Fox-Tossing: Lessons in horrific/ridiculous history


Is there a German word for "the feeling you get when something is so ridiculous that you want to laugh, yet is simultaneously jaw-droppingly horrible"? Can we make one up?

I ask, because I recently discovered Fox-Tossing, a 17th/18th century European pastime that is exactly what it sounds like. People would go out in a field and set up a little fenced-in court. Then high-society types would stand, in pairs, holding slack ropes. Then a bunch of foxes would be released into the court. When the foxes ran over the ropes, the players pulled the ropes tight, launching the foxes up into the air. Repeat until all foxes are dead.

Aren't you glad we can rot our brains with TV now, instead?

According to the Ptak Science Books blog:

Fleming's Deutsche Jaeger (published in 1719) produced this (above) image, and commented on it: "Skilled male tossers could toss a fox 24 ft. high...At a famous fox-tossing in Dresden there were tossed some 687 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers, 21 wild cats, and at the end 34 young wild boar and 3 wolves...."

And a partridge in a pear tree. 10:00 am isn't too early to start drinking, right?

UPDATE: Resident German commenter Tillwe has offered a couple of possibilities: First, "fürchterliche Witzigkeit" (lit. frighteningly funnyness). He/she says that captures the mood best, but, to pack it all into one word, we could use "Grausamkeitsspäße" (lit. "funny cruelties").


  1. …So when some a-hole is going on about how much more civilised everyone was back then (ignoring all the wars and nasty stuff) feel free to bring this up. Sick f*ckers.

    1. So are we more civilized now (aside from all the wars & stuff)? Would the people “back then” think so?

      I would wager, at least, that there were a lot more foxes around back then, even if some were getting tossed.

  2. …We needn’t bring the German speakers into this. Just use:

    “That’s the most fox-tossing story I’ve heard all week.”

  3. If you did it with robotic animals rather than living ones, it sounds like it could actually be quite a fun game.

  4. the best matching german word would be “da bleibt einem das Lachen im Halse stecken”.

    people were sick at all times. i’d probably prefer upperclass-tossing.

  5. And now all of our animal torture is done on a much larger scale and out of the general public’s sight. Are we any more humane?

  6. Its horrible I know but the technical aspects of this are actually quite interesting.

    Someone please make a game with this premise ASAP!

  7. As a German, I feel challenged by

    “the feeling you get when something is so ridiculous that you want to laugh, yet is simultaneously jaw-droppingly horrible”

    There is no such word, but …

    “something is ridiculous” would be “lächerlich” or even “lachhaft” or “witzig”, or, to get a noun, a “Spass” or a “Witz”.

    “something is jaw-droppingly horrible” would maybe be “furchtbar” or “fürchterlich” or “gräßlich” or “grauenhaft” or “grausam”

    And then, there of course is “schadenfreude”.

    Working from that, we need a noun like “freude”, but vor the horrible part – something like “Furcht” or “Ekel” or “Grusel” or “Fürchterlichkeit” or “Grausamkeit”.

    So, the first attempt could be a “lächerliche Grausamkeit” (lit. ridiculous cruelty) or “fürchterliche Witzigkeit” (lit. frighteningly funnyness). But I guess you want some of these funny German words that are fixed together. And not a mixed word like “gruslachhaft”. (lit. ridicruelus).

    So, my attenmpt to get a German word for such activties would be “Grausamkeitsspäße” (lit. “funny cruelties”). But something like “fürchterlich witzig” (frighteningly funny) would get the mood better.

    1. My vote would go to “grauserlich” or some such, i.e. “grausam” (cruel, atrocious) and “lächerlich” (absurd, ridiculios).

      If you want to use real words (wuss!), “fürchterlich witzig” does the job nicely, though, because (for the benefit of all non-germans) “fürchterlich” can also mean “very very much”, but implies irony when used in combination with “witzig” (i.e., funny). There you have it.

  8. I prefer Ferret Legging. It seems like more of a risk to the competitors than the ferrets.

    Of course drinking at 10am is usually how most of these sports get started.

  9. God help me…it occurs to me that this could make a fairly successful Flash game (I initially said “good,” but no…just, no).

  10. In much of the Netherlands apparently the pastime of choice was palingtrekken: string up a live eel above the gracht (like a canal, but in town); punt boats a fast as possible underneath; dude who is able to tear the largest part off of the eel wins.

    In Amsterdam in 1886 25 people got killed during riots when the police tried to prevent a bout of eel ripping. This is known as the palingoproer (“eel fracas”).

    Wouldn’t it be fun to say Remembrance of the Eel Fracas is a national holiday in the Netherlands?

    Well, it isn’t.

    An etching:

  11. Is there a German word for “the feeling you get when something is so ridiculous that you want to laugh, yet is simultaneously jaw-droppingly horrible”? Can we make one up?

