Falconry in the Middle Ages
The basic definition of falconry is the use of birds of prey to fly after quarry. During the Middle Ages it became so much more than that, both in imagery and everyday life, with a social distinction between the types of birds that paralleled the social distinction of the people. The sport was a pastime of the nobility, as well as a basic way of providing food. Favorite birds were taken to church so often that many churches had rules prohibiting it. So valued were prize falcons that they were often gifted from one noble to another.
Falconry began in China around 2,000 B.C., and slowly spread west, reaching Britain by 860 A.D. The Normans restricted falconry rights to the upper classes, and peasants could be hanged for keeping hawks. Yeomen were allowed to use short-winged hawks to hunt for food, as they were ‘ignoble’. Out of this practice the French came to refer to goshawks as cuisiniers. Commoners weren’t allowed to have the more noble long-winged falcons.
The association with nobility was underscored in literature. Bandello wrote two stories about falcons. In one, the falcon of Emperor Frederick is sent after a crane, but instead brings down an eagle. The Emperor has the bird beheaded for killing its lord. In the second version, it’s the King of Persia’s falcon that has killed an eagle. This time the falcon is set upon a small dais and given a small gold crown (to recognize its bravery) before being beheaded.
The Falconer or Master of Falconry
The position of falconer was usually handed down from father to son. The falconer was responsible for capturing, training, and caring for the hawks. In training the birds, he wasn’t teaching them how to kill, but how to return to captivity. The falconer made jesses (leg straps) and hoods for the birds and leather gloves for the owners. He was a key member of the hunt, planning beforehand with the lord which birds to fly at which prey, and being on hand to mend any broken harnesses. The falconer also rode to war with the lord, bringing the birds along to hunt for food. The falcons often worked in conjunction with hunting dogs… not the usual pack of hunting dogs, but specially trained dogs raised with the falcons since puppyhood.
The ideal falconer was an early riser, with good hearing, good eyesight, an even-temper, a loud calling voice, and the ability to swim. Unlike the other hunters, he was also valued for his sobriety.
In a royal household the position was called Lord Falconer, and was often granted to a member of the aristocracy. In this case the position was a ceremonial role, with others responsible for the day-to-day care of the birds. This was a high office, with the holder sitting fourth from the king at table.
Obtaining the Hawks
There was a constant demand for falcons, due to birds being lost, flying away, or dying. Nest sites of hawks were guarded, and disturbing a nest was a punishable offence. In Wartenstein, Austria, in the 15th century, peasants could be blinded or have their property confiscated for disturbing a nest. The taking of the hawks was usually restricted during the nesting season. People often brought birds to court for reward. They were ones that had been previously trained and then lost, as well as new birds netted with decoy pigeons.
The birds of prey could be taken young or later as full-grown birds. Older birds taken into captivity were the better hunters, but could never be trusted to be fully tame. Younger birds were easier to train, but screamed incessantly. The best time to capture a bird was soon after it left the nest.
The best birds were from Scandinavia, especially Norway. Flanders was a major trading site of birds coming from Scandinavia and Germany, and from there were sold to the rest of Europe. Konigsberg was the trading center of birds from the Baltic. And King’s Lynn was the port where birds entered Britain. Sometimes the falcons were trained before being resold to the nobility, but not always. The birds were transported in cadges, frames carried by men walking inside, with straps over their shoulders. Each cadge held 12 to 20 birds, sitting on padded bars. The term codger comes from cadge, as the carriers were often older falconers.
Distinctions among Hawks
Falcons are a type of hawk. Or to put it another way, all falcons are hawks, whereas all hawks are not falcons. The birds used in falconry are typically divided in one of two ways: by the type of bird, and by the way they are flown at the prey.
True falcons are long-winged and were restricted to the nobility. Gyrfalcons, peregrines, sakers, lanners, merlins, hobbies, and kestrels are all true falcons. These birds are also hawks of the lure, or hawks of the tower. Upon release, they circle hundreds of feet into the air waiting for the prey to be flushed out by beaters or dogs. They are trained to return from flight to a swinging lure. The lures are a weighted piece of leather on a long cord, decorated with feathers of the intended quarry. Meat is attached to lure a falcon back after an unsuccessful flight.
