Peter Finer

A Fine Hunting Trousse, c. 1720-40

Item Ref: 2532 Price on application

2532 9
2532 22
2532 25

Germany, probably Carlsbad. Steel, gold, wood and velvet.


Private collection, France

In Europe the hunting of large game, especially deer and boar, was traditionally very much the preserve of royalty and the nobility and was frequently carried out with great ceremony and attention to social etiquette. Usually as soon as a beast was killed the carcase was bled, opened and butchered. The initial opening of the body was often reserved for the most notable person present at the hunt. In Turbervile’s The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting, published in 1575, there is a well-known engraving showing a huntsman handing a knife to Queen Elizabeth I in order that she may open the belly of the stag he has just killed for her.

“When a good stag has been sighted, the horn is sounded, the animal is coursed and brought to bay, where some great lord will finish him off”.

(H.W. Dobel; Neu eröffnete Jäger-Practica, 1746)

It was important to be able to quickly eviscerate and butcher a carcase in the field to avoid contamination of the meat by the contents of the animal’s internal organs, and it is clear that from the later Middle Ages special implements were carried by huntsmen in order that they might open, empty and if necessary also butcher the carcase. By the early 15th century at least, images survive which clearly show that in addition to their hunting swords, worn on their left side, huntsman were carrying large, heavy-bladed knives on their right hip. By that period such knives often also had smaller knives and other implements in secondary compartments on the sheath. The hilts of the large hunting knives soon also apparently developed an asymmetrical or ‘bird’s-head’ form which became a consistent feature for as long as they remained in use. The blades of the knives became increasingly heavy, in order to act as a cleaver to cut through bone and to separate joints of the animal, and the number of smaller ‘by-knives’ and related implements increased, until by the early 16th century they had developed into the ‘trousse’ as we know it today. 

The design and decoration of hunting swords and trousses often took the inspiration for their design and decoration from the materials obtained from the animals being hunted. Plaques of antler cleaned but left in its rough natural state, were often used to form the grips of hunting weapons, but the grandest swords and trousses could also have hilts made in robust but handsome materials, usually reflecting the decorative style of the period. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, in a number of areas of Europe but especially in the German lands, great stylised forms of hunting event were held in which huge numbers of large game animals, especially stags and boar, were driven into large enclosures where hunters were waiting, giving the animals no real prospect of escape. A 17th century example of such an extravagant spectacle is represented by ‘Coursing in the Altmarkt at Dresden’. Preserved in the Manuscript Collection of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, is this series of illustrations showing animals being driven into the walled centre of the city towards waiting huntsmen armed with spears and large hunting dogs. Mid-18th century images also exist showing even more elaborate settings, in which stags are driven through a row of classical arches and forced to swim across an artificial lake. Climbing out they entered a series of linked but ever smaller fenced enclosures where hunters armed with dogs and spears inevitably despatched them all. 

Despite the often unequal nature of these contests between man and beast the weapons of all kinds used in hunting by the 18th century were frequently of the finest quality and were decorated in the fashionable style of the day. This very fine hunting trousse is a wonderful example in which the heavy cleaver, in German lands referred to as a Waidbesteck or Waidpraxe, is accompanied by three smaller knives, a two-tined fork and a combined rasp and bodkin. The small knives would have been used for skinning or fine separation of pieces of the carcase, but one would also have been used with the two-tined fork for eating. The rasp might have been used to smooth off sharp pieces of cut bone, while the bodkin was in effect a large needle, used to stitch openings in the carcase.  

The splendidly-chiselled iron hilt of the cleaver and the handles of the smaller implements all have a pommel in the form of a lion’s head, almost certainly to imply strength and courage. This decorative feature seems to have become popular on German edged weapons used in hunting by at least the middle of the 16th century. There is a very fine trousse of that period, with lion’s head pommels, in the Staatliche Kunstsammlung of the Historisches Museum, in Dresden. The handles of the smaller implements have restrained rococo scrolls above and below an inset rectangular panel, probably of gold, which has been shaped into a series of overlapping shell-like scales. The handsome hilt of the cleaver, however, while having a similar rectangular gold panel at the centre of its grip, is also chiselled with finely-formed rococo scrolls, with gilded background panels between them. The stout quillons are chiselled with a snail-shell-like foliate scroll at one end and a lion’s head at the other. A robust shell-guard projects from the outer side of the quillons whose upper surface is chiselled in low relief with a scene; two hunting dogs at rest in a landscape, while on the ground near them is a dead bird and a sporting gun rests against a tree. The background to this scene is gilded. 

The robust scabbard is typical of the form of those of the majority of trousses, being a fabric-covered wooden sheath (the fabric in this case being green velvet), protected by an iron outer frame. The inner face and the gutter-shaped strips forming the sides of the outer frame are engraved with scrolling rococo style foliage, which at the chape or tip of the scabbard incorporates a palm tree. The uppermost portion of the outer face of the iron case for the scabbard is similarly engraved, and the tip or chape of the scabbard has a panel of finely-chiselled rococo scrolls on a gilded ground. The centre of the scabbard, however, has a very finely chiselled and pierced mount shaped around the part of the scabbard which contains the by-knives and other implements. At its upper edge is a frieze of oval apertures, highlighted with gold, then a band of chiselled scrolls against a gilded ground, and dominating the central area a scene of male and a female figure in early 18th century hunting costume. The woman is standing, resting her elbow on the muzzle of a sporting gun, while the man, who wears a distinctive form of hunting sword, is seated, his right arm encircling an architectural column supporting an urn. On the ground in front of this couple are a dead deer and a bird, perhaps a duck, with a small dog looking on. The couple are placed among trees on a gilded background within a frame composed of rococo scrolls. 

This is a remarkably fine example of an early 18th century hunting trousse, decorated in the style which at that time was the epitome of fashionable good taste.  

Size: Length 54 cm / 21.3 in, Width 13 cm / 5.1 in