    I propose “simultanurkomischundschrẹcklich” (“simultaneously hilarious and terrible”… at least, according to five minutes spend on an online dictionary by someone with no knowledge of German)

    1. It’s a bit less of a free for all now, and very few people kill animals purely for sport – they generally get eaten.

      Understand that i’m the kind of person who moves snails off the pavement so they wont be stepped on, not some crazy animal murderer :P

  12. I’m picturing a new reality show where we sub wall street bankers and hedge fund managers for the foxes.

  13. “Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese. Goslings. They were juggled.” — Wash, “Firefly”

  14. I love bulldogs.

    You should look at why they’re called that.

    My bulldogs are tenacious (read: focused, persistent, fearless, and stubborn) and, as Caesar Millan put it, “Pain doesn’t make a bulldog stop. It just makes him mad.”

    Ironically, my current big tough bulldog bruiser boy will cry if you yell at him – once he snaps out of the fury.

  15. It’s interesting to see this today.

    Last night, I just finished watching one of those David Attenborough nature docs about whales or something, and it ended with the infamous “killer whales hunting and then playing with baby seals” stuff. Near the end of it, they were using their tails to flip the dead/dying/terrified baby seal FAAAAR into the sky, and watching it crash back down to the sea. Ol’ Dave’s narration was pretty much like “Maybe they do it to teach the baby whales how to hunt? But I dunno, man, they could just be tremendous jerks.”

    No question that fox-tossing is an incredibly cruel and vicious. But I’ve got a hard time separating out this from what the killer whales did with baby seals. Unusual cruelty to fellow living things is apparently not a uniquely human trait (as I’m sure anyone with a cat might also tell you).

    Makes me wonder what kind of evolutionary process selects for this stuff, and what might be working on us now that we can see such a thing as pretty abhorrent.

    1. That is interesting.

      I can accept play as a form of training, and how using live prey to do so would be optimal. And cruelty doesn’t come into it if you can’t empathise with your prey.

      So it’s almost like evolving the capacity to identify/empathise with your prey (eg. capable of cruelty) would be the unnatural thing.. because you’re gonna be hungry pretty soon if you don’t have another eating strategy; empathy says “don’t eat me!”

      What have we become?

      1. “I can accept play as a form of training, and how using live prey to do so would be optimal.”

        The things pointed out in the doc included that the “baby seal hunting season” only lasts for about two weeks (so usually these whale are eating other things), and that while the baby seal would be dragged out to deep water still alive, they’d keep playing with the thing long after it had died (for like half an hour, just chucking dead seals around).

        Part of me wonders if this isn’t a sort of intelligence, devoid of empathy, the idea that seal cubs or foxes are things you can do interesting things to. Surely, we generally don’t see either critter flying through the air that often, so it’s sort of viscerally fascinating when it happens…

    1. I’m with fataltourist.

      I think this could be a grand sport for the modern age.

      FOX Tossing: A game in which a number of people stand around a caged field, each holding one end of a rope. At the start of the game a number of hosts from FOX news are released into the field. Then as Glenn Beck, or maybe O’Reilly, race over your rope you and your partner pull the rope sharply up, tossing the FOX host into the air. The game continues until all FOX hosts are bloodied enough to admit they’re evil people doing a major disservice to our nation, or are mangled to death.

      -abs would totally watch that in order to get a few moments of schadenfreude, but in the end he doubts even he could stomach it for too long, so maybe the original AND the 20th Century FOX version should both be tossed into the trash, ah well . .. .

  16. I’ve long considered myself to be a “skilled male tosser,” but I thought it meant something completely different….

  17. Foxes may seem “cute” to us now, but to people of the time they were simply vermin that could cause real economic hardship to small farmers by killing poultry or young animals. We may be repelled by the brutality of the ‘game’, but it’s not hard to imagine why no one was particularly concerned about cruelty to foxes.

    Of course, it took ‘high-society types’ to invent a particularly inefficient and cruel way of disposing of pests. And presumably this was a sport for rich people because someone had to be paid to go and round up enough foxes for the game. The same is true of present-day fox-hunting: there’s a significant capital cost involved in participation, so it’s a sport for the rich.

    Contrast rat-baiting, a more plebeian blood sport. Easy availability of rats in urban areas meant that anyone could play (although again the rich would be the ones placing the biggest bets on the outcome).

    Too much spare time and too much money do seem to encourage cruel sports: fox-tossing may be ugly, but it pales in comparison with tipping the lion, a pastime popularized by an allegedly-aristocratic street gang called the Mohocks.

    1. “but it pales in comparison with tipping the lion”

      It’s a lot worse if you don’t tip your lion.

