Birds of Prey at the Abbey

Birds of Prey and Knights go together don’t they?

Marie and Sabrina ready for the Birds of Prey presentation at the Abbey Medieval Festival/The medieval knight  of popular media is usually dressed in shining armour, upon a fiery steed, jousting and riding off into war and gallant adventure or committing wicked atrocities to the defenceless common folk but not often is he pictured with a hawk on his glove.

Yet this was more common than the knight in shining armour.  Birds of prey were an important part of medieval aristocratic life and both lords and ladies often went about their daily duties with a hawk or falcon within arms reach.  These birds played an important role in a triumvirate of animals which also included horses and hounds. Primarily used for hunting, these birds were used as a fashion statement as well as a functioning part of the noble household’s food supply.

Falconry with Flair and Finesse

One is always kitted out in authentic Medieval Costume at the Abbey TournamentBirds of prey were very special to the noble class of medieval Europe. These birds were treated very well, housed, kept, groomed, fed and handled on a daily basis. Some nobles kept their favourite bird with them at all times; by their bed, in church, at tournaments or at feasts and formal occasions.  They were not just enamoured of their ability to hunt, their majestic, proud appearance or aesthetically pleasing design but also of their place in the natural world. Raptors soared above the ground free of terrestrial restraints coming to ground only when to suit their own purpose or when wounded or killed. To the mind of the battle born warrior these birds were their idealistic equal, a mirror image of themselves among the common folks.

Something else they felt was parallel between themselves and birds of prey was that they were unequalled in the art of slaying. That is to say, in the natural world the raptor was greatly feared and respected by other animals, birds and land dwelling prey who understood that a conflict with these creatures would lead to wounding or death, temporary escape if you were lucky.

Respect for the Predator

I was fortunate enough one day to witness this in great example as the following tale recounts:
I was observing three crows, scavenging a space for food when suddenly without warning a small bird, what looked to me a pigeon, fell from the sky, a lifeless mass.The three crows immediately moved to set upon this bird and just as suddenly, with an elegance and grace that spoke of its skill and power, a falcon landed on top of the bird and mantled it, spreading it’s wings over it’s prey and adopting a threatening posture to challenge and ready to defend that which it considered to be rightfully its own.
The pigeon was obviously its kill and as soon as it made eye contact with the three crows, all three scattered to give the falcon space and seeing that none dared intrude on its authority, took to the sky again with its prey. The crows did not for one second dare to rise to the falcons challenge; they understood their place in the natural order of things.

This too is how the medieval noble viewed himself among his social inferiors; dominant and unquestionable, through his social position, and his skill as a warrior.

Birds of Prey in Medieval Times

Birds of prey can be found in medieval manuscripts, carvings, sculpture, paintings and heraldic achievements such as shields, badges and crests. Take for example the heraldry of Sir Justyn Webbe, fictional knight of the 14thC who uses his legitimate family arms today. Upon his shield he bears four peregrine falcons which denote swiftness and loyalty, their gold colour (represented by yellow) denotes faith and obedience.  The falcon was also seen by the church as a symbol of true conversion from pagan beliefs. King Edward III of 14thC England favoured the use of a falcon as one of his primary badges of livery and favour. So as you might deduce, the falcon used as a heraldic device can tell a lot about a man’s character and history.
In the Middle Ages hunting with birds of prey was divided into two groups based on the type of bird being used.
Falconry was the art of flying falcons to hunt for game and hawking was the same art when using hawks or eagles. A falconer was the name given one who engaged in falconry and an austringer was the name of one who went hawking.  Owls were not used at all and rarely kept because of superstition associated with them .
The often-quoted Book of St Albans or Boke of St Albans 1486, has a list of birds and who may fly them as according to social rank. It has been dismissed by many historians as being idealistic at best. Indeed there is much evidence from the Middle Ages to suggest that the proposed list of birds restricted by social rank never existed or was enforced at all.

Authors note: The art of falconry, that is hunting game with birds of prey, is illegal in Australia. The author does not participate or endorse this illegal activity within Australia. The birds of prey used by Sir Justyn are from Full Flight Conservation Centre and are flown not to hunt but for rehabilitation and educational purposes.

Guest Blogger: Sir Justyn
{ Sir Justyn is a professional medieval educator, performer and fight instructor who attends events, schools and clubs, Australia-wide and internationally, bringing history to life wherever he goes.   You can see Sir Justyn’s Birds of Prey from the Full Flight Conservation Centre in the encampment of Eslite d’ Corps, the 14thC Living History group and household of Sir Justyn at the Abbey Medieval Festival.  Sir Justyn, Eslite d’ Corps (EdC) and Full Flight Conservation Centre can also be found on Facebook.  For more information