Falconry in medieval times was exceedingly popular, particularly amongst the nobility. Probably originating in the middle or Far East (both China and Persia are credited with the first recorded accounts of falconry nearly two thousand years ago, but it may be even older) while the earliest known practise in England occurred well before the arrival of the Normans.
The masters who captured, trained and cared for the birds were much prized and honoured, as were the birds themselves. Falconry was both a favoured sport and a means of hunting food, especially fresh meat for the winter months. Although the vast popularity has diminished in recent times, and today’s attitude is more towards the preservation of these raptors in the wild, the love of the sport is still considerable. The capture of hawks and falcons for sale in medieval times was legal under particular circumstances and in some places, whereas today it is definitely not, and falconers must breed their own birds in captivity. However, even back then poaching wild birds was forbidden and there were severe punishments and considerable imprisonment handed out for anyone who damaged nests, eggs or young birds.
The mews was a quiet and ordered place where the birds perched in silence on their individual stands, tethered by their jesses, and their heads hooded (thus the word hoodwinked was adopted). A hooded bird sleeps, as do birds in the wild when they tuck their heads beneath their wings. Indeed, it is now interesting to remember that birds are the direct descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, (including T Rex) and of course eagles and other birds of prey are the most direct line. To be able to ride out with a dinosaur on your wrist, is certainly a rare and special pleasure, although naturally this particular aspect was unknown to the medieval world.
During the Middle Ages, some much loved birds were treated as honoured companions, were taken to church by their owners, and were included in their master’s prayers. King Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor in the early 13th century, was an ardent falconer, wrote a definitive book on the subject, and was famously painted with his falcon at his side. It is further recorded that many lords turned to falconry after tragic events in their personal lives, and treated the sport as a form of solitary and thoughtful therapy.
One of the other principal differences back then was the strictly ordered status of particular birds of prey, and the limitations placed on who might properly fly them. In England, as in many other western countries, only those of a certain rank were permitted to fly certain birds. The beautiful gyrfalcon was the bird of kings, and few mews would own such a bird. The peregrine falcon was for the exclusive use of the king’s sons, whereas other falcons were allotted to dukes and earls. The baron flew a hawk, and knights, squires and others were permitted lesser birds. The ladies flew merlins, priests flew sparrowhawks, and ordinary mortals were able to hunt only with kestrels.
How strictly these rules were kept, we cannot know. Certainly other laws of status regarding, for instance, clothing and materials, were clearly flouted on a regular basis. However, the rules governing falconry were probably adhered to by most.
The acquisition and training of birds of prey was then, and still is, a highly expensive business, but for those who practise falconry, it seems that the pleasures far outweigh the difficulties. Many birds of prey are monogamous, and eventually come to consider the falconer their mate. And I have known falconers who cheerfully believe this in return. The same was certainly true in the Middle Ages. The head of the medieval mews was the Master or Lord Falconer, who was truly the master of the art. It was a life-long commitment.
Others employed in the mews were the cadgers and these were often retired Master Falconers, still working with the birds they loved. The term ‘old codger’ originated from the Cadger of the Mews, as did the verb ‘to cadge’. Other terms (some of which we may mistakenly think modern) also come from falconry – the boozer, for instance, is adapted from the word ‘bowzer’ which is the term for a drinking bird of prey. Many of our words today come from old habits, sports and behaviours such as mill grinding (to prove your metal) and cock fighting (cock-sure and cockpit) even though the original practises are no longer popular.
Falconry, however, remains popular, especially in some countries. Once every castle had its mews, and every lord practised the art to some degree. That level of enthusiasm is unlikely to return, but a close relationship with birds of prey is one that I consider unmatched in sport.