HUNTING. Early modern Europe was a settled agricultural and commercial society. As such, hunting played a secondary or negligible role in supplying the nutritional needs of all but a handful of Europeans. Yet hunting had a symbolic importance in European society out of proportion to its economic importance because it was closely linked to the culture of monarchy. In most of Europe, hunting was a privilege restricted to the nobility. In general, the noble monopoly of hunting derived from seignorial control over the forests in which hunting took place. In some lands, such as England, the king exercised exclusive seignorial jurisdiction over all forests; in other lands, such as France, seignorial jurisdiction over forests came with jurisdiction over the neighboring villages and so could be "owned" by anyone. Such control enabled kings and aristocrats to restrict hunting to a very narrow social stratum. Even some nobles were prevented from participating in the hunt.
Most of the social history of hunting revolves around the justifications for and enforcement of noble monopoly. Non-nobles sometimes chafed at being prevented from hunting for sport, but they were more frequently troubled by the fact that the noble monopoly on hunting for sport prohibited commoners from hunting for food or stopping wild animals from damaging their crops. Conflicts over hunting were, therefore, part of a larger negotiation over relations of power between nobles and peasants. The three main types of hunting—hunting vermin, hunting for food, and hunting for sport—touched on different aspects of those relations.
Hunting vermin, animals that posed a threat to crops or livestock, was the least contested area of hunting in the early modern era. Common people were allowed, even encouraged, to destroy vermin and they were eager to do so. The main kinds of vermin hunted in early modern Europe were stoats, otters, foxes, and wolves.
The treatment of wolves is most emblematic of early modern European attitudes toward vermin. Throughout Europe, rulers or their officials offered bounties for wolf hides or other evidence of the destruction of wolves. Criminals were sometimes permitted to pay off fines or debts by supplying wolf pelts. Wolves were to be killed whenever and by whatever means. They were feared not just for the threat they posed to livestock, but also (though with how much justification remains an open question) as a threat to humans. The policy of wolf eradication was very successful in some parts of Europe. Already by 1560, wolves were extinct in England. The last confirmed killing of a wolf in Scotland took place in 1691. Wolves were extinct in Ireland by 1770. On the other hand, wolves continued to survive on the Continent throughout the early modern era.