HUNTING (falconer)

It was customary for gentlemen of all classes, whether sportsmen or not, to possess birds of some kind, "to keep up their rank", as the saying then was. Only the richest nobles, however, were expected to keep a regular falconry, that is, a collection of birds suited for taking all kinds of game, such as the hare, the kite, the heron, &c., as each sport not only required special birds, but a particular and distinctive retinue and establishment.

Besides the cost of falcons, which was often very great (for they were brought from the most distant countries, such as Sweden, Iceland, Turkey, and Morocco), their rearing and training involved considerable outlay.

To succeed in making the falcon obey the whistle, the voice, and the signs of the falconer was the highest aim of the art, and it was only by the exercise of much patience that the desired result was obtained. All birds of prey, when used for sport, received the generic name of falcon; and amongst them were to be found the gerfalcon, the saker-hawk, the lanner, the merlin, and the sparrow-hawk. The male birds were smaller than the females, and were called tiercelet - this name, however, more particularly applied to the gosshawk or the largest kind of male hawk, whereas the males of the above mentioned were called laneret, sacret, émouchet. Generally the male birds were used for partridges and quail, and the female birds for the hare, the heron, and crane. Oiseaux de poing, or hand-birds, was the name given to the gosshawk, common hawk, the gerfalcon, and the merlin, because they returned to the hand of their master after having pursued game. The lanner, sparrow-hawk, and saker-hawk were called oiseaux de leure, from the fact that it was always necessary to entice them back again.

The lure was an imitation of a bird, made of red cloth, that it might be more easily seen from a distance. It was stuffed so that the falcon could settle easily on it, and furnished with the wings of a partridge, duck, or heron, according to circumstances. The falconer swung his mock bird like a sling, and whistled as he did so, and the falcon, accustomed to find a piece of flesh attached to the lure, flew down in order to obtain it, and was thus secured.

The trainers of birds divided them into two kinds, namely, the niais or simple bird, which had been taken from the nest, and the wild bird (hagard) captured when full-grown. The education of the former was naturally very much the easier, but they succeeded in taming both classes, and even the most rebellious were at last subdued by depriving them of sleep, by keeping away the light from them, by coaxing them with the voice, by patting them, by giving them choice food, &c.

Regardless of his original habits, the bird was first accustomed to have no fear of men, horses, and dogs. He was afterwards fastened to a string by one leg, and, being allowed to fly a short distance, was recalled to the lure, where he always found a dainty bit of food. After he had been thus exercised for several months, a wounded partridge was let loose that he might catch it near the falconer, who immediately took it from him before he could tear it to pieces. When he appeared sufficiently tame, a quail or partridge, previously stripped of a few feathers so as to prevent it flying properly, was put in his way as before. If he was wanted for hunting bares, a stuffed hare was dragged before him, inside of which was a live chicken, whose head and liver was his reward if he did his work well. Then they tried him with a hare whose fore-leg was broken in order to ensure his being quickly caught. For the kite, they placed two hawks together on the same perch, so as to accustom them peaceably to live and hunt together, for if they fought with one another, as strange birds were apt to do, instead of attacking the kite, the sport would of course have failed. At first a hen of the colour of a kite was given them to fight with. When they had mastered this, a real kite was used, which was tied to a string and his claws and beak were filed so as to prevent him from wounding the young untrained falcons. The moment they had secured their prey, they were called off it and given chickens' flesh to eat on the lure. The same system was adopted for hunting the heron or crane.

It will be seen that, in order to train birds, it was necessary for a large number of the various kinds of game to be kept on the premises, and for each branch of sport a regular establishment was required. In falconry, as in venery, great care was taken to secure that a bird should continue at one object of prey until he had secured it, that is to say, it was most essential to teach it not to leave the game he was after in order to pursue another which might come in his way.

To establish a falconry, therefore, not only was a very large poultry-yard required, but also a considerable staff of huntsmen, falconers, and whips, besides a number of horses and dogs of all sorts, which were either used for starting the game for the hawks, or for running it down when it was forced to ground by the birds.

A well-trained falcon was a bird of great value, and was the finest present, that could be made to a lady, to a nobleman, or to the King himself, by any one who had received a favour. For instance, the King of France received six birds from the Abbot of St. Hubert as a token of gratitude for the protection granted by him to the abbey. The King of Denmark sent him several as a gracious offering in the month of April; the Grand Master of Malta in the month of May. At court, in those days, the reception of falcons either in public or in private was a great business, and the first trial of any new birds formed a topic of conversation among the courtiers for some time after.

The arrival at court of a hawk-dealer from some distant country was also great event. It is said that Louis XI. gave orders that watch should be kept night and day to seize any falcons consigned to the Duke of Brittany from Turkey. The plan succeeded, and the birds thus stolen were brought to the King, who exclaimed, "By our holy Lady of Cléry ! what will the Duke Francis and his Bretons do ? They will be very angry at the good trick I have played them."

