My blog today is a bit of a diversion from the usual topic of historical fiction, if not entirely without reference to it… But it’s mostly an excuse to share a few photographs of some of the wonderful birds of prey we’ve seen, in this country and elsewhere…
Can you imagine how thrilled and excited I was when this beautiful sparrow hawk (probably a juvenile male) landed on the fence literally a few feet from my office window…
What a magnificent bird it was! And I have never before been as close to one as this, apart from at those birds of prey displays they have at country houses, which somehow don’t seem quite the same. This was a truly wild bird, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to watch him for a while at such close quarters.
Although I’m afraid it was a bit gruesome, as he was clearly digesting his lunch – an unlucky blackbird. You can just see bits of something or other in his beak! I think his excessive meal – feeling a little bloated perhaps? – was partly the reason why he just sat there and let us photograph him and then sit quietly and watch…
But seeing him up close like that put me in mind of medieval hawking. I know that people enjoy working with birds of prey today, but somehow hawking seems a very “medieval” type of pastime. Although, of course, it was enjoyed then only by the wealthy, because the cost of acquiring and training the birds was very high.
However, it seems to have been a pastime that was enjoyed by both men and women, who used a variety of trained birds of prey – falcons, peregrines, merlins – to hunt small game, rabbits and the like, and other birds, anything, in principle, that the birds might hunt naturally. Falconry was, apparently, deemed a suitable sport for ladies because it was less dangerous than, for example, hunting a deer or wild boar with excitable dogs, and was less energetic and bloody for the hunters, as I suppose the birds were doing all the work.
These wealthy folk employed professional falconers to train their birds, which was – and is – a difficult and time-consuming activity that requires great expertise. Birds had to be trained from very young, both to get used to people and to go after the prey and return with it without tearing it apart (unlike my sparrow hawk). One imagines the whole training process took a great deal of time and patience.
But even these wealthy people could not, apparently, just buy any bird they took a fancy to. The fifteenth century Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (BL Harley Collection 2340) is one of a number of medieval guides on hawking and, like some others, it provides a hierarchy of birds of prey and a list of which birds could be used by which members of society.
So, for example, an emperor was allowed an eagle or a vulture, and a king, a gyrfalcon (a large falcon), whereas an earl could only use a smaller peregrine. A knight could use a saker (smaller still) and a lady might have a little merlin. Even further down the pecking order (sorry…), a priest was permitted a sparrow hawk, and a knave or servant might be allowed a kestrel, although it does seem unlikely that such lowly people would really have had the wherewithal to own any sort of bird.
But if all those fierce-looking creatures seem “small” enough to train, can you imagine attempting to bend a much larger one to your will? Best of luck with that vulture, if you’re an emperor!
Anyway, given my close encounter with “my” sparrow hawk, and our frequent more distant encounters with many other types of bird of prey, I cannot imagine wanting to constrain these wonderful birds’ natural instinct to hunt by forcing them to return the prey intact. Any more than I begrudged my sparrow hawk his lunch, despite my regret that it was one of our garden’s blackbirds. All “nature red in tooth and claw”1 is gruesome, but it is the way of things – the nature of things.
And so it seems fitting to close with an extract from my as yet unpublished novel called, indeed, The Nature of Things. This passage illustrates the mingled excitement and regret experienced by a young woman on her first exposure to hunting with falcons.
Extract from The Nature of Things, Part 5
It was supposed to be a treat for us, all those years ago, to stay at the chateau of Monsieur de Martigny, a friend and business partner of Papa’s, for two or three months while they travelled around northern France, seeking out new suppliers. It was so romantic there, and I just loved the elegant French ladies and their fashionable clothes. I was twelve, my sisters younger, and we had such fun with the Monsieur’s daughters, Katherine and Marguerite, playing in the chateau gardens, going for picnics on the banks of the Loire, and riding in the huge forests surrounding the estate. And Katherine and I, being older than the others, were even allowed to go hunting with falcons.
Katherine’s brother, Estienne, sometimes joined us for the picnics, and always for the hawking. He had the prettiest of falcons – her name was Ysabeau – with a blue-grey back and white speckled breast and the brightest of black eyes. He carried her so proudly on his wrist, attached by a little silver chain to his glove.
How I loved to watch Estienne release her and cast her up into the sky, where she spread her wings, wheeled and sped off after the poor frightened ducks that the servants had beaten up from the lake. I didn’t like that part of it – when Ysabeau flew back to her master with a drooping bird clasped in her claws. But Estienne loved the hunt and I wanted to show him I loved it too, so I clapped my hands and laughed, trying not to look at the duck’s dead eyes.
1. From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849.
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