I thought today we’d take a look at medieval hunting with hawks. Amaury, the hero in The Hunter & the Heiress, is an accomplished hunter. Elizabeth first sees him when he rides to hunt with his three dogs and his peregrine falcon, Persephone. Amaury’s dogs would be primarily be used to flush game, while the peregrine would take small birds. Amaury uses his crossbow for larger prey.
Hunting of large game was the privilege of the nobility in the medieval era. Deer and boar were specifically reserved for the sport of the aristocrats, but such large animals also provided for the lord’s table. In the forests on a lord’s holding, there would also be smaller game birds like grouse and partridge, as well as hares. The nobility also had the responsibility of hunting predators, like wolves, to ensure the safety of all.
This kind of hunting was also a nobleman’s occupation because of the cost of training and keeping the birds. The birds were kept in special buildings called “mews” in an established holding. The birds were hooded when not hunting because they are sight-hunters and this kept them more calm. They wore bells so they could be retrieved more readily when lost and jesses (leather straps) were tethered to their ankles so they could be held securely “on the fist”. The treatises below include a lot of recipes for medicines for the falcons, and a great deal of advice about keeping the birds healthy. We use “peregrine falcon” as a species, but in the MIddle Ages, “peregrine” referred to the female falcon, while “tiercel” referred to the male. Hunting was generally done with females. (The name “peregrine” derives from the practice of capturing the young birds while they were traveling to their breeding grounds rather than from the nest, since the nests were difficult to reach.)
Falconry characterizes medieval hunting to me. Like many other “pastimes’ of the nobility, it is a sport that allows military men to keep their fighting skills honed. Under the guise of providing for the table, they stalk, hunt and kill. Jousts and tournaments, also the reserve of the nobility, serve a similar purpose as well as providing for the defense of honor and entertainment.
The term falco peregrinus dates from Albert Magus’ use in 1225 but falconry is a much older sport than that. These specific raptors have been used in hunting for about 3,000 years. They are said to be easier to train than other hawks and also inclined to hunt. They circle above the falconer while game is flushed then dive to attack—the speed of descent can allow them to take down birds bigger than themselves. It’s also dramatic.
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, (also called Frederick Barbarossa because of his red beard) lived from 1194 to 1250 and was by all accounts a remarkable man. He wrote a book on falconry called De Arte Venandi cum Avibus: “On the art of hunting with birds”. This book is based on Frederick’s own observations and experience and quite detailed. It’s a very personal guide to a sport he obviously enjoyed.
The Vatican has scanned their copy of this work and made it available for online viewing. You can find it here.
This is a screenshot of two of the pages with their lovely illustrations:
The Book of St. Albans from 1486 is a later work but one often quoted for its description of who should hunt with which kind of raptor.
Here is the University of Cambridge’s digitized version of The Book of St. Albans. I’ve linked you to the page where the listing begins (before that, the text concerns training and medicines as well as the keeping of hawks.)
“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Hobby for a Young Man; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.”
The fact that hunting was reserved to the nobility didn’t mean that common people had no meat to eat: they only had game when they ate at the lord’s table but they also ate meat that they had raised. Common people kept pigs—it was typical to get a suckling pig in the spring, feed it through the autumn, then slaughter it and have smoked pork products for the winter. They also kept geese and chickens as sources of both meat and eggs—so did the nobility—while rivers and ponds were used to raise eels (which could be smoked) and other fish. Fish was eaten on fasting days, when no meat could be consumed. Cows are less common in most areas in the Middle Ages, though goats were a source of milk (often for cheesemaking) as well as subsequently for meat. I’ve always suspected that medieval peasants also trapped rabbits in their vegetable gardens, and likely did have a little more game in their diets than the chronicles might suggest.
Nothing could be further from Amaury de Vries’ expectations than joining his half-brother’s company of mercenaries in the wilds of Scotland. A knight and a champion at the joust, he expected to inherit a holding—until the man he has known as his father revealed a terrible truth and disavowed him. Left with nothing, Amaury rides to Kilderrick, where he loses his heart to a beautiful noblewoman in the forest. A practical man, he knows he has no right to court the lady, but when she is abducted, Amaury follows, determined to fulfill his knightly duty by aiding a damsel in distress.
Elizabeth d’Acron has been a pawn and a prize, pursued for her father’s wealthy holding, and wants only to be desired for herself. Seized again, she vows she will surrender to no man—even the handsome knight who comes to her rescue. And truly, there could be no one more vexing than this confident yet inscrutable man, so concerned with duty that he could be wrought of stone—but Elizabeth soon learns that she can trust Amaury to defend her at any cost. She does not expect the seductive fire awakened by his touch, much less his conquest of her wary heart—but has she fallen in love with a man whose affections are already claimed?
Snared between duty and passion, Amaury finds himself beguiled by the lady who challenges his every expectation, but knows he has little to offer her. But when Elizabeth is threatened by a former suitor who will not be refused, Amaury risks his all in her defense, hoping it will be enough. But can he intervene in time? And will love alone convince Elizabeth to place her hand in his for all time?
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