When we read historical novels, or fantasy novels with a historical setting, do we want to know what it was really like? Do we want to see our characters behave in ways actually consistent with their time?
I'm reading Tim Blanning's excellent The Pursuit of Glory, an history of Europe 1648-1815. Not a strictly chronological history, but a largely material and cultural one, starting with an informative discussion of roads, and how incredibly hard it was to get from one place to another, no matter who you were.
But it's the entertainments of the past that sometimes make clearest its distance from us. In a chapter on the incredible prominence of various types of hunting in the lives of the rulers and aristocrats, Blanning tells about a popular sport in German lands: fox tossing
...in which a fox was tossed in a net or blanket held by hunt servants or gentlemen and ladies of the court until it expired. This usually took place in the courtyard of the prince's palace with the assembled courtiers looking on from the palace windows. The Saxons seem to have been particularly fond of this form of entertainment: in the course of 1747 Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had 414 foxes, 281 hares, 39 badgers and 9 wild cats tossed to death. It could also be found at the imperial court at Vienna, where in 1672 the Swedish envoy found it odd that the Emperor Leopold I should join with the court dwarves and small boys in delivering the coup de grace to the tossed foxes by clubbing them to death
I have to admit, I'm not clear on what the cause of death was. Did the animals suffocate? Get smashed on the ground? Or was post-toss bludgeoning always required? I suspect that this is not high on a list of sexy research topics for history graduate students, but surely someone can be persuaded to dig into it.
In this period these lands also favored a form of hunting where animals were herded by beaters into an enclosure on a lake or river, so that hunters in boats could kill huge quantities of them without needing to do anything other than pull a trigger.
All good fun. A historical fiction where the character pursued the actual pleasures of his or her age could be both disturbing and informative. Imagine a cheery nobleman, a good master, who cheers his crew up with an entertaining fox toss before dinner. Not only is it fun, it gets rid of foxes. Clubbing them, however, makes you absurd. Leave that to the boys.