AT Iroquois, the formal hunting season traditionally opens with the Blessing of the Hounds on the first Saturday of November. That puts it close to the Nov. 3 feast day of hunting’s patron saint, St. Hubert of Liege (circa 656-circa 728), a huntsman himself.
The Blessing of the Hounds is the highlight of the opening meet, and at Iroquois we do things a little differently: the Masters, huntsman, and staff invite some of the hunt’s retired hounds to be blessed. (The retirees certainly have a good few blessings to count, not least the fact that they receive good care until the end of their days, thanks to the Hound Welfare Fund and its supporters. And we at the HWF count those supporters among our many blessings, too!)
The Blessing of the Hounds isn’t, of course, unique to Iroquois or even to foxhunting. In Belgium, where Hubert was Bishop of Liege, the Blessing of the Hounds (and their huntsmen) is mainly a ritual to ward off rabies, because the saint was famous for curing the dread disease using either (or both) of two tools: thread from a white and gold stole the Virgin Mary was said to have bestowed on Hubert and the St. Hubert’s Key, supposedly given to Hubert by St. Peter. Both were used up even into the modern age by monks in the Brotherhood of St. Hubert. The thread cure involved making an incision in the skin of the sufferer’s forehead, then placing the thread in the wound. The key cure wasn’t much better, according to this account: “A priest would prick the forehead of a rabies sufferer and a black bandage would be applied for nine days while the heated key was placed on the body where the bite had occurred. This could actually help, because if the heated key was applied immediately it could cauterize and sterilize the wound, effectively killing the rabies virus.” To see a picture of the key, which was used in some parts of Europe even up to the 20th century, click here.
The Brotherhood of Saint Hubert, or Compagnons de Saint-Hubert, is headquartered in the small Ardennes town of Saint-Hubert (surprise!), where they put on a really big show for their Blessing of the Hounds.
St. Hubert: prince, huntsman, healer, and saint. He is the patron saint of hunters, but other groups that also claim him include butchers, machinists, mathematicians, and metal workers.
In 2004, one enchanted travel writer described the crowded scene:
“Every year on November 3rd the green-cloaked Compagnons de Saint-Hubert proceed to the basilica followed by the scarlet-coated hunters with their hounds, the sonneurs carrying huge circular hunting horns over their shoulders, the flag-throwers, and–this being Belgium–a solid contingent from the brewers’ guild. During the High Mass, hounds stand next to hunters in the nave, good-naturedly waving their tails and tilting their heads in recognition whenever the service is punctuated by the refrain of the hunting horns, whose chords reverberate amid the soaring columns. The sound disturbs something primordial; it is impossible to remain unmoved.
“After Mass, the hounds are sprinkled with holy water. Outside, the large square is packed with such a throng of people holding up their dogs to be blessed that the priest can hardly move amongst them: ‘Glory to dog on high,’ indeed. … When I was there, a group of pilgrim hunters had ridden for four days to Saint-Hubert; they sang a song about the glories of hunting and its empathy with nature, and then clattered off into the frosty sunshine.”
It’s customary to eat bread (variations on the Blessing of the Hounds often have the hounds and hunters eat bits of blessed bread as protection from rabies), as well as other traditional game dishes.
The basilica of Saint-Hubert in Belgium
But just who was St. Hubert? The story of his conversion to Christianity is very similar to that of St. Eustace, and both are clouded by suspicion that they were fictional. St. Hubert, so the story goes, was the oldest son of Bertrand, Duke of Aquitaine, and grandson of Charibert, King of Toulouse. He did not appear at first to be saint material. He was a worldly courtier, a married father, and not at all a regular churchgoer; he preferred to hunt his hounds. He was doing just that one Good Friday morning when a stag appeared to him. Between its antlers he saw a crucifix, and he heard a voice say, “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord and lead a holy life, you shall go quickly down to the abyss of hell.”
(St. Eustace was a general named Placidus under the Roman emperor Trajan who changed his name upon his conversion, which also came about after seeing a stag with the crucifix between its antlers. Eustace died in about 118.)
Hubert’s wife, Floribanne, died soon after this experience, and it seems Hubert took that as the clincher. He renounced his worldly life and all his possessions, left his son in the care of his brother, and devoted himself to priestly studies. He later became the first bishop of Liege. Legend also has it that Hubert accurately predicted the date of his own death and died just as he had begun reciting, “Our Father, who art in heaven–.”
In addition to being the patron saint of hunters, he also has been associated at one time or another with furriers, trappers, mathematicians, metal workers, and machinists, and he is invoked against both rabies and bad behavior in dogs–especially in hounds and other hunting dogs (Harry and Driver, meet Hubert!).
Hubert may have given up all his worldly possessions, but he didn’t give up his love of hounds, and the monks of the St. Hubert abbey honored this by naming a breed of hound they developed the “chien de Saint-Hubert”: Saint Hubert’s hound. The breed originally is thought to have been all black or black and tan, medium-sized, and smooth-coated, a forebear of the bloodhound and others. The modern version, seen below, looks very like the bloodhound, but some historians believe today’s version differs significantly from the original bred by the Belgian monks.
Some say the originals were powerful but shorter-legged than their modern brethren, and principally valuable in hunting boar. The bloodhound and modern St. Hubert’s characteristic loose, wrinkly skin also, one hound breed historian noted, “was not at all typical of the St. Huberts of the Abbey.” Others say that the modern bloodhound was developed by crossing black St. Hubert’s hounds with white Talbot hounds, the latter a large early hunting hound, now sadly extinct.
The Talbot hound. Now extinct, this large white hunting hound features in medieval paintings, stone carvings, and coats of arms.
Given the passage of so much time, it’s difficult to know exactly what the originals looked like. It is usually said that William the Conqueror first imported the St. Huberts to England, calling them bloodhounds.
But, in Hounds of the World, Sir John Buchanan-Jardine makes an interesting note about the early St. Hubert hounds:
“Probably the most direct importation of St. Hubert’s hounds into Great Britain was the present of a pack of hounds made to the monks of Margam Abbey in Glamorganshire. The tradition is that these hounds were presented by the monks of some continental abbey, presumably by St. Hubert’s Abbey itself, as I have failed to trace any other monastery that bred hounds. In any case, these hounds are traditionally reputed to have been of St. Hubert’s breed, smooth-coated and black and tan in colour. They were kept and bred at Margam Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, when they passed into the hands of the Lord of the Manor and later, about 1700, the descendants of this pack become the property of Mr. Jenkins of Gelli.
“Probably the modern Welsh foxhound owes much of his fine nose and voice to this particular importation.”
The gene that makes some of the Iroquois hounds woolly is Welsh, so could our woollies like Sassoon hark back to St. Hubert? It’s awfully nice to think so, especially today, on St. Hubert’s feast day.