European princes vied with each other in extravagance as regards falconry; but this was nothing in comparison to the magnificence displayed in oriental establishments. The Count de Nevers, son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, having been made prisoner at the battle of Nicopolis, was presented to the Sultan Bajazet, who showed him his hunting establishment consisting of seven thousand falconers and as many huntsmen. The Duke of Burgundy, on hearing this, sent twelve white hawks, which were very scarce birds, as a present to Bajazet. The Sultan was so pleased with them that he sent him back his son in exchange.

The “Livre du Roy Modus” gives the most minute and curious details on the noble science of hawking. For instance, it tells us that the nobility of the falcon was held in such respect that their utensils, trappings, or feeding dishes were never used for other birds. The glove on which they were accustomed to alight was frequently elaborately embroidered in gold, and was never used except for birds of their own species. In the private establishments the leather hoods, which were put on their heads to prevent them seeing, were embroidered with gold and pearls and surmounted with the feathers of birds of paradise. Each bird wore on his legs two little bells with his owner's crest upon them; the noise made by these was very distinct, and could be heard even when the bird was too high in the air to be seen, for they were not made to sound in unison; they generally came from Italy, Milan especially being celebrated for their manufacture. Straps were also fastened to the falcon's legs, by means of which he was attached to the perch; at the end of this strap was a brass or gold ring with the owner's name engraved upon it. In the royal establishments each ring bore on one side, "I belong to the king," and on the other the name of the Grand Falconer. This was a necessary precaution, for the birds frequently strayed, and, if captured, they could thus be recognised and returned. The ownership of a falcon was considered sacred, and, by an ancient barbaric law, the stealer of a falcon was condemned to a very curious punishment. The unfortunate thief was obliged to allow the falcon to eat six ounces of the flesh of his breast, unless he could pay a heavy fine to the owner and another to the king.

A man thoroughly acquainted with the mode of training hawks was in high esteem everywhere. If he was a freeman, the nobles outbid each other as to who should secure his services; if he was a serf, his master kept him as a rare treasure, only parted with him as a most magnificent present, or sold him for a considerable sum. Like the clever huntsman, a good falconer was bound to be a man of varied information on natural history, the veterinary art, and the chase; but the profession generally ran in families, and the son added his own experience to the lessons of his father. There were also special schools of venery and falconry, the most renowned being of course in the royal household.

The office of Grand Falconer of France, the origin of which dates from 1250, was one of the highest in the kingdom. The Maréchal de Fleuranges says, in his curious " Memoirs " - " The Grand Falconer, whose salary is four thousand florins" (the golden florin was worth then twelve or fifteen francs, and this amount must represent upwards of eighty thousand francs of present currency), "has fifty gentlemen under him, the salary of each being from five to six thousand livres. He has also fifty assistant falconers at two hundred livres each, all chosen by himself. His establishment consists of three hundred birds; he has the right to hunt wherever he pleases in the kingdom; he levies a tax on all bird-dealers, who are forbidden, under penalty of the confiscation of their stock, from selling a single bird in any town or at court without his sanction." The Grand Falconer was chief at all the hunts or hawking meetings; in public ceremonies he always appeared with the bird on his wrist, as an emblem of his rank; and the King, whilst hawking, could not let loose his bird until after the Grand Falconer had slipped his.

Falconry, like venery, had a distinctive and professional vocabulary, which it was necessary for every one who joined in hawking to understand, unless he wished to be looked upon as an ignorant yeoman. " Flying the hawk is a royal pastime," says the Jesuit Claude Binet, " and it is to talk royally to talk of the flight of birds. Every one speaks of it, but few speak well. Many speak so ignorantly as to excite pity among their hearers. Sometimes one says the hand of the bird instead of saying the talon, sometimes the talon instead of the claw, sometimes the claw instead of the nail," &c.

The fourteenth century was the great epoch of falconry. There were then so many nobles who hawked, that in the rooms of inns there were perches made under the large mantel-pieces on which to place the birds while the sportsmen were at dinner. Histories of the period are full of characteristic anecdotes, which prove the enthusiasm which was created by hawking in those who devoted themselves to it.

Emperors and kings were as keen as others for this kind of sport. As early as the tenth century the Emperor Henry I. had acquired the soubriquet of " the Bird-catcher," from the fact of his giving much more attention to his birds than to his subjects. His example was followed by one of his successors, the Emperor Henry VI., who was reckoned the first falconer of his time. When his father, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Red-beard), died in the Holy Land, in 1189, the Archdukes, Electors of the Empire, went out to meet the prince so as to proclaim him Emperor of Germany. They found him, surrounded by dogs, horses, and birds, ready to go hunting. "The day is fine," he said; "allow us to put off serious affairs until tomorrow."

(Lacroix, p.197-205)

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Copyright: McMaster University, 2000