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Friday, 9 December 2011

The Hawks and Falcons of the Renaissance and Medieval Mews

from Frederick II of Hohenstaufen's book, de arti venandi cum avibus

As we move towards the Christmas feast I thought I’d look at the ways some delicacies made their way to the table.

Hawks, were kept for two purposes – pleasure, and the table.  Indeed hawking became by the end of the Medieval period a craze such as we would understand it in the modern era, the must-be-seen-doing sport.  Much care was lavished on the birds and many noblemen had lavish mews that were better kept than the houses of their tenants, but almost everyone except the poorest owned some kind of bird at the zenith of the craze.

I do not propose to go into a great deal of detail as there are excellent sites available dedicated to this subject, but I plan to draw together a brief outline of the art of falconry with some information about the birds used. 
Here’s one:

There are two subdivisions of falconry, that using hawks, trained by ostringers [aka austringers] and the more prestigious falco species trained by falconers.  Falconers were more prestigious and commanded higher wages.  Ostringers also flew eagles and owls as well as the accipitor species.
The ‘Boke of St Albans’ by Dame Juliana Barnes, prioress, was published in 1486 and lays down in detail all that was needed to care for birds including the list of who was permitted to own which bird.  It was an offence to own a bird pertaining to a social estate above one’s own that was punishable by cutting off the hand.  It was also an offence to harm a bird’s nest, eggs or young, tough on a peasant whose young animals might be predated by a wild falcon!
Female falcons tend to be larger and more prestigious.
There are lists of precedence and the hawks permitted, I have chosen to list the hawks and add those permitted to use them which means that there is not a strict order of precedence owing to the more prestigious nature of the female of the species.

Gyrfalcon: owned by a king, who might have male or female of the species. The male is known as a Gerkin, the female as a gyrfalcon.

Peregrine Falcon: owned by a prince.  The male is called a tiercel the female is a falcon.  An Earl may own a tiercel. A peregrine will live to 15½ years in the wild, conceivably longer in captivity.  There is a marked difference in size between males and females, males weighing from 0.44 – 0.75 kg, the females 0.9 to 1.5 kg. Peregrines are particularly good at catching birds.

Rock Falcon: owned by a duke; this is a subspecies of the peregrine.

Buzzard aka Bastarde Hawk:  this was the permitted bird of a baron. Buzzards are not good at manoeuvring. They can reach 1.3 kg.

Saker: permitted for a knight, this is one of the largest falcon species, related to the gyrfalcon and weighing in at 1.25kg.  It lives 5-7 years in the wild and has been recorded at up to 25 years in captivity.  It is not used for river quarry.  It will take small to medium sized rodents eg rabbit. 

Lanner: permitted for the use of a squire [someone who has a coat of arms but has not been knighted sometimes esquire]. The male is called a lanneret. It is a fast flying bird ideal for catching birds and is known to catch bats.  It will take ground dwelling prey and is happy to take river quarry.  Partridge, heron and hare would be its quarry at the fist.

Merlin: a lady would use a female merlin; I have not found an instance of the male bird being assigned.  Merlins live typically 3 years only, though have been known to survive to 13.  By its appearance, flight habits and behaviour it is said to be like a miniature peregrine. It is a bold hunter and capable of taking species bigger than itself, but prefers birds such as larks, pipits, finches, wheatears etc [all medieval delicacies] and will also take waders such as snipe.  It chases rather than stooping.

Goshawk: A hawk of the fist and trained by an ostringer, this was one of the permitted birds of a yeoman. Goshawks are not always hooded.  They are ill-tempered birds but very efficient at providing food for the table, taking partridge, pheasant and hares. Like the peregrine the male is considerably smaller, weighing in at well under a kilogram, the female can be over 2kg. It is almost as large as the buzzard to which it is related. Goshawks live typically 7 years in the wild and may live to a maximum of 18 years, providing also a reasonable working life as well as efficiency.

Hobby: also permitted to the yeoman. It is one of the few birds capable of out flying the swift. It is a pretty bird but its preferred diet is insects though it will take small birds in mid flight.  It was a bird often used to teach young noblemen how to hawk.

Sparrowhawk: the female was permitted to a priest, the male, known as a musket to a holy water clerk. It was also a bird permitted to ladies as an alternative to the Merlin. Typical lifespan in the wild is three years though up to twenty years have been recorded in captivity.  Typically the sparrowhawk would be flown at partridges and pheasants.  It can be an unpredictable bird and also is known to keel over and die for no apparent reason.  The trainer of a sparrowhawk is a specialist called a sparviter. Males hunt more in woodland, females more in fields and open areas.

Kestrel: the bird of knaves, servants and children.  Lives typically 4 years in the wild or up to a maximum of 16 in captivity.  The smallest hawk it catches only small rodents which might however be used to feed other birds in the mews.  I wondered why a peasant might bother with this, fashion or no, but deterring rodents by catching them would have been important for maintaining stores and contributing to the better health of livestock. 

Here’s a site with clickable info sheets with great pictures

1 comment:

  1. How fascinating to learn that hawk ownership was controlled by a species of sumptuary law!!! How long did these regulations about who could own what stay in force??? did they loosen up at all in the seventeenth century, when James I started selling peerages??? or perhaps during the English civil War??

    thanks for this really interesting discussion!!!