Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nobility and Falconry

For the first time we get a complete treatise and an entire section in Albertus on Falconry with vivid descriptions of the actual birds, as if they were looking at them. Our previous readings have been less detailed on the actual care of the animal and rather more about the social aspects, or picking a servant to do the work then moving towards a discussion of the monetary values of the animal. For example we did not read about the details of an oxen or the eye color of a sheep. These readings were definitely unique in this sense; the authors had experience and were confident in their knowledge of the actual birds. Therefore, what struck me most from the readings, Frederick II and Albertus, was that there is a definite connection between the nobility and falconry. Why this is surprising to me, I am not sure. We have already read about rabbit warrens, artificial fish ponds, and large flocks of sheep that help flaunt the wealth of nobles. Why are these birds so unique and so important? For one Frederick is compelled to write on them in great detail.  

To begin to piece together the different aspects of falconry and its connection to nobility, I tried to draw distinctions between these human/animal relationships. First, fish and rabbits are solely cared for by someone under the noble. The owner is completely removed from the animal except for the display factor that naturally occurs with having these animals on property as well as raised and consequently eaten by them for food. The sheep and other livestock are also for a food or agricultural reasons, while nice to have they do not “flash” nobility like the falcons, and once again the noble is distant from their care. There does exist a profession of caring for the falcons, the falconer. Frederick II impresses upon his reader how important it is to make sure the falconer is well qualified down to the issues his dating life. There are specific concerns in finding the right man for the job of caring for his falcons.[1]  Rabbit warreners were also highly important with the fragile rabbits in and Bailey explains that they were also valued as a profession that was not to be taken for granted or cut corners with. “Landlords soon realized that this was ‘a trade not learned in five minutes and a good warrener is worth any number of poor ones’ and paid them handsome wages”.[2] This does not mean that the raising of rabbits is in any way equivalent with the art of falconry, rather rabbits were released to help train the falcons or eaten and made into clothing, nothing comes close to the falcons with regard to the rabbits.

Why then is there such a display of wealth and status attached with the birds? As Professor Fulton brought up today, wouldn’t horses make more sense? They are bigger, you can breed them at least, and actually get to ride them somewhere…a bird offers little affection and is a lot of extra work. While people on their horses appear in art there is something unique about the art that shows (women included) nobles holding their falcons. I did some youtube research and saw a video of people in Mongolia holding falcons larger than myself (that and the people looked smaller). These falcons took down a wolf! Why in the world would someone want to carry this around? The art from the middle ages clearly depicts the each noble carrying his or her falcon, not the noble followed by a falconer carrying their falcon. There is a definite ownership to each falcon by each owner and a personal commitment to the time involved with caring for the bird.[3]

Next I want to explore, the interesting relationship with nature that the nobility were able to appreciate over the lower or working classes, despite this being obvious. What is unique and something of a phenomenon to us “city folk,” is that the nobility could have a relationship with nature that was one appreciative and awe inspiring by taming a creature and on command going out into a field just to watch it fly at their command. While this is not “true falconry” according to Frederick, it is still a chance for the falcon owners to awe at nature.[4] In class we discussed this as a sort of “manipulation” of nature, a “fake” nature by taking some instincts and subduing others of the falcons for falconry. Is this not nature? What aspects of the bird need to remain for the animal to be still part of nature? What are the essential characteristics of the falcon that it absolutely needs to possess (freedom possibly?) for it to be a falcon and not a pet? When does a dog loose its “dogness”? While these nobles were going out and appreciating nature and the beauty of the falcon’s flight or even just its plumage, were they not seeing nature anymore? Instead was and is this a manipulated manmade version? For example teaching a falcon to go after prey it normally would not- is that still watching a part of nature? An analogy that might be a stretch: are rows of corn or tomato plants not nature?

