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The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England

The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England

by Robin S. Oggins

In medieval Europe, falconry was perhaps the most popular form of hunting among the aristocracy. Owning a falcon, and the necessary falconer to go with it, was a status symbol throughout the middle ages. This book is the first broad history of English royal falconry in medieval times, a book that draws on forty years of research to provide a full description of the


In medieval Europe, falconry was perhaps the most popular form of hunting among the aristocracy. Owning a falcon, and the necessary falconer to go with it, was a status symbol throughout the middle ages. This book is the first broad history of English royal falconry in medieval times, a book that draws on forty years of research to provide a full description of the actual practice and conditions of the sport and of the role of falconers in the English royal household.

Robin S. Oggins begins with a description of the birds of prey, their training, and the sport of falconry. He provides a short history of early falconry in western Europe and England, then explores in unprecedented detail royal falconry from the reign of William I to the death of Edward I in 1307. The author concludes with an overview of the place and importance of falconry in medieval life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Professor Oggins makes an important contribution to the study of falconry and hawking in medieval England. His book will also be essential reading for those who wish to understand the households of the kings up to the early fourteenth century."—C. M. Woolgar, author of The Great Household in Late

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The Kings and Their Hawks


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
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ISBN: 978-0-300-10058-7

Chapter One

The Sources

Primary sources for the history of medieval English falconry fall into two main categories: literature devoted to falconry and governmental records. Falconry literature provides information on the birds used and their training, while governmental records supply material on actual practice. A wide range of additional sources supplement English records and the literature of falconry and supply fuller information on the role the sport played in medieval life. Such auxiliary material includes literary works, works of art, and ecclesiastical records-sources too varied to be reviewed in a systematic way.

In this chapter I shall discuss contemporary treatises on falconry and English governmental records in which material on falconry can be found. Other sources of information will be noted in the course of subsequent chapters.

The Literature of Falconry

No tradition of writings on falconry existed in the ancient Western world because falconry as such was unknown in antiquity. This lack of a literary tradition may well explain why early writings on falconry are practical, concerned largely with treatments forailments of hawks. The earliest manuscript identified so far, the "Anonymous of Vercelli," dates from the mid-tenth century. A second eleventh-century text, Grimaldus's Liber accipitrum, probably harks back to a Carolingian original. The number of extant works from the twelfth century increases substantially. Baudouin Van den Abeele suggests this increase is due to greater contact with the Islamic world. He lists eight surviving texts of the time connected with falconry. Two are by men identified as falconers, Guillelmus Falconarius and Gerardus Falconarius; two are attributed to doctors, Grisofus Medicus and Alexander Medicus, and another was credited to Hippocrates. Of the remaining works, one was supposedly written by a legendary King Dancus of Armenia; a second took the form of an apocryphal letter written by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion to a King Ptolemy of Egypt; and the last was by the only author in the group identifiable historically, the Englishman Adelard of Bath.

While some of these twelfth-century treatises contain valuable material on falconry in general, others are largely veterinary in content. Some of the cures recommended in these compilations border on the fanciful. Adelard of Bath, for example, proposes as a cure for rheum feeding a hawk meat soaked in the excrement of an unweaned boy, and for mites, the powdered tooth of a hanged man. Daude de Pradas, writing in the next century, suggests feeding a weak hawk the flesh of a blind puppy, sprinkling it with baked lizard dust to speed up moulting, and, to stop a hawk's shrieking, feeding it a bat stuffed with pepper. Gerardus Falconarius favors spells to keep the bird safe: "When the bird's first feathers appear, the falconer is to say, 'The birds are under Thy feet.' When the falconer lifts the bird from the perch in the morning he says, 'The evil man binds; the Lord, by his coming, loosens.' To ward off eagles one says, 'The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, conquers; Hallelujah.' " Even when remedies seem straightforward-herbs, spices, the flesh of various animals-their application was sometimes determined by the then current philosophy of humors: Dancus Rex, for example, suggests different remedies for black falcons, which are melancholic, white falcons, which are phlegmatic and dry, and red falcons, which are sanguine. This is not to criticize medieval veterinary medicine as a whole-or even the works in which the more extreme nostrums appear. At their worst, contemporary remedies have been characterized by Hans Epstein as "obviously nonsensical abracadabra methods of exquisite torture and blatant quackery." But some of the proposed remedies are still being used by modern falconers, and, as Van den Abeele observes, "very little research has been made on the effectiveness of the plants and therapeutical substances prescribed." In any case, it is impossible to determine whether remedies suggested in the treatises were actually used by English royal falconers, though a few of the recommended substances, bought presumably to treat sick birds, do appear in governmental accounts. A number of significant developments in the literature of falconry occur in the thirteenth century. The first surviving vernacular work on falconry-Daude de Pradas's Dels auzels cassadors-is written at that time, and several earlier Latin works on falconry are translated into the vernacular. These include an anonymous Anglo-Norman poem that is a partial translation of Adelard's "De avibus tractatus." The first recorded translations were made of Arabic works on falconry-those attributed to "the Arab Moamin" and "the Persian Ghatrif." The thirteenth-century encyclopedists Alexander Neckam, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and Brunetto Latini included sections on falcons in their works. Last, the emperor Frederick II wrote his monumental De arte venandi cum avibus -"The Art of Hunting with Birds."

