One thing we discussed in class is the difficulty of keeping and training falcons. Part of the allure of keeping falcons was their difficulty, not just in terms of the personal training required of the noble, but also the resources necessary to keep the birds. The noble would have to employ a falconer to catch and care for the birds. The birds would also have their own specially designed hack houses, which Frederick II found necessary for manning. It required special, rare equipment, and for the noble to spend a great deal of time focusing on training the falcon. Robin Oggins sees the expense of both personal effort and resources and determines that, as a visible manifestation of this effort, falconry represents an act of conspicuous consumption. While I agree with this evaluation, I would suggest that what made falconry so enticing to the nobility was its exclusivity, rather than its simple expense.
Frederick II begins his guide by extolling the virtues of falconry and falcons, comparing them to the les noble use of hunting implements and quadrupeds. As we discussed in class, this had to do with their ease of use or lack thereof. The Art of Falconry stated that being a great falconer required both practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge. His book teaches both extensively. As he describes it, gaining practical knowledge would take an extraordinary amount of leisure time. A commoner would probably not have time to gain this practical knowledge. The animals that commoners were familiar with, such as horses and dogs, are dismissed by Frederick II as being simple. “Any dabbler in venery can readily hold in leash or let loose dogs or other quadrupeds,” he writes. Exclusivity made practical falconry knowledge more difficult to learn than knowledge of other animals, which in turn made the training of falcons seem innately more difficult, and therefore worthy.
Interestingly, theoretical knowledge is the more accessible of the two kinds that Frederick II talks about. Frederick II explicitly rejects the texts of classical philosophers as sources of this kind of knowledge. Instead, he champions his own experience. Commoners would have been excluded from classical education, but not the kind of experimentation that Frederick II uses to become a greater falconer. Of course, Frederick II also had the ability to travel across the continent and employ experts to further his own theoretical knowledge. Furthermore, Frederick II’s theoretical knowledge includes lavish descriptions of the various species of falcons. In order to make these kinds of observations and to apply them to falconry, one must have access to these falcons, and commoners would have a hard time accomplishing this, as they would have to return any found hawks to their local sheriff. (Oggins, 48)
The idea that falconry represented a form of conspicuous consumption is complicated by the kinds of birds used. While Oggins notes that some sources suggested that nobles used eagles or buzzards in falconry, there’s no sign that Frederick II knew of them. Frederick II explicitly dismisses the idea of using eagles, describing them as “brought out as a novelty by men whose aim is to make a show of knowledge of falconry rather than to possess its reality.” These larger birds may have been seen as too ostentatious to make effective displays of “knowledge”, even though their obvious size would have made them more difficult to catch and maintain. If the impetus behind falconry was just due to its expense, eagles and buzzards would have made more effective displays.
The Art of Falconry has a complex relationship with the idea of displaying falconry skill. Frederick II divides falconers into four classes, among them those who wish to win competitions and those who want the birds to fly impressively. Both of these classes have to do with performance, displaying mastery in particular ways. Frederick II believes that these are inferior falconers, but not because he sees them as vain, but rather because they tend to push their birds too aggressively, risking damage to them. He dismisses the practical falconer that uses falconry for sustenance the same way, seeing no difference between decorative and practical falconry. His ideal falconer pursues personal development for both the falconer and the falcon. In this sense, Frederick II believed that falconry was not useless, as Oggins suggests, but rather, as he puts it, an art.
Because of the challenges involved with keeping falcons, falconry must always have a relationship with status. However, the kinds of relationships between falconry and status may be different than the ones we found in medieval Europe or modern day Abu Dhabi. For instance, the Kazakhs in Mongolia train eagles for hunting. Young aspiring falconers first learn the required discipline to handle their eagles. These falconers are not wealthy, but there is a relationship with status. Anyone can learn to handle an eagle, but to be considered a falconer requires an initiation. Falconers are trained from a young age for about five years, and when their trainers (typically their parents) consider them ready, they are sent into the mountains to find an eagle nest. They take an egg and hatch it, raising the eaglet as their own. Doing this earns them a title. There are only 250-400 of these titled eagle hunters among the Kazakh tribes, but the knowledge of how to take care of eagles
Here, we see some critical differences between this form of falconry and its European counterpart. First, the lack of wealth removes some of the exclusivity inherent to the European model. The Kazakh doesn’t need a falconer to catch or care for his bird. There is only an exclusivity of action. Only those capable of doing what it takes to be a falconer can own eagles. For Frederick II, any noble can keep falcons. Their personal ability only determines whether they’re good falconers, not whether they can keep falcons at all. The form of their falconry knowledge is also somehow more easily spread. The Kazakhs don’t keep or need a The Art of Falconry to handle their giant eagles. Their oral traditions can sustain the practice, and the art is more accessible. “They say, that in the Kazakh tradition, there’s over a thousand ways of training and hunting using the eagle, and each family masters their own special technique.” (Svidensky) The Kazakhs also don’t permanently own their birds. It’s traditional for them to release their eagles once they’re mature to sustain the breeding population. Because the capture of birds is necessarily personal, ownership of falcons isn’t exclusive. It’s only the status that’s exclusive, but it’s less exclusive than in medieval Europe.
Oggins strongly supports the idea that falconry was a status symbol for medieval Europeans, but he leans on the idea that falconry was useless. Obviously, falconry was expensive and time-consuming, requiring great effort on the part of the noble. However, Frederick II believed that there was a practical purpose to keeping the birds. As we discussed in class, working with a falcon is an exercise in humility. It requires personal discipline and the ability to suborn one’s own desires below another’s. It’s possible that he believed that nobles had an innate quality that allowed them to do this (their greater access to time and resources certainly helped), and falconry allowed them to develop these talents. Furthermore, from the example of the Kazakhs, we can see that the practical use of raptors does not prevent a relationship to status. It’s perhaps difficult to place the label of “conspicuous consumption” to the Kazakh practice of eagle hunting, but there is something conspicuous about their use of titles and award. The difficulties of keeping falcons affirms status through its exclusive difficulty, rather than through it mere expense.
Frederick II, Art of Falconry
Oggins, Robin S. “Falonry and Medieval Social Status