  18. As I’m reading this a fox is getting some morning zzzz’s 20 feet from where I’m sitting. It’s one of his favorite spots. He gets sun, he’s on a hill so he can keep an eye on things, and he knows we won’t bother him. He and his mate spend the very early hours hunting. They call to each other by harsh barks and whistles. I’m hoping at some point we might get a peek at their kits (if they have any). What sad, frightened mind came with fox tossing? I suppose part of it came from the belief that Christians had then (and many still do) that God gave man dominion over animals, which they chose to translate in this fashion.

  19. “… what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.” Hunter S.

  20. It’s all fun and games until we discover that space aliens have a sense of irony and Human Tossing becomes all the rage.

  21. It would seem to be extraordinarily dangerous to be in an enclosure with angry, injured badgers, wildcats, wolves and wild boars.

  22. From the linked article:
    “The sport was especially popular as an activity for mixed couples, with the rivalry between the separate couples adding to the entertainment. At Augustus’s 1648 contest, 34 boars were driven into the enclosure “to the great delectation of the cavaliers, but to the terror of the noble ladies, among whose hoop-skirts the wild boars committed great havoc, to the endless mirth of the assembled illustrious company.” The same contest also saw the introduction of three wolves, but the reaction of the participants to this unusual departure is not recorded.”

    They also mention dressing the animals up in silly costumes first, as well. This sounds decidedly less one sided than it did at first to me. Boars, for one, hate silly costumes. A pissed off wild boar under my hoop skirt would not be a encounter I would devise for recreational purposes. That is, unless I’d grown terribly bored with shaving the boars and mud wrestling them.

    1. “Boars, for one, hate silly costumes.”

      Foxes, on the other hand, love fancy dress parties, and are partial to waistcoats and feathered hats. Presenting them with a pocket watch can distract them from biting you when you break it to them that they’re going to be flipped into the air with a rope until they’re dead.

      Wolves insist on kilts and austere linen blouses.

  23. My favorite from “Ye Goode Olde Days” is “Cock Throwing” where usually young kids tie a rooster, to a post or hanging by it’s feet from a tree limb then toss weights at it. The weights are sticks with globs of lead melted to the end, and it was done for so long there were “Regulation” weights. The game itself was a skilled form of “Gambling” where you got points based on throw distance, weight of throw, hitting the bird, reaction from the bird, etc. But-if you were the guy that killed the bird, you either lost big time -or- lost so many points you usually lost anyways. The “Bet” was usually 1 in 4 (bird killer) loses all, but the other three were scaled so the one with the most ‘points’ won the most.

    I wouldn’t want it done again in RL. “Jolley Olde Englande” outlawed it in the early 1800s, causing mass riots of kids and adults deprived their “Good honest fun”.

    But, I think it’d be awesome if a hacker would, instead of crude website vandalism or identity theft, sneak in an ‘alternative’ plan to one of the many companies that’s exported all manufacturing to China. Just intercept the designer’s plans, like one of those semi-robotic toy chickens, and turn it into something with a similar “Bid” (cost/difficulty to manufacture) but horribly, horribly twisted like “Rooster Throwing” of course the weights will have to be plastic with non-lead metal. Then have the robotics just randomly take “Hits” registered by motion sensors inside the thing making the bird gawk and shake till it “Croaks”:-) For an added bonus there could be a ‘blood pak’ that claims very falsely it’ll wash off easily, but in reality be a very strong super wash resistant fabric dye. Imagine some parents coming home and seeing “Rooster Tossing”? Imagine PETA seeing it on the store shelves;-)

    The funny thing is, if a hacker did that in the 80s as we used to fantasize/worry about, (Bloom County had Oliver doing it all the time) “Horror Toys” and “Chunky Fish Ice Cream” wouldn’t leave the factory. The first worker on the production line, a well paid loyal American one, would have pulled the “Emergency Stop” cord and when the boss ran to see what was going on would have been congratulated and rewarded…before he went to rip off the heads of a dozen other people who could have stopped it before it got to that stage.

    Now, if someone intercepts the “Play Clay farm” before it’s sent to the factory in China or elsewhere and turns it into the “Play clay Auschwitz” nobody will know, care to know, have any incentive or ability to stop it till it’s on the shelves of the “Toys4Kidz” store for weeks and the media finds out and freaks out!

  24. “If you did it with robotic animals rather than living ones, it sounds like it could actually be quite a fun game.”

    Rachael, you’ll be the first against the wall when the singularity comes.

  25. To make up a German word for “so ridiculous that you want to laugh, yet simultaneously jaw-droppingly horrible” i propose to create the new adjective “dieterbohlich”.

    Reason: the last time i got exactly this feeling was when i had to watch several minutes of the Dieter Bohlen TV show “DSDS – Deutschland sucht den Superstar”.

  26. “Fox tossing” sounds dirty, like some advanced sex act.

