The ancient art of Falconry is commonly defined as the hunting of wild quarry using trained birds of prey. Strictly speaking Falconry involves only the long-winged hawks, the Falcon family, and only a person who flies a falcon at wild quarry is entitled to call themselves a Falconer, where as the term Hawking should be used for anyone using a Broad or Short winged Hawk, namely the true Hawks, Buzzards and Eagles for the same purpose, and this person would be termed an Austringer. The term Hawk is broadly used to describe any trained bird of prey.
The use of birds of prey by humans as a form of hunting appears to have originated in China around 680BC, although an Arabic account describes that the first Falconer was a Persian King, who watched a Falcon kill another bird, and ordered his men to capture the Falcon. The legend continues that the King kept the bird with him at all times, and learnt many lessons from it.
The first evidence of Falconry in Europe comes from the sixth century when the Germanic tribes took up the sport, and by 875 AD it was practised widely through western Europe and Britain. The period 500 AD until 1600 AD saw the peak of interest in falconry. It became a highly regulated, revered, and popular art among all the social classes in Europe. In Great Britain, falconry went beyond being a sport of royalty or being practised as a necessity, instead its popularity became what we would now call a craze or fad, and became a status symbol in medieval society.
|The man considered to be the greatest falconer of all time was Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem. His book, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The art of falconry) took over 30 years to complete, and his enthusiasm for Falconry once lost him an important military campaign because he decided to go hawking instead of continuing the siege of a fortress. During the crusade of 1228 he brought back many experienced Falconers from Arabia, which greatly added to his own knowledge of Falconry.|
Certain Falcons were so highly valued that they were literally worth more than their weight in gold when used in ransom negotiations. During one crusade the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Normandy, and turned down Philip's offer of 200,000 gold ducats for ransom. Instead Beyazid wanted and was given something even more precious, twelve white Gyr Falcons. A white Gyr will today cost you £10,000 approx.
Falconry stayed popular with British royalty until the reign of George III, in particular Scottish Kings from Robert I (the Bruce) right through the Stewarts. In his later life Robert the Bruce retired to his castle of Cambuslang with his "Tiercel and Jerkin", Mary Queen of Scots, whilst in gentle captivity was regularly allowed to go Lark Hawking with her Merlins, but probably the most prominent Falconer since Frederick II was Henry VIII, who had the royal mews at Charing's cross built to house his Falcons. By ancient tradition Kings of England were presented with a Falcon at the time of their coronation by the Duke of Atholl and Lord Derby.
Many birds used for Falconry were trapped during their migration through Holland, in particular the village of Valkenswaard's economy was built around the trade in captured birds. The Mollen family from the village passed the skills of trapping down until the last of them died in 1937.
|Each year Falconers from every Royal court were sent to Valkenswaard to bid against each other in the auctions for the best specimens caught that year. Holland was not the only place for the trapping of birds as many indigenous species were trapped locally. The other major trapping areas were in Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and Arabia where the Sakers go on their annual migration, this practice is still common today all over the middle east with many birds having their feathers dyed or bleached to make them more appealing to prospective buyers.|
The original purpose of Falconry, namely as a means of procuring food for the table was slowly replaced by the nobility of Europe and became a more social occasion, with the Kings of Britain, the Russian Czars, and the Holy Roman Emperors all keeping exceptionally large and well stocked mews, often employing hundreds of the country's best Falconers. In fact Falconry practised on this scale became more of a matter of national prestige than of anything else, there was the opportunity for the nobility to host great hunting parties, with each one being compared to the last and subject to great debate. By this point the procuring of food was not a necessity and Falconry was becoming a means of justifying ones position in society, in the hope of being recognised as equals by those higher up the social ladder or at least being treated as such.
Falconry was becoming more and more regulated and prospective Falconers found their options limited due to cost and regulation of certain species. However soon nearly everyone had a Hawk of some description, in class conscious Britain a persons rank in society denoted which species and even the gender of the bird that could be owned. As a result certain birds took on the nobility of the owner. The Boke of St. Albans, written in 1486 by the Prioress of Sopwell nunnery gives a list of "who and what", and testifies to the rigidity of the rules of ownership.
The punishment for harming a birds nest, eggs or young were fairly severe but graduated depending on the crime, for example to destroy a falcons eggs meant one year in prison, and to poach a falcon from the wild was reason enough for the criminals eyes to be poked out. Having a bird above your rank was seen as an act of rebellion, and the punishment for holding a bird above your social rank was usually the cutting off of the offenders hands, this was usually a sufficient deterrent to the crime. A list of respective birds, taken from the Boke of St. Albans, and who could possess them in medieval Britain is at the bottom of this page.
Falconry was and is an expensive pastime, not only is there the expense of procuring a bird, but there are the running costs of food and equipment, from housing known as mews, to hoods and bells, all of which should be individually made to fit the bird in question. As the Hawk usually only gets the head and neck of it's kill there was the problem of maintaining a food source, with a large Gyr needing significantly more food than a Kestrel, therefore it seems only logical that the larger species which could catch the more appealing quarry were reserved for the nobility as a common man would never be able to provide enough food to keep the hawk in flyable condition.
|The higher nobility, however did not spend time on training birds themselves, and they often had dozens of falconers in various locales to train them, keep them healthy, and fit ready for a hunt. Master falconers were often paid extravagant amounts of money to work for kings and other nobles. The still existent office of Master of Hawks was a position created for the kings best falconer, who obtained, and groomed the king's falcons and hawks, and kept them in constant readiness for hunting.|
The training of a Hawk was and is by no means an easy matter, all the different species require slightly different techniques and procedures. The first stage after obtaining the bird is the "manning" period, and is simply the time spent allowing the Hawk to become accustomed to being handled. The old technique was called "Waking the Bird" and involved a great level of stamina on the part of the Falconer, it would involve sitting with the bird on the fist alone in a room. Nowadays we use a different method which is less arduous for both the bird and the trainer, it involves the hood being removed and replaced on the head of the bird, with the bird sitting bare headed on the glove for longer periods before having the hood replaced. Several birds can be trained at the same time using this method. Only after attending a training course should anyone contemplate attempting to train a bird of prey, no amount of book reading and information can replace sound practical skills and advice.
The golden age of Falconry ended with the invention of the shotgun, its popularity quickly waned and soon falcons and other birds of prey were persecuted to the point of virtual extinction of some species. Fortunately in the middle east falconry remained a sport of the nobility and it is mainly because of this and a few English gentlemen who during the 19th Century carried on where others had left, that falconry still exists today, and due to some careful captive breeding birds are no longer taken from the wild but are returned to it, which has helped to prevent some species from total extinction.
Falconry terms were at one time only in the language of the nobility who actively pursued the medieval art. Modern falconers continue to use these terms with reference to falconry. Some words have found their way into modern English and are in common usage, although the modern meaning is far different from the original.
The word codger, used today to describe an elderly person, can be traced back to the falconry term cadger, or a person who carried a portable perch called a cadge for the falconer. Most cadgers were old falconers and in time a corruption of this came to be used as above.
When raptors drink it is called bowsing and a bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer, the term used to describe the same tendency in humans.
The term mantle piece comes from the action a raptor makes to cover and protect its food called mantling or to mantle.
Hoodwinked, was the action of placing the hood over the falcon's head to recover the captured prey from the falcon's talons, pretty much the same as now when you are cheated of something.
Social rank and appropriate bird.
|King:||Gyr Falcon (male & female)|
|Duke:||Falcon of the Rock|
|Yeoman:||Goshawk or Hobby|
|Holy water Clerk:||Male Sparrowhawk|
|Knaves, servants, children:||Kestrel|