The volume is an outgrowth of Th. Allsen’s research into the Mongols’ imperial practices and their antecedents as background material which stimulated the scholar to focus on the royal hunt as a widespread and long-lived trans-Eurasian phenomenon. Th. Allsen acknowledges having sampled documentation from literature, material monuments, and archaeology of diverse climes and times, exhausting an enormous amount of texts, in the original and in translation. This has allowed him to undertake a sweeping comparative exercise in “Big History” compelling to ignore conventional fields by crossing boundaries from ancient Egypt to India under the Raj and the Middle East, India, Central Asia, and China from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Chronicling the vast range of usages for the purpose of writing a hunting history, the author makes recourse to D. Harris’ typology of animal exploitation which includes three categories of predation (involving scavenging, fishing, and hunting), protection (entailing manipulation of environment, free-ranging “herding” of wild species, and limited taming of individual young beasts as pets or helpmates), and domestication. As human communities move from one stage to another, the dependence on wild prey for protein and products is decreasing, but the political significance of hunting increases correspondingly.
Besides marking élite status royal hunts functioned as inspection tours and imperial progresses, a means of asserting kingly authority over the countryside. The game was, in fact, the “court-out-of-doors,” an open air theatre for displays of majesty, the entertainment of guests, and the bestowal of favour on subjects. In the conduct of interstate relations, these sports were used to train armies, show the flag, and send foreign policy signals. Wars sometimes began and ended as celebratory chases. Often understood as a kind of covert military training, hunt was subject to the same strict discipline as that applied in wartime and was also a source of innovation in army organisation and tactics. The relationships between utensils of war and those of the chase are complex and rarely clear-cut. In the main, missile and projectile weapons were first developed for the hunt (specialisation is more often seen in arrows), while shock and thrusting arms had limited use here. Just as human subjects were to recognise sovereignty, so was the natural kingdom brought within the power structure by means of hunting. Parks were centres of botanical exchange, depots early conservation reserves, and important links in local ecologies. The mastery of the king over nature served an important purpose in official renderings: as a manifestation of his possession of heavenly good fortune he could tame the world of elements and keep his realm safe from marauding threats, animal and human. The sending of partners ― cheetahs, elephants, and even birds ― became diplomatic tools as well as serving to create an élite hunting culture that transcended political allegiances and ecological frontiers.
The book examines the ecological dimension of the development of hunting diachronically centring around the place of corresponding procedures in political culture of pre-modern Eurasia, where great majority of ruling houses and aristocracies made some use of the chase in the pursuit and maintenance of their prestige and puissance. Taken together, the testimonies derived from diverse, independent, and often eyewitness sources, affirmed that these were primarily military/political occasions designed to impress by advertising the sovereign’s prowess and therefore conducted on a monumental scale. August hunters (most of whom went into the field mounted or in chariots) were strongly attracted to exotic or unusual species; dangerous game was particularly appealing because it drew attention to the rulers’ bravery and concern for public safety. Europeans most certainly continued the tradition of large-scale hunting in their overseas colonies. Like the élites they co-opted and supplanted, they used expeditions to demonstrate their ability to tame the wild and extend civilisation, to display their capacity to identify, mobilise, and organise resources and thus publicise their superior administrative skills in the countryside.
The author does not hesitate to explain the durability of the hunting structures by their versatility, “an attribute Braudel invokes to interpret the long-term success of capitalism (p. 276).” Like communal dancing and other long-lived social institutions, the chase provides an array of services and can add new ones without major structural change. The royal hunt was embedded in society at large what explains its final demise. Although its content was modified over the centuries, its basic functions persisted until, in the course of the nineteenth century, its utility was eroded by the emergence of new standards in the conduct of interstate relations and war, and generally a new type of state based on drastically different methods of organisation and communication.