The Medieval Forester – What To Carry?

The jobs of a forester in medieval times were broad and varied and ranged from solely administrative in nature to extensive work “in the field”.  A medieval forester held a position of law enforcement and worked for the local nobility, constabulary, or even a wealthy land owner.  Though not “high born”, the forester was a free man and likely well paid for his labors (or at least, better paid than many).  I’ve read several sources that indicate some foresters were pensioned for life!  They were fairly well off and it was not uncommon for foresters to live in fairly large homes, some even lived in stronghold manors for their own protection and the safety of their family.  Surely a forester made enemies, after all.

Certainly, a medieval forester was a skilled woodsman and hunter.  In Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, the Physician remarks of foresters in general, “[‘a thief of venison, that has abandoned / His greedy appetite and all his old craft, / Can keep a forest better than any man’] — a variation on the adage that it takes a thief to catch a thief.” [1]  A forester would likely have been at home in the field and forest, and would know well every inch of his jurisdiction.

Foresters might range into the wild on their own or with organized bands of men, depending upon their current “mission.”  Though it’s likely that a forester might have been called upon to spend extended periods in the wilderness, I think it’s unreasonable to assume that a forester would always be traveling great distances.  Understanding that they answered to a higher authority, i.e. a landowner or local noble, it’s a reasonable assumption that they didn’t travel much off that particular parcel of land lest they interfere with foresters from another jurisdiction.  They weren’t explorers like Lewis and Clark; they were much like our modern park rangers or game wardens who are responsible for enforcing laws within set boundaries.

As I develop my forester persona, I keep asking myself (and others), “What might a medieval forester have carried into the field?”  I think it’s safe to assume that, much like a modern survivalist, hunter, or camper, a medieval forester would be concerned with equipment durability, multi-functionality, weight, cost, etc.  I think, too, the purpose and duration of the planned excursion into the field would impact what supplies and tools the forester might have carried.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a forester might have had caches of equipment – rope, tinder, a boat, weapons, maybe even food stuffs – throughout his range.  I’ve found no documentation that suggests this, but it’s certainly plausible and something that I’d have done were I in such a profession.

At the time of this writing, I’m particularly interested in what cookware a forester might have had in the field.  Modern campers and hikers carry specialized versions of equipment that they have in their home kitchens – a stove, an oven, pots and pans, dishware, flatware…  Why should we assume that the professional medieval forester would have been any less prepared?  Working on the assumption, “If they had it, they’d have used it”, one might be able to come up with a reasonable cooking “kit” for a forester.  So, let’s take a look at what we know about medieval cookware.

The most common cookware in the Middle Ages was pottery.  It was everywhere!  They used it for their dishes and drinking vessels, their pots and pans, their food storage…  They even made stoves out of pottery.  The most durable cookware was made from different metals available in the day.  Pots, pans, and utensils were made from wrought iron and copper sheets, and bronze castings.  “Dishes” were made from all these as well, along with pewter, wood, leather, and glass.  Cast iron cookware (pots, pans, kettles, and cauldrons) didn’t appear in western Europe until well into the 18th Century; in 1707, Englishman Abraham Darby developed the coke furnace and made the production of good, reliable cast iron possible.

With all this in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that a well-equipped forester would have been able to put together a reasonably light and durable camp kitchen kit.  It may have been as simple as a light pot for boiling, a piece of linen in which to boil up a pudding, perhaps a small wrought iron frying pan, a couple of wrought iron skewers for roasting meat, a wooden bowl to eat from or in which to mix flour and water for making a simple dough, a knife for food preparation, a small tin for salt or other seasonings, some small cloth sacks for carrying so much flour or grain…  All these things could easily fit into a pack or a sack and be carried and, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s very plausible that a forester could have had various caches of such equipment left in strategic locations throughout his “stomping grounds.”

Could a medieval forester survive in the wild without these things?   Of that, I’m sure.  I haven’t found any evidence that supports that as the norm, though.   As I assemble my forester kit, I intend to include some of these lightweight and durable cooking implements for use in the field.  I’m hoping to cross paths with other foresters with whom to share and exchange ideas and notes about better ways to enjoy the outdoors.  For this modern medieval forester, learning about new ways of doing things is a great part of the fun.  It’s right up there with spending time around a campfire with friends sharing in a hot meal and a cold drink

[1] “Ch.3: A Yeman Had He.” Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. 33.Google Books. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

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