Falconry has been practiced for thousands of years, but the height of falconry was seen in the medieval ages. This peak of popularity made a major impact on the way the art is practiced today. The earliest record of falconry is dated at 1700 B.C. Falconry is roughly defined as the practice of hunting and taking quarry with a trained bird of prey by most falconry associations. Some purists define falconry as the sport of hunting specifically with a falcon. The term “hawking” is used for hunting with hawks. “Austringer” is a broad term used for one who hunts with hawks, eagles, and owls. Medieval falconers practiced with hawks, falcons, and sometimes eagles. Owls were not used due to their nocturnal nature and the superstitious believed them to be the incarnations of witches.
An aspiring falconer in the middle ages would have to procure their bird from the wild. It was quite an undertaking to ascend a tree and pluck a young hawk or falcon from its nest. Some birds were captured in large bow nets on their migration routes. The young bird was then raised by the falconer to maturity, learning to obey whistles and calls. Large auctions were held each fall in Valkenswaard. Falconers from medieval courts across Europe would bid on the best specimens caught that year.
Training methods have not changed much since the middle ages. After obtaining a new bird, the falconer would spend quite a bit of time manning it. Manning is a process that accustoms the bird to its surroundings and falconer. The bird is taken to the falconer’s gauntlet, a leather glove that protects the hands from a raptor's sharp talons. The falconer then coos the bird and lets it become familiar with their voice. Next, the falcon is trained to overcome her fear of the falconer and accept food from the falconer. Food is the bond between man and bird. It is why the raptor returns to the falconer. It is also thought that this stimulates the feeling of a chick being fed by its mother.
Falconry excursions were often a kingdom affair. Many people from the castle would participate in the hunt. Dogs often hunted alongside the birds. The falconers carried their birds hooded to the location of the hunt. Next, the hood was removed and the bird flies from the fist after its prey. The raptor stays on the prey once it’s killed. The falconer then traded a tidbit so the bird would relinquish the prey. The falconer would bag the food and rehood the bird. This process was continued until a satisfactory amount of animals were bagged.
Falconry equipment used in the Middle Ages is still used today. Birds were kept in large cages called mews. Designs have changed but modern falconers are often required to have a mews in order to obtain falconry licensing. Medieval accessories such as hoods, jesses, bells, and lures are an important for any falconer. Hoods are leather coverings for bird's eyes for the purposes of training, transporting and hunting. Jesses are leather straps on bird that go through leather anklets. Bells are attached to the ankles and used as a form of telemetry. The sound of jingling bells alerts a falconer to their bird’s location.
In royal households there were often lord falconers. This position was passed from father to son. The lord falconer was responsible for was responsible for capturing, training and caring for the raptors. He also chose which birds to fly on the hunt.
Falconry was a very important part of life in Medieval England. During the Middle Ages falconry was a way to put food on the table and was used as a status symbol. Falconry was generally a sport reserved for the noble, due to the high expenses of caring for birds of prey. People kept certain birds in accordance with their social status. The long winged birds, or falcons, were seen as the most desirable and kept by the upper class. Female birds were thought to be superior. Emperors kept Golden Eagles and Merlins. Kings kept Gyr falcons but could have any bird they wanted. Earls flew female peregrines and barons had males. Knights hunted with Sakers. Kestrels are small birds that hunt mice and insects. They were seen as useless in medieval falconry and were the only birds knaves, servants, and young children could possess.
Falconry was so persuasive in medieval England it could be seen everywhere. Pope Leo X even brought it into the church. Raptors took part in religious services and nuns were often seen with falcons on their wrists.
Medieval falconry has had an impact on modern day society. Medieval literature that still popular today often makes reference to falconry. Shakespeare frequently referenced falconry in his works. Several idioms and words we commonly use today are derived from falconry. The word codger, used today to describe an elderly person, comes from the falconry term, cadger, an elderly former falconer who carried a portable perch called a cadge for a falconer. Callow, which is a nestling raptor whose feathers are still in the blood-quill stage, is now used to describe someone who is young or untested. When raptors drink, it is called bowsing. A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer, the term now used to describe people who frequently drink (alcohol). The expression, in a bate, meaning in a panic, comes from the term bating, when a falcon tries to fly from its leash. The idiom “fed up” derives from when a falcon’s loss of interest in hunting when full. A haggard is a wild mature hawk. Birds of prey are only captured when they are young.
It is even believed that falconry started wild life conservation in the Middle Ages. There were strict punishments for harming a bird of prey. To destroy a falcon's eggs meant one year's imprisonment; to kill a wild falcon was reason enough for the criminal's eyes to be poked out. Any form of injury to a raptor, its eggs, or its habitat was (and continues to be) a serious crime. Birds were never so revered as in the Middle Ages and never before were there such strict laws protecting wild animals.
This golden age of falconry not only shaped the sport, but has had a major influence on society today. From equipment to literature to way raptors are revered, medieval falconry has made an undeniable impact.
· National Falconry Association: http://www.n-a-f-a.com/
· The International Society for Falconry: http://www.i-a-f.org/
· HAGINBALD. The Arte of Medieval Faulconry. Harper Brothers; 1923 (8th printing)
· Davis, William Sterns. Life on a Mediaeval Barony.