Accipiters have long tails and short wings designed for maneuvering under the forest canopy. While they can’t fly much faster than 60 mph, they can turn instantly and locate their quarry in dense vegetation. Goshawks and sparrowhawks are both accipiters. Accipiters are trained as hawks of the fist, meaning that they wait upon the wrist or fist until the game is flushed, then are flown straight at the prey.
There are exceptions, but the general rule is that true falcons are hawks of the lure, and accipiters are hawks of the fist. In the Middle Ages a social distinction existed between falconers of hawks of the lure versus hawks of the fist. The falconers looked down upon the austringers (who trained hawks of the fist).
Who Could Own Which Hawk?
The Boke of St. Albans, written in 1486, detailed the types of hawks along with who could own them.
Emperor – eagle, vulture, kite
While they could be trained, these large and/or beautiful birds were fairly useless in the hunt. The Kirghiz of Central Asia trained huge, fierce golden eagles to fly at desert foxes, one of the only times eagles were found to be of much use in falconry. The birds were so fierce, however, that if disappointed or unsuccessful in pursuit of their quarry, they were known to turn on their handlers.
King – gyrfalcon
The gyrfalcon is the largest and noblest of the falcons, fitting for a king. It’s similar to the peregrine, but heavier and harder to train. Its greater strength, however, enables it to achieve greater heights with less effort. In medieval times gyrfalcons were acquired from Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia.
Prince – peregrine falcon
The peregrine is a favorite of falconers, both then and now. It circles high overhead waiting for the quarry to be flushed, then dives for it at speeds up to 200 mph. In locations where the main quarry was wildfowl, it was sometimes called a hawk of the river.
Duke – rock falcon
Rock falcons are a subspecies of peregrine falcons.
Earl – tercel peregrine
The tercel was another name for the male of the species.
Baron – bastarde hawk
Bastarde hawk is another name for the common buzzard, and is the second most common hawk in Europe. They don’t maneuver well in the air and can be forced to the ground and killed by groups of other birds, such as jackdaws, crows, and ravens.
Knight – saker
Sakers were the bird of choice of Arab falconers. Their breeding grounds were in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Sakers are hardier than peregrines, but not useful for river quarry.
Squire – lanner
Lanners were used predominantly in France and Spain during the Middle Ages. Their quarry was partridges, herons, and hares. While in training they were often flown together with peregrines, and after training were flown in pairs.
Lady – female merlin
Merlins, also called pigeon hawks, are like miniature peregrines. They are capable of taking down quarry as large as themselves.
Yeoman – goshawk or hobby
The goshawks are ill-tempered, but perhaps the most useful for producing food. Hawks of the fist, they were often not hooded. Their quarry was partridges, pheasants, and hares. Their trainer was called an austringer.
Hobbies are small pretty birds, very swift, but not very useful. They live mostly on insects, but can take smaller birds in mid-flight. They were likely used more in teaching young nobles the art of falconry, rather than in actual hunts.
Priest – female sparrowhawk
Holy water clerk – male sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawks were also often carried by ladies and flown at partridges and pheasants. Very unpredictable, they were known to sometimes keel over and die for no apparent reason. Their trainer was properly known as a sparviter.
Knaves – kestrel
Kestrels hover over their prey by fanning their wings. Their prey is caught on the ground, never in flight.
Bodio, Stephen. The ancient art of falconry is still flying high. Smithsonian.
Campbell, Bruce, ed. A dictionary of birds.
Cummins, John. The hound and the hawk : the art of medieval hunting.
Galloway, Priscilla. Archers, alchemists, and 98 other medieval jobs you might have loved or loathed.
Morais, Richard C. The true sport of kings. Forbes.
Pictures from: www.clipart.com
~Write-up by Kester