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Death Penalty Or Penal Labor For Poachers

May 7, 2012

In Sweden, hunting has been an important part of life for both the elite and people at large — yet the two groups have not enjoyed quite the same opportunities. For example, from 1600 to 1789, hunting was reserved for the nobility, and non-compliance with the law could lead to a death penalty or penal labour for life. A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg sheds light on the history of hunting rights.

In his thesis, Ulf Nyrén goes to the bottom with the legal and political implications of hunting rights, with a focus on Sweden during the period 1647/64-1789. During this period, hunting of edible animals was reserved for the crown and the nobility.

‘But despite the risk of capital punishment, flogging, imprisonment, hefty fines or penal labour for life, the laws were frequently violated by both farmers and more marginalised citizens,’ says Nyrén.

In feudal European communities, exclusive hunting rights were a way for elites to demonstrate their power and privileges. In several countries, not least in England, the struggle for hunting rights developed into a deep conflict between the nobility and poacher groups. The level of conflict was lower in Sweden, despite the king claiming monopoly on his land and over certain species such as deer and swan. The nobility was inspired by the kings, and monopoly laws were established during the nobility’s prime era.

However, the hunting monopoly was not broadly accepted. In Sweden it was primarily the priests who protested against the hunting rights of the nobility.

‘I unexpectedly found that the farmers in the parliament remained very passive for a long time. But the peasantry generally didn’t respect the hunting laws. Poaching was very common, and I see this as a sign of silent resistance,’ says Nyrén.

The fact that the population of hooved game went down in the 1700s suggests that poaching indeed was common. Not many poachers were taken to court, though, mainly due to the difficulty of proving that a crime had been committed. However, on the royal hunting grounds on the island of Öland, poaching was discouraged in all imaginable ways. For example, to make dogs useless for hunting, they were mutilated by having one leg removed, and farmers were not allowed to carry a weapon. The punishments were also harsher on Öland than elsewhere — at least five individuals were sentenced to death in the 1600s. The situation on Öland resembled the situation in continental Europe, and was due to the attempts of the crown to maintain private hunting grounds like those seen in some other countries.

Nyrén’s study shows that the hunting legislation was part of the formation of the elite and that it represented conflict in the relation between superior and subordinate. The situation on Öland points to the immense importance of the hunting rights issue to the highest elite.

‘But members of the lower nobility seem to mostly have been interested in protecting their formal rights. In daily life they seem to have been rather lenient, as they normally did allow various subordinate groups to hunt.’

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