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: The Romantic Sport of Falconry


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the fourteenth century, when Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, wanted to ingratiate himself with the Pope, wheedle the English, bribe an enemy, or reward a friend, he realized his objective through lavish gifts of tapestries woven at Arras or Tournai. When it became necessary to ransom his son, John the Fearless, from the Turkish Sultan Bayezid, however, it was not with tapestries but with a kingly gift of falcons that he did so. This was a high price to pay, and an indication of the ardor with which the sport of falconry was pursued in Europe and the Near East at the time. Somewhat later, in France, the gift of one fine falcon or a well-trained hunting dog served to win the temporary favor of Louis XI who, like most of his contemporaries, was mad about hunting. Especially was he mad about hunting with the falcon, that noble and romantic sport which became so popular in Europe following the crusades that in England a whole statue was given over to the matter of a falcon lost or strayed. If, it stated in part, the finder of a lost falcon "conceal it from the lord whose it was, or from his falconers, and thereof be attained, he shall have imprisonment for two years and yield to the lord the price of the hawk if he have whereof; and if not he shall be the longer in prison."The outright theft of a falcon was considered a crime so heinous that the perpetrator of such an act was, on at least two occasion, excommunicated for it. Falcons and the sport they furnished were held in such esteem by mediaeval sovereigns that these gentlemen seldom left their courts without their falconers and a cadge of hawks which might be flown whenever suitable quarry offered itself. Falcons, carried on the fists of their owners, were a familiar sight at court, in the streets, and even in church in the Middle Ages.A vivid suggestion of the pageantry with which a mediaeval falcon hunt was conducted is given in the Institute's Gothic tapestry of a hawking party reproduced on the cover of this Bulletin. If, to the contemporary huntsman accustomed to the sharp crack of guns in an open field, there seems to be something theatrical about the whole performance, it may be recalled that falconry was a romantic sport and the result of infinite patience and care. The sport is an ancient one, dating back at least two thousand years B.C., and one that offers high excitement to huntsmen in some parts of the world even today. Although the introduction of firearms in the seventeenth century, the breaking up of large estates, and the reclamation of wild lands, signalled the falling off of falconry as a major sport, the practice of hawking still survives.Great skill and infinite patience were required to prepare hawks for the hunt. Whether the subject was an eyas—a young hawk taken from the nest—or a haggard—a wild hawk which was captured for training—the birds had to be brought slowly and gently into subjection to man's will. It was necessary to hood them and keep them in a dark place, teaching them to take food in captivity at first, and later, by the gradual introduction of light and the intermittent removal of the hood, to accustom them to eat fearlessly in daylight and in the presence of men and dogs. While this process was going on, the falconer gradually coaxed the falcon to perch on his heavily-gauntleted fist and gentled the hawk by stroking its feathers and addressing it with a low whistle which was associated with the giving of food.When the falcon had lost its fear of man, it was taken out into a secluded place, loosed, and taught to return to the falconer's fist from a distance. For this purpose, a lure was used in the training of the true falcon. The lure might be either a dead pigeon on a string, or a pair of bird's wings attached to a weight to which was affixed a morsel of beef or other tempting food. When the falcon was loosed by an assistant, the falconer swung the lure in the air, at the same time calling to the bird with the whistle or the low clucking sound which she had leaned to associate with food. At the first call the falconer swung the lure in the air so that the falcon had to search for it. On her second attempt she was allowed to reach the lure and was rewarded by being given—or allowed to take—some of the food attached to it. As time went on, the falconer trained his hawk to approach the lure from greater and greater distances and, by handling of the lure, taught her to circle more widely and to rise to a greater height before swooping on it.When the bird had become fully acquainted with the lure, a rather tame pigeon was released in place of the lure and the hawk then rose to the necessary height, or pitch, to attack the live bird. Once she had brought it down she was recalled to the hunter, who swung the lure and rewarded her by giving her a dainty bit of food when she returned to his fist. Eventually the hawk was ready for proper hunting and was taken into the field to capture wild game.The training process is approximately the same both for the long-winged hawks, which are the only true falcons, and the short-winged hawks of which the goshawks are the most ruthless and efficient. In either case the hawks, when first captured, are furnished with jesses, bells, swivels, and leash. The jesses are two narrow strips of soft leather attached to the feet of the birds. These are provided with narrow slits through which the leash is attached to the jesses by means of a small swivel. Thus accoutered, and wearing a soft leather hood topped with feathers, the hawk perches on the fist of the falconer while waiting to be loosed for an attack. When the quarry is sighted or flushed, the hood is removed and the swivelled leash detached from the jesses so that the hawk can rise to the proper pitch from which to stoop, or launch herself, on the prey. The jesses, like the two small bells, remain attached to the hawk's legs and are to be seen, in most illustrations of the