Saturday, April 25, 2015

Albert and Frederick: different ways of describing falcons

     It occurred to me to wonder what the difference was between the attitude toward falcons taken by Albert and that taken by Frederick. We know that Frederick improved significantly on Aristotle, but how might his work compare in certain ways to a contemporary like Albert? There are many different points of comparison that one could theoretically take--factual accuracy, for example; focus on description or prescription; amount of personal experience that went into the accounts; and so on. The one I decided to focus on the most was the description of birds in relation to their emotions, behavior, nobility, and so on.
     One feature which I found amusing and perhaps telling was Albert's continual use of the word "bold" to describe falcons. The gibbous falcon is bold, the black falcon is as bold as the peregrine, the white falcon is bold but less so than the black falcon, the blue-footed falcon is not very bold but can be emboldened with training, the merlin is very bold for its size, and so on. One cannot read Albert's description of a falcon without expecting to hear, sooner or later, just how bold she is. Albert does say other things about certain falcons and their characters--the saker likes to show off, while the mountain falcon is very angry much of the time--but on the whole, his descriptions of falcons' characters do seem to get a bit repetitive.
     The descriptions given by Frederick, on the other hand, are rather more varied. He does occasionally describe falcons and hawks as being bold, but he also discusses the courage of hawks and lanners and the impetuosity of falcons. More interestingly still, he describes what we might better call the emotions of birds of prey, in addition to their characters. Often they feel fear: newly caught falcons are terrified of humans; small hawks are frightened of an eagle; a non-seeled falcon may become frightened and unruly, which "engenders hatred and suspicion of all men."
     Frederick's descriptions of the birds' psychological vulnerabilities and foibles really seem to indicate just how close to them he really was. He mentions how young falcons can feel weak and unreliant or, before being thoroughly manned, may become "frantic and unmanageable" on seeing light, as well as how a falconer can calm his falcon by singing to her (isn't that just the coolest thing?) when she is alarmed.
     In like manner, so do his descriptions of the birds' pleasures. He mentions falcons' being able to hunt to their hearts' content (though I'm not sure how idiomatic the translation is here), how young falcons take pleasure in open country, how a bird that feels safe will have round pupils, how much a healthy falcon enjoys bathing, and how a slowly and methodically manned falcon comes to love her falconer.
     Something related even seems to appear in their relative treatment of the "nobility" of falcons. Albert is much more concerned with the hierarchy of nobility and ranking the falcons accordingly; he even mentions rules for how nobility is passed on in hybrids. Frederick, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have much to do with that system; his descriptions of the various genera of falcon tend more to such things as might be learned or verified by close observation, rather than philosophizing with incomplete data.
     I certainly don't mean to belittle Albert, whose writings are thorough and helpful in their own way. He details the feeding of and caring for falcons to an extent which does not look clearly inadequate even next to Frederick's passages on that subject. But it does seem like a less personal account, one written by someone who was not as personally invested in falconry as Frederick was.

--Luke Bretscher


  1. This comparison between Albert and Frederick’s writings on falcons is revealing in the written debate of the time on how to train and work with birds of prey. Your post engages with the contrasting treatment of the falcons’s characters in description from each of the authors, and I find this most revealing because it shows humans concerned with the identification of and interaction with animals with personalities and distinct characteristics. You write that Albert may not have had much investment in the differentiation of the birds’s characters since he repeatedly referred to them as “bold.” Frederick, on the other hand, paid careful attention to the various reactions as a falcon or other bird of prey could have according to their personalities. The difference is interesting, and I agree with your suggestion that it could derive from Albert’s own experience, or lack thereof, with falconry compared to Frederick’s devotion. What sticks out for me is the attention to animal psychology, though not in that exact phrase, throughout the works. As we discussed in class last week, the purpose of falconry was to submit human tendencies to the psychological needs of the falcon, particularly when preventing panic attacks and ensuring the bird’s comfort. I have recognized a few instances of the same awareness of animal emotional stability, and your findings for falcons in Albert and Frederick’s texts support the intimate relationship between medieval humans and animals. Humans of the middle ages recognized that environmental effects on animals, such as causing them stress or panic and thus causing them to underperform, and went to great lengths to accommodate their characters.

    K. Beach

  2. I would have liked to hear more about what you would conclude from your comparison! Both Albert and Frederick were active falconers, but you are absolutely right that Frederick seems to have had a more intimate understanding of his birds. It is tempting to say something about how "scientific" or "experimental" each author was--both have been described as such, and yet, as you show, the level of detail they give about their understanding of the animals is very different. Is there something to be learned here about how we conceptualize what it means to "do science"? About the philosophical relationship between humans and animals? How does comparing Albert's and Frederick's description of falcon emotions affect our understanding of medieval ideas about animals? RLFB