    Imagine this conversation, “I was with this girl last night and she was really into fox tossing. it’s kind of nasty at first, but after a while it felt good.”

  27. Barbara Tuchman wrote about a delightful game common in medieval Poland that involved tying a cat to a tree, its back to the trunk. Contestants with hands tied behind their backs had to headbutt the cats to death without getting their eyes clawed out (I’m not sure if that’s an automatic disqualification or not).

  28. excuse moi… i m german and i can not appreciate because i can not understand. “people killing foxes by pulling ropes”!?!? i don’t want to de-demonize anything that my ancestors did (I m pretty used to that), but: halleleuya, how do you kill a fox by straightening a rope (as descibed in the text)!?!

    1. #64: “how do you kill a fox by straightening a rope (as described in the text)!?!”

      By pulling the rope right REALLY FAST and HARD so that the fox, standing over the rope, is shot into the air.

  29. For a German word that fits the bill- how about “schräckerlich” — a combination of “schrecklich” –terrible, horrible and “lächerlich” — i.e. ridiculous.
    Fox-tossing/Fuchsprellen–sowas “Schräckerliches!”

  30. How many of you would express the same repulse if it werent foxes but cockroaches or something else disgusting like that?

    Plus, 150 years in the future, wouldn’t your offspring express the same revulsion from your values and beliefes?
    (And the animal issue is just an example)

  31. Guys, the reason German is so famous for its compound words is because it goes all out and just sticks them together. It doesn’t get afraid of extra syllables and drop them the way English does.

    If you want to use lächerlich, put -lächerlich not -erlich.

  32. European history is littered with games and festivals that incorporated what we now think of as cruelty to animals in some way. Of course back then animals were either tools, livestock or simply pests. Another example from Belgium is the Kattenstoet (festival of cats) in Yper when cats (we use the stuffed kind now) are thrown out of the Belfry : “Before modern heating and storage methods, when it got cold the wool was stored in the upper floors of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhall). Cats were brought in to control the vermin. At the start of the spring warm-up after the wool had been sold the cats were tossed out of the belfry, which symbolised the killing of evil spirits”

  33. It just occurred to me that there are a lot of computer games centered around the same kind of behavior. E.g. Cat-a-pult. Let’s face it, there’s a part in all of us that thinks cutesy animals flying through the sky is hilarious.

    1. Actually, the name catapult comes from the Greek katapeltes “pierce shield” (thing was like a giant crossbow).
      No cats (or pullets) involved.

  34. Actually they had a simular passtime back then, it was called Peasant Tossing!

    They haven’t run out of this kind of vermin yet. Though they have reboubled their efforts in the last hundred years or so.

    Back then the common term was crusade. Today it is called WAR…

  35. Der Fuchs ist zum kaputtlachen.
    [The fox is break-laughable] This pun sum up the feelings of the players towards the fox, reusing a word that usually is thought to be self referential, i.e. someone laughs so hard he falls apart. The grammar does not signify who is doing the falling apart, though, so it semantically correct.

  36. It doesn’t surprise me that people always protest when such things are forbidden. The fox hunts, the eel tossing, bullfighting, bearbaiting, beaver-pitfights, you name it, if the government steps in to stop it, people are a-bustle, and fists start to fly.

    On that note: Back when football was still roughly 300 people on both sides tossing a wooden spool at each other across an entire english village, there were regular injuries or fatalities both among players and bystanders. When the government forbade the whole thing, it took several units of soldiers and the reading of the riot act to convince people to stop bashing each others heads in.

    Mankind has an interesting and inherent enthusiasm for hurting. Each other, animals, nature, you name it, we hurt it.

  37. i think the word ‘beklemmend’ might be fitting…. but you know… it is still a german custom and practice at weddings in the country today – using puppies – we´ve been running out of foxes recently. but there´s an old german saying: “if the first fox (puppy) dies at the first launch the couple will have seven daughters”

    just kidding

  38. Don’t know German, but Mandarin Chinese has just the idiom you’re looking for: “Ku xiao bu de” (Don’t know whether to laugh or cry)

  39. Isn’t a wolf a bit heavy to toss? And if you let one out in that fenced in area, wouldn’t it try to eat the people in there?

  40. Dear BoingBoing,

    Please make ‘Fox-Tossing’ a neologism for FOX News.

    -your loyal readers

  41. Maybe we could apply this form on entrainment to the FOX network until they are extinct.

  42. How about modern times?
    Bull fighting,
    sports fishing.
    game hunting,
    animal experimentation

    In two hundred years, what will our descendants think of us?

  43. What did European’s have against foxes? Same thing Americans have. Fowl and poultry is not safe when foxes abound. There are other ways to deal with it but killing all the foxes is also an effective method. The obviously knew what they were doing…they just seemed to really get down with the Absurd.

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