Friday, October 29, 2010

Some Reflections on Fred

           After the class discussion on Wednesday, I decided to go back and examine more closely some key passages in Frederick the II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus. What resulted was a series of reflections, the attempt to reproduce which you can read below:

[N.B. All my quotes are taken from Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, trans. and ed. Casey E. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943).]

One of the issues raised in class was whether it is the noble that really practices falconry (including caring for the falcons) or the hired help? how does this affect the idea that falconry is a noble art? lastly, what is the dynamic between the master falconer and the noble, when they are out on the field, and the noble is being instructed? One fact that occurred to me upon rereading the prologue is that Frederick himself is a master of falconry. I think it would be unfair for us to assume that many nobles were not equally, or even more advanced in the art and caring for falcons than were the hired falconers. He writes, “We beg every nobleman who by reason of his rank should be interested in the contents of this work to order it read and explained to him by a master of the science” (4). It is true that nobles were often taught this “noble art” by non-nobles. But the latter quote suggests that the nobles aimed to become as skilled as the professional falconers. Again, we must not assume that the nobles were necessarily less skilled or involved in the art.
Professional falconers aside, the greatest difference between the practice of falconry by nobles and the practice of it by non-nobles is the goals each entertains. Whereas the lower ranks, according to Frederick, may practice it with the goal of obtaining the catch, the nobles do it for a higher purpose: “The pursuit of falconry enables nobles and rulers disturbed and worried by the cares of state to find relief in the pleasures of the chase. The poor, as well as the less noble, by following this avocation may earn some of the necessities of life; and both will find in bird life attractive manifestations of the processes of nature” (4). Both, we read, learn about (and master) nature, which must also be considered an auxiliary aim. The art of falconry, then, is something that gives immense pleasure, which may be associated with the practice of an inherently “noble” art. Frederick is hinting at something inherent to falconry which makes it noble. There is a reason why I think that the nobility of falconry is something inherent to the activity, and thus to the birds themselves. Even though the medieval folk did not have the scientific terms to describe why falcons are amazing animals, they nonetheless would have been able to see how fast falcons fly and dive; how well they can spot their prey, etc. The nobility of the art must have, at least to a small extent, stemmed from the features of the birds themselves.
Part of the appeal would have been the idea of mastering nature, as we discussed in class. And the idea of mastering these incredible birds must have been particularly appealing. Frederick writes that “All this is done that the falcon may be partially detached from her normal mode of life and renounce certain peculiarities, replacing them by other (acquired) habits and accomplishments” (152). What makes mastering falcons nobler than mastering other animals is their aversion to the company of men and, necessarily, their extraordinary physical attributes and abilities; also, that this sort of control requires extensive practice and learning.
Meanwhile, other kinds of venery were more appealing to the lower classes. But these other kinds of hunting were considered less noble not because they were practiced by non-nobles. Rather, “they are less noble because they depend merely upon the use of artificial implements…or they are carried on by means of four-footed animals” (5). Frederick continues the argument by explaining that falconry is “almost entirely conducted with the aid of birds of prey that are indeed more noble instruments of the chase than inanimate objects or trained quadrupeds” (6). He also adds that these birds are more difficult to train; so, falconry not only is more difficult but also necessitates the use of unusual skills. Frederick scathingly writes of dabblers who are fully capable of using dogs in venery. But he, with an apparent air of respect, writes that no dabbler can reach even ordinary knowledge of falconry; this knowledge requires that one has an experienced teacher and frequent exercise.
A particularly revealing passage in the work is where Frederick talks about the classes of falconers and the aims of the true falconer. He criticizes those falconers who exhaust their birds either because they want to catch more birds or see great flights. “It is only the fourth group that is to be fully approved. A falconer in this class secures the best hunting birds available; he does not abuse them, but preserves them in good health and in proper training. He does not overwork his falcons, and yet keeps them up to the mark in all respects. He is the one that realizes the essentials of a noble art” (152). Frederick also notes that the falconer should observe with “the greatest care the noblest canons of falconry” (152). But what are these essentials, and these canons? It would seem that they are the maintenance of good health and proper training of the birds, which manifests in good flight. This points, again, at the inherent nobility of the bird. In other words, what makes falconry noble are the attributes inherent to the animal; mastering the falcon is then necessarily more noble than mastering other animals.
Frederick writes in his prologue that “Here it may be claimed that, since many nobles and but a few of the lower rank learn and carefully pursue this art, one may properly conclude that it is intrinsically an aristocratic sport” (6). In this passage, it is suggested that falconry is not inherently ‘of the nobility,’ even if it is inherently noble. It becomes ‘of the nobility’ simply because it is the aristocracy which mostly practices it, and practices it properly. The nobility of the art must, then, be something inherent to it, as it is not noble because it is ‘of the nobility.’ We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg situation, but I think I have the answer: the art is noble, and then it becomes of the nobility, not the other way around.



  1. I like this argument, and I think that you are right in supposing that this is what Fred believes. But why was there a need to explore the nobility of hunting in the first place? We know that the people of the Middle Ages loved making hierarchies. It seems to me that "The nobility really like to hawk." "Well... Hawking IS a noble sport." "Ah! Then it is certainly befitting of the nobility!" may have been how this issue came up. This whole "explain something by backtracking and justifying it on its own terms" seems really medieval to me. And, as often as not, the association sticks.

  2. You are very right: many noblemen like Frederick could well have been as expert in falconry as their hired falconers. But there is a slippage in your discussion from there to the different reasons that Frederick gives for the practice of falconry: the hired falconers did not practice falconry as "the poor" but rather as the trainers for "the noble", which leaves us right back where we started with the "noble" status or not of the hired falconers. One might say that the hired falconers were practicing falconry in order to obtain the necessities of life, but I doubt very much that this is what Frederick meant. He was talking about food, not salaries. That said, yes, it seems difficult to imagine that the "poor" (or "non-noble") did not enjoy the birds' flight and the exercise of training, although Frederick might still insist that only a few understood falconry in its proper sense (goal #4).

    Did medieval falconers understand their birds, as opposed to the practice itself, as noble? Yes, very much so, but did they mean "noble" in the same way that we do? Maybe here is the rub. It is difficult to disentangle nobility as social status from nobility as excellence. Which came first when it came to falconry? I think Gaston Phebus would definitely quarrel with Frederick on the relative nobility of hunting with four-footed animals. For Frederick, the nobility of falcons was paramount for exactly the reasons you give. It would be interesting to know how many of his fellow noblemen agreed. But, just to try to disentangle all of this, yes, for Frederick, the art is noble first and foremost because it is an art of training noble animals, which is therefore why it is suited to the human nobility who otherwise concern themselves with the great affairs of governing.