The encyclopedists put falconry into a broader perspective than earlier writers-generally as part of a larger section on birds. Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and Brunetto Latini all drew on material from the twelfth-century treatises, particularly the letter of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion that contained a section on various kinds ("genera") of hawks and falcons. Some birds mentioned by thirteenth-century authors clearly correspond to modern varieties; others are more difficult to identify. Several of the authors also included information on the training and diet of hawks and on the skills needed by the falconer.

Early in the fourteenth century the Bolognese jurist Pietro Crescenzi wrote about falconry in a narrower context, including a book on hunting and fishing in his treatise on agriculture Ruralium commodorum libri XII. In general during the later Middle Ages works on falconry were oriented practically-representing aspects of what Hugh of St. Victor called the mechanical sciences rather than the liberal arts. The number of works on falconry written in vernacular languages increased greatly, together with a broadening of the audience for such works. Several works on falconry were written by or credited to nobles, for example, the Libro de la caza of Prince Juan Manuel and "Prince Edward's Book of Hawking." But in the same period (ca. 1394) a prosperous middle-class Parisian writing a book of instruction for his recently married young bride included within it a section on hawking.

In this chapter I shall discuss mainly those pre-fourteenth-century authors whose works have been particularly helpful, either because their works have some connection with England-as in the cases of Adelard of Bath, Alexander Neckam, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, and Daude de Pradas-or because the works represent attempts based on observation rather than authority to describe the hawks and falcons of Europe or the art of falconry as practiced throughout the West. In this second category fall Frederick II's De arte venandi and the section on falcons in Albertus Magnus's De animalibus.

Adelard of Bath (b. ca. 1080) traveled in Spain, North Africa, and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily before he settled in England and wrote his work on falconry. Among his other works were treatises on the abacus and the astrolabe; a translation of Euclid from the Arabic; and the "Quaestiones naturales," a dialogue between Adelard and his nephew in seventy-six chapters, each of which treats a scientific question, the whole purporting to expound Arabic knowledge on these questions. Adelard's treatise on falconry is in the same dialogue form as the "Quaestiones." It is short and in the main is concerned with diseases of goshawks and their cures. It contains a description of the proper characteristics of the falconer; mentions in passing the perch, mews, and hawker's glove; and tells how a hawk should be taken from the perch. Adelard cites as one of his sources "the books of King Harold," raising the possibility of a still earlier English falconry treatise.

Other twelfth-century treatises on falconry include the works of Dancus Rex, Guillelmus Falconarius, and Gerardus Falconarius, all of whom may have been associated with the Norman court in Sicily. Like Adelard's work, all three treatises deal mainly with diseases of falcons and hawks. Dancus and Guillelmus also list different "kinds" of falcons and include material on contemporary falconry, not all of it practical. Guillelmus, for example, describes how to train lanners to hunt cranes, a procedure involving keeping four lanners in a ditch, letting them see light only when they feed, bathing them in wine, and flying them before daybreak. The works according to Epstein constitute a possible bridge between Adelard and Frederick II: "It seems probable, therefore, that all three treatises belong to an Anglo-Norman tradition of falconry (exemplified by Adelard of Bath's work ...), which in turn harks back to a more primitive, indigenous Germanic hawking tradition as illustrated by some of the early Germanic laws. In Sicily this earlier Norman tradition, gradually infused by Arabian and Persian influences, then led to the unique flowering of the art of falconry under Frederick II."

By far the most important work written on falconry in the Middle Ages was the De arte venandi cum avibus of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Frederick II (1194-1250) was emperor of Germany and king of the Norman kingdom of Sicily: he conducted the first successful crusade since the First Crusade, achieving his aims by negotiation rather than by conquest. He was an excellent administrator, lawgiver, soldier, and diplomat, a major patron of learning and the arts, an early practitioner of the experimental method, and, as can be seen in the De arte venandi, a first-rate naturalist. It is no wonder that contemporaries called him "stupor mundi"-"the wonder of the world." Frederick states that he had considered writing a work on falconry for thirty years, "to correct the many errors made by our predecessors who, when writing on the subject, degraded the noble art of falconry by slavishly copying the misleading and often insufficient statements to be found in the works of certain hackneyed authors." Because of the length of time in its preparation, the De arte venandi is assigned to the last part of Frederick's life (ca. 1244-48). In writing his work Frederick consulted the standard classical authorities, had the works of several Arabic falconers translated for his use, and (in his own words), "at great expense, summoned from the four quarters of the earth masters in the practice of the art of falconry. We entertained these experts in our own domains, meantime seeking their opinions, weighing the importance of their knowledge, and endeavoring to retain in memory the more valuable of their words and deeds." But despite this extensive use of both literary and practical sources, the De arte venandi was primarily based on Frederick's own observations and experiments: "We have investigated and studied with the greatest solicitude and in minute detail all that relates to this art [falconry], exercising both mind and body so that we might eventually be qualified to describe and interpret the fruits of knowledge acquired from our own experiences or gleaned from others.... We discovered by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle ... were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds."