I was also struck by “Medieval Hunting” (chapter 4 in Resl), that Christianity was also influenced by falconry. I feel that this ties into the aspect of nobility as well. We saw in previous readings about warrens and rabbits that the idea of a rabbit is taken up by the Church as symbolic for people and Christ, the rabbit is even more fragile than a sheep, which made a good analogy – that is until it proved problematic that only the very wealthy or fancy monasteries actually owned rabbits and became more of a class divide than unifier. This again seems problematic with the falcons. Chapter 4, “Medieval Hunting” in Resl states, “hawking has however been employed as a metaphor for the elevation of the soul…or even for the love of Christ: in a fifteenth-century poem Christ is said to win back sinners to grace by showing them his wounds, as a falconer lures back his hawk by offering it meat.”[5] This is personally a hard connection for me, but falconry is not as big in my social setting as it was for those who wrote the poem. It made sense to them. I can see this as another problem with the Church as falconry was something “noble” or only a few could afford and possibly segregated those who did not have the means to raise and tame falcons. To be fair the chapter in Resl does continue to say that hunting was also compared to that of the devil hunting for souls.[6] Yet that was not the metaphorical “shotgun” to falconry, it continued to flourish and remain even a part of the clergy’s life.

I think these articles give us a chance to look at our modern conception of what it means to be “noble,” and the possibility of multiple definitions. Maybe we are too stringent on how we look back and impose our thoughts of the noble society. Jealously, for one, over the fact that they did not have student loans, they were probably not all bad people and it could mean more than owning land or possessing great amounts of wealth. Their appreciation and fascination with falcons was a connection to nature that they could and did enjoy, which is evident especially in Frederick II. Even though their bird was tied to a rope, was it still not an impressive bird? I had a parakeet for a week when I was little and I thought that was pretty cool.


[1] Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, trans. and ed. Casey E. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943), p.150  
[2] Bailey, Mark. “The Rabbit and the Medieval East Anglican Economy,” The Agricultural History Review 36 (1988) p.7
[3] Frederick, pp.153,154,197, and 199 to name a few
[4] Frederick, p.151
[5] An Smets and Baudouin can den Abeele, “Medieval Hunting,” in A cultural History of Animals, ed. Resl,  p.74
[6] Medieval Hunting, p.75


  1. Arguably, dogs never lose their "dogness" as long as they are with people. Put another way, it is part of "dogness" to be with people; wild dogs are the anomaly, just as wild humans are. Dogs belong in human society, whether as workers or as pets. Falcons seem to fall into a different category. They are tamed but not domesticated. Can we say that it is in their nature to be able to be tamed? That's a hard one. And yet, MacDonald tells some stories in her book about falcons being almost affectionate--perhaps even affectionate, period, not almost. The interesting thing about dogs is that they are one of the very, very few animals out of the thousands of mammalian species and I-don't-know-how-many others that have made humans part of their society. The interesting thing about falcons is that of all the wild animals in the world, somehow it is possible to persuade them to fly back to us. A mystery!


  2. Perhaps part of the reason that the nobility identified their status so much with falcons rather than, say, horses, is that falcons can only be used in hunting. While nobles could certainly have afforded higher-quality horses than commoners, and certainly had many uses for them, a horse is essentially a beast of burden, a servant that does heavy labor--and one that is useful to peasants working on a farm as well as to nobles out hunting or fighting.

    A falcon, on the other hand, is kept entirely for its value in hunting (and a fairly time-consuming and inefficient form of hunting that would be impractical for peasants even if they were allowed to take part).

    Furthermore, falcons can be seen as symbolic of a nobility that defines itself by its roles in hunting and warfare: they are efficient predators in a way that few animals that humans regularly tame are, and they are kept solely for their abilities as predators. While dogs are also carnivores, domesticated dogs have been socialized by millennia of living with humans in a way that dilutes their predatory nature. Furthermore, an independent and solitary falcon was probably a more acceptable role-model for nobles than a pack of social and servile dogs.

  3. I agree that horses are a difficult "noble" item because peasants also had them. However, Frederick also suggests that lower nobles (if not peasants) also used birds for hunting.

    However, one of the things that may help make them "noble" is simply the avian nature of falconry. There is something distinctly "unearthly" about flight and the ability to use that ability at will. I know everyone wants to fly, so perhaps the ability to at least control flight added to the nobility of falconry?