Falconry in the Middle Ages

A brief summary, mostly about falconry in medieval England.

by Grethe

Historically, no bird of prey has shared as close a relationship with humans as the falcon did during the Middle Ages, when the sport of falconry and hawking were an important part of life. It reigned as the most popular sport in England for more than four centuries. So important were falcons in England that the first laws aimed at protecting birds of prey were treated here. Perhaps no such stringent laws have ever been passed to protect a wild bird or animal. Somehow wildlife conservation was born during the age of falconry.

No one knows exactly where or when humans started using trained raptors to hunt for food, but a theory says that it probably came into existence by the nomads on the Asian steppes around 2000-1600 B.C., from where it spread east to China and west to Arabia, Persia and Europe.

The first record of humans using birds of prey for hunting comes from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in the early part of the seventh century B.C. References to falconry in China are as early as 680 B.C., but one Japanese work states that falcons were used as gifts to Chinese princes during the Hsia dynasty, 206-220 B.C.

With the increasing trade falconry reached the Mediterranean about 400 A.D. Germanic tribes acquired the sport around the sixth century A.D., and by 875 A.D. it was practiced through western Europe and Saxon England.

The first documented English falconer was the Saxon king of Kent, Ethelbert II (died 762), followed by Alfred the Great and Athelstan in the ninth century. After the Norman conquest in 1066, new raptor species were introduced in England. The Normans restricted falconry to the upper classes, and peasants could be hanged for keeping hawks. Yeomen were allowed to use the short-winged hawks, like goshawks and sparrowhawks, to hunt for food, but only king and nobility were allowed to have the more noble long-winged falcons, like gyrfalcon, peregrine and merlin.

There are few written sources about falconry in the period before the Middle Ages, but already around year 1000 big amounts of art and literature began to emerge. Beyond being hunting birds the falcons were symbols of power, strength and superiority and found their place in coat of arms, banners and tapestries. The famous Bayeux tapestry is one of the best preserved contemporary sources. The first 10-15 meters of the embroidery is about a falcon hunt of Harold Godwinson's.

In the thirteenth century Frederick II of Hohenstaufen brought the sport to its highest state of respectability, when he wrote "The Art of Falconry". The book took over thirty years to complete, and as one of the first scientific works about birds placed him as one of the founders of ornithology. He introduced the Arabic practice of hooding falcons to keep them tranquil during training. His work also holds several pages of interesting instructions for dog trainers. The falcons often worked in conjunction with special trained hunting dogs, raised with the falcons since puppy hood. Frederick II's book is available for modern readers, newly edited and reprinted in 1969.

The position of falconer was usually handed down from father to son. In a royal household he was called Lord Falconer, sitting fourth from the king at table. He was responsible for capturing, training and caring for the hawks. He was a key number of the hunt, planning with the lord which birds to fly at which prey. He also rode to war with the lord, bringing the birds along to hunt for food.

During the Hundred Year's War falcons accompanied their masters across the Channel to the battles of Grecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. When Edward III invaded France, he had thirty falconers with him. John of Gaunt often brought hunting parties to the Test Valley, and since it was due to the practice of ringing these birds, the huntings are documented in the Domesday Book.

Neither hawks or falcons are suitable house-pets because they have spectacular mode of excretion, they are tradionally kept on special perches standing in sand, the mews. Richard II let build the Royal Mews at Charing Cross in London, and the office of Master of the Mews is still extant.

Falconry remained popular among royalty until the reign of George III. The Stuarts were particularly fond of the sport. Henry VIII was perhaps the most important falcon advocate since Frederick II. Mary, Queen of Scots, was an ardent fan of the merlins("milady's falcon"), and Elizabeth, who liked the sport herself, occassionally let Mary out of the dungeon for short hawking excursions.

Falcons were so highly valued that they were worth more than their weight in gold. During one bloody crusade in the late fourteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and turned down Philip's offer of 200.000 gold ducats for ransom. Instead Beyazid wanted and was given something even more precious, twelve white gyrfalcons.

Falconry's popularity became a status symbol in medieval society, but it was a rather expensive pleasure. The birds required intricate housing and all kinds of accessories- and falconers were required to feed the birds a balanced diet on a daily basis. The average citizen kept more common birds like sparrowhawks and goshawks. According to the Boke of St. Albans of 1486, written by Dame Juliana Barnes, the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, there was a type of bird of prey for each class of feudal society. To keep a falcon that was above one's station was a felony, and the typical punishment was cutting off hands of people, who committed that crime.

People brought their pet falcon everywhere, perched on hand or wrist. Falcons were very popular among the clergy and were taken into religious services, especially nuns were rarely seen without their falcon on their wrist. Knights took their favourite birds to church so often that eventually rules were made to bar them. A few couples even got married with falcons on their fists. A lady was advised by her husband to take her bird everywhere with her so that it would become accustomed to people. Elements of the sport were found nearly everywhere. The Lisle Letters, published in six volumes by Muriel St. Claire Bryne, reveals how thoroughly falconry permeated various realities of life in the household of Lord and Lady Lisle.

In Shakespeare's works the reader will probably get a more distinct vision of falconry and the sporting pastimes of the aristocracy of that day than in any other way. To understand falconry and the falconer's words was an important part of the upbringing of young men and women, and it was often a necessity in order to understand the expressions in art and in some of Shakespeare's plays. In Shapespeare's time it was usual to go hunting in the afternoon, and when the falcon went up for the heron in a North Western wind, the falconer couldn't know the falcon from the heron, because he had the sun in his eyes. Therefore the words in Hamlet: " I am but mad north northwest, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

The Golden Age of falconry ended several centuries ago, due to the discovery of the firearms, but also because the feudal systems changed, and the forests were cleared for farmland.

Borrowed words:

The word codger, used today to describe an elderly person, can be traced back to the falconry term, cadger, who carried a portable perch called a cadge for a falconer. Most cadgers were old falconers.

Callow, which is a nestling raptor whose feathers are still in the blood-quill stage, is now used to describe someone who is young or untested.

When raptors drink , it is called bowsing. A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer, the term used to describe the same tendency in humans.

The falcon's maximum speed:

Speed is the falcon's forte. If birds of prey were airplanes, then the eagles, the buzzards, the kites would be the gliders, and the falcons would be the jets. Estimates of the maximum speed of a falcon dive are as fast as 273 miles an hour (440 km/h) based on analysis of motion-picture footage of a falcon in full vertical dive taken by the Naval Research Laboratory in England in WWII. Most biologists, however, estimate the falcon's maximum velocity at 150 to 200 miles an hour ( 240 to 320 km/h), which is still faster than any other animal on earth.


Bettina Buhl: Falkoneren og hans jagtfugl
Shawn E. Carroll: Ancient and Medieval Falconry
Michael Tennesen: Flight of the Falcon
Edith Wenzel: Kunsten at jage med rovfugle

3 November, 2005

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