The Arab falconers whom Frederick invited to Sicily brought with them the falcon's hood. Frederick not only adopted it, but improved it. Other customs, such as the use of live birds for luring, he did not adopt; but in the De arte venandi he describes such customs and gives his reasons for not using them. In Haskins's words, his work "is a book of the open air, not of the closet."

Frederick was clearly familiar with English falconry practices. One of his falconers was named Walter Anglicus; another, Master Lambert, was in England in 1228; and when Frederick married the sister of Henry III of England, two of Henry's falconers took falcons to Frederick. In one section of the De arte venandi Frederick notes a peculiarly English way of recalling falcons to the lure. One can only regret that he did not live to finish his work.

Frederick's contemporary Daude de Pradas was a Provençal poet and churchman who wrote a long treatise on falconry in the form of a poem. While much of Daude's work was based on works of others, some sections, particularly those on hawks, merlins, and kestrels, contain material not found elsewhere. Daude mentions using a book "of King Henry of England who loved hawks and dogs more than any other Christian did." Haskins suggested that Daude's Henry might have been Henry II; and this appears reasonable both chronologically and in terms of Henry's character-particularly since the book may have belonged to Henry rather than have been written by him.

The last authors to be considered here are the encyclopedists Alexander Neckam, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, and Albertus Magnus. Alexander Neckam (1157?-1217) was born in England, studied at Paris, returned to England in the 1180s, taught at Dunstable and St. Albans, was associated with Oxford, and late in life became abbot of Cirencester. His works include an encyclopedia, the De naturis rerum, in which the section on falcons contains allusions to Isidore of Seville, Hector, Ajax, and Alexander the Great and is of almost no value. However, his treatise De utensilibus includes information on the keeping of birds of prey on a perch in a bedroom and therefore is worthy of note.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus (fl. 1230-50) was a Franciscan friar who was born in England and lived at Oxford, Paris, and Magdeburg. Much of Bartholomaeus's work is said to be out of date by thirteenth-century standards. He himself described his De proprietatibus rerum as "a simple and rude compilation" written for "young scholars and the general reader." Some of the treatise, however, was based on his own observation. This is evident in Bartholomaeus's short chapter on the hawk, which is part of a book on the creatures of the air. The chapter is concise and accurate and contains information on the natural behavior and training of hawks and on the social aspects of hawking; it concludes with a wry but appropriate comment: "All the while they are alive and are strong and mighty to take their prey, they are beloved of their lords, and borne on hands, and set on perches, and stroked on the breast and on the tail, and made plain and smooth, and are nourished with great business and diligence. But when they are dead, all men hold them unprofitable and nothing worth, and be not eaten, but rather thrown out on dunghills."

Albertus Magnus (1193?-1280) was a Dominican whose scholarly objective was to write commentaries on all of Aristotle's works and to write works of his own on a number of subjects Aristotle did not cover. The result was a tremendous outpouring of work, filling thirty-eight volumes in the Borgnet edition. Albertus's discussion of falcons makes up roughly half of a book describing birds. Much of the material on falconry is drawn from other authors, particularly Symmachus, Dancus Rex, and Gerardus Falconarius. As a result, Albertus's work tends to be underrated: Harting, for example, calls it a "crude compilation" that "shows the author to have been but imperfectly acquainted with the subject." While this may be true of Albertus's sections on hawk medicine, it is not true of his descriptions of falcons, which are far more detailed than those in the works he cites and appear to be based largely on Albertus's own observations. Rather than a "crude compilation," therefore, his descriptions constitute an important account of the birds used in falconry in thirteenth-century Europe.

Governmental Records

The governmental records of England (the "public records") that relate to falconry include such diverse materials as Anglo-Saxon charters, laws, Domesday Book, and Edward I's letters to one of his falconers. These records go back to around the beginning of the seventh century, though the first surviving records to provide a year-by-year account of English royal administration-the Pipe Rolls-appear only in the twelfth century.


Excerpted from The Kings and Their Hawks by ROBIN S. OGGINS Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robin S. Oggins is a retired medieval historian and fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He lives in Vestal, New York.

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