds and allows them to participate in mundane competitions. Although greyhounds are the oldest, these other documentable breeds are also appropriate for coursing within the SCA.
In the mundane world this is an event that has strong ties to the court of Queen Elisabeth I, who in 1574 made it a competitive sport. This is the origin of the dog tracks of today.
In the research that I have done concerning coursing I have found many excellent sources that show that hounds were owned and coursed by nobility throughout history. Here is a small sample of the documentation.
Beginning from the ancient pictographs of the Egyptians, where greyhounds were called Pharaoh Hounds. They were highly prized by their owners and often mummified and buried with them.
Around 325 BC, a hound named Peritas reportedly accompanied Alexander the Great on his military campaigns.
The Roman Flavius Arrianus (Arrian) wrote "On Hunting Hares" in 124 AD. Describing coursing among the Celts of Gaul (France):
"The more opulent Celts, who live in luxury, course in the following manner. They send out hare finders early in the morning to look over such places as are likely to afford hares in form; and a messenger brings word if they have found any, and what number. They then go out themselves, and having started the hare, slip the dogs after her, and follow on horseback."
In the tenth century, King Howel of Wales made killing a greyhound punishable by death.
King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, reserving large areas of the country for hunting by the nobility. Only such persons could own greyhounds; any "meane person" (commoner) caught owning a greyhound would be severely punished.
In 1066 William the Conqueror introduced even more stringent forest laws.
Dogs in general were at times looked down upon in the Middle Ages, while greyhounds were highly valued. Vincent of Beauvais, in the mid- thirteenth century, identified three types of dog: hunting dogs, with drooping ears, guard dogs, which are more rustic than other dogs, and greyhounds, which are "the noblest, the most elegant, the swiftest, and the best at hunting."
The greyhound was used as an emblem, often in tombs, at the feet of the effigies of gentlemen, symbolizing the knightly virtues (faith), occupations (hunting) and generally the aristocratic way of life. Where tombs are concerned, the greyhound always was associated with knighthood.
Coursing races, with dogs chasing live rabbits, became popular during the sixteenth century. It was considered a Queens sport, due to the enthusiasm of its official founder Queen Elisabeth I of England (1533-1603), who had Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, draw up
rules judging competitive coursing. These rules established such things as the hare's head start and the ways in which the two hounds' speed, agility and concentration would be judged against one another. Winning was not necessarily dependent on catching the hare (although this did earn a high score). Often the hare escaped. Wagers were commonly placed on the racing dogs.
These "Laws of the Leash" are the framework for the rules that we use in the SCA today. (The only difference is that we don't use live rabbits and all of the hounds must have their shots before running.) There is much more documentation to be found, if you are interested go to fastfriends.org's history page.
As you can see coursing has a long and noble tradition, of entertaining nobility. This activity lends itself well to the ambience of an event and is as pleasurable for the spectators as it is for the participants. Today in other kingdoms, these hounds stand at court, participate in Royal processions and even receive awards.
A Coursing College is starting up here in Trimaris, you do not have to be an owner of a greyhound or any hound to participate.
If you would like to know more about this new activity, you may attend a class called, "The History of Coursing in the Middle Ages" that will be available in the near future. (Look for it at upcoming events.)