I have frequently been asked when I talk about the BOB project, “did the bears hibernate”? We can answer this question in two ways: by looking at what we know about modern bears, and by looking at archival accounts.

Chart showing the incidence of baiting records by month

Month by month count of bearbaiting activity based off our database of documentary records.

Modern Bear Behaviour

Firstly, not all bears hibernate. Hibernation is a response to periods of cold and food scarcity in higher latitudes and altitudes, such as northern Europe or the Himalayas. Bears eat an enormous amount of food in the run-up to hibernation (hyperphagia) to ensure they have sufficient body fat to survive several months of dormancy. Perhaps the best-known example of this is Alaska’s ‘Fat Bear Week’, where you can see just how much weight the bears put on in a few months.

However, there are several factors that may mean a bear does not enter hibernation. One is an abundance of food – if there is a year-round source of food available, hibernation is not needed. The other is if there has been food scarcity leading up to hibernation, resulting in low body fat for the animal. If this happens, a bear will not enter hibernation and will continue to forage for food during the winter. So for our early modern bears, we have three scenarios – 1) they are well fed and hibernate, 2) they are well fed and do not hibernate, or 3) they are poorly fed and do not hibernate.

How can we tell the difference?

One option is to look at the archives to see when bears were active in baiting. We might expect baitings to be fewer or to cease in the winter as the roads get churned and muddy, and people are less inclined to stand in the cold and wet for sport. So what do we see? Callan Davies of the BOB project has pulled all the bear-baiting entries in the Records of Early English Drama (REED) together. The results of our analysis of the 77 dated bear-baiting events recorded in REED are shown in Fig. 1. To our surprise, they show that baitings were happening throughout the year and all over the country. Thirteen different counties, from Kent to Lancashire, are represented in ‘winter’ baitings (from November to March), and payments are made to both local independent and aristocratic bearwards, indicating that they were still travelling in these winter months.

 

 

Were the bears fed?

We can see from two sets of accounts held at Dulwich College that bearwards were making sure the bears were fed every day. There are detailed notes of how much money was spent on ‘breade for the beares’ (see more in our Resource content for a Bearward’s Diary). We can also see from this source that the bears were accompanied by a butcher on these travels. This information suggests that care was taken to ensure that the bears were fed (or at least, those licenced by the Master of the Royal Game of Bulls, Bears, and Mastiffs were). This makes commercial sense for two reasons: 1) bears are expensive and not easily replaced, so taking care of your star asset would have been important. 2) presumably crowds would not be pleased to see tired or starving animals being forced to fight, as that would remove some of the status of fighting them with your dog. This may have put some pressure on bearwards to make sure that their bears, at least outwardly, looked fit.

Conclusion

In summary, then, we can say it is unlikely that the early modern bears hibernated, either because they continued to be fed or because they were of low body weight. In addition, the archives show that baitings did occur over the Christmas and New Year periods in a variety of locations across England. It is worth remembering this was a mini-ice age; Elizabethan winters would have been colder than ours today, and this offers context for England’s winter-active bears. For instance, a preacher described the winter of 1571 as “a time of […] hard and sharp weather of frost and snow” (A Prayer, Norwich). The student Thomas Hill’s weather forecast for the following year was clearly inspired by this cold; he predicted January would likewise be “inclined to snow,” and that the 13th would be “raw cold” (A Prognostication, London: 1571, D1v-2r). That day in 1571, a bearward and his bear made their way to Southampton, as recorded in the city’s accounts.  We might well imagine the weather for any “sport” on that occasion—and on their following visit on the 28th—would be as bracing as any Boxing Day football match.

We know that the archives that survive are limited, so it is perhaps likely that baitings were more common in the summer, but this cannot be demonstrated on the basis of our compiled data. So, as you settle into turkey and tinsel, you can reflect on a time when winter revels were not marked by the visit of Santa, but rather the arrival of the King’s or Queen’s bearward, perhaps with one of their named bears.

More Questions

There is much more to be explored around the timings of baitings, and we will  include some consideration of the Royal Revels at Christmas too.

Further Links

Hannah O'Regan

Author:

Prof. Hannah O’Regan is an archaeologist at the University of Nottingham.

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