sport, hanging free in the air. The purpose of the bells is to give the falconer the location of the hawk's legs and are to be seen, in most illustrations of the sport, hanging free in the air. The purpose of the bells is to give the falconer the location of the hawk in case she does not immediately return to the fist after having brought down the quarry.Both in hunting and in training it is essential for the falconer to understand the difference between the long-winged and the short-winged hawks. In either case the female, being stronger than the male, is preferred as a hunter. As stated above, the long-winged hawks are the true falcons, and of them the gerfalcon and the peregrine are most desirable as hunters. The falcon is a strong, courageous, and resourceful hawk and may even be flown at gazelles and, in central Asia, at wolves and antelopes. Falcons are always trained to the lure and are always hooded in the field. Their method of attack is always the same: a powerful stoop from a good height, and a fatal blow with their great claw. If well-trained they will either "wait on" (circle in the air while the quarry is flushed), or be loosed from the falconer's fist when the quarry, such as a heron, is sighted. If they miss their prey the first time they will circle widely to attain a proper pitch and stoop a second time, when they rarely miss. Sometimes, when a heron is the quarry, a cast, or pair, of falcons will be used in the attack.Such an attack is portrayed in one portion of the museums' hawking tapestry, where a cast of falcons has closed in on a heron and is ready for the kill. A falconer at the right swings his lure in anticipation of the climax, when the falcon will return to the fist to be leased and hooded. In hunting the heron, falcons must make the attack during passage so that the killing blow can be given during free flight. At such time the heron does not, as sometimes thought, make any attempt to defend itself with its murderous, sword-like beak.Goshawks, on the other hand, are never used for hunting herons. Their quarry is found in low-flying birds, hares, and rabbits. In the East, the goshawk is known as the "bird of the fist" in contradistinction to true falcons which are called "birds of the lure." This circumstance derives from the fact that the goshawk is trained to return to the fist without resort to the lure. Occasionally the lure is used to persuade the goshawk to return to the fist, but it is not customarily so employed. Another difference between the falcon and the short-winged hawks is that the hood is seldom used for the latter and is never used in the field. The fact accounts for a discrepancy which may at first puzzle observers of the museum's tapestry: the absence of hoods for the hawks carried by the ladies and gentlemen of the party. The fact that none is visible for the cast of falcons attacking the heron is, perhaps, irrelevant. That they are falcons is indicated by the very fact that they are attacking a heron. Even goshawks, most vicious of the short-winged hawks, were not flown at herons because their method of attack differs from that of the falcon. The goshawk does not immediately kill its prey as the falcon does; it kills by clutching the victim and driving its great talons into the vitals until life is literally squeezed out of it. Also, unlike the falcon, the goshawk comes to earth with its quarry and refused to release it until it has ceased to struggle. This method of killing would be suicidal in the case of the heron. Not only does the goshawk not kill immediately; it does now know where life lies in its victim and never releases its original hold even to defend itself. Therefore, should a safe hold not be at first secured, the heron could bring its long beak into action and often stab its attacker.The various aspects of falconry suggested or illustrated by the museum's gothic hawking tapestry are shown in the details from the tapestry which accompany this brief account of falconry. In the view reproduced on page 67 the bells, jesses, and looped leash are clearly visible. In all the details the heavy gauntlets worn by the falconers may be seen and it is interesting to note that the gauntlets are worn on the right hand, in the manner prevailing in the East, rather than on the left as was customary in Europe.The style of the tapestry, as well as the costumes worn by the members of the hunting party, indicate that it was woven about the middle of the fifteenth century. It is so closely related to the famous Hardwicke Hall set of hunting tapestries of the Duke of Devonshire that it is thought by many to be a part of that celebrated set. Whether or not this is the case, the tapestry presents a superb example of mid-fifteenth century weaving. The large-scale figures informally disposed in a flowery meadow, the treatment of the wooded background, the details of costume and architecture, and the rich shades of crimson, blue, and green, suggest that the tapestry was woven at Tournai bout 1445-1450. As an illustration of the romantic sport of falconry, it presents a fascinating subject for study. It is on view in the Gothic gallery with other tapestries given in memory of Charles Jairus Martin.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Falcon Hunt. A Flemish tapestry woven in Tournai about 1450. Charles Jairus Martin Memorial Collection
  2. Falcons attack a heron and a falconer swings a lure in this detail from the Institute's mid-fifteenth century hunting tapestry
  3. A hawk is returning to the falconer who is extending his heavily gloved right hand and holding a leash with swivel in his left
  4. Detail of Flemish hunting tapestry showing elaborately gowned lady attaching leash to jesses of returned hawk
  5. Falconer holding hawk on his right fist. Note jesses and leash, and the small bells attached to the legs of the hawk
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Source: "The Romantic Sport of Falconry," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 36, no. 14 (March, 1947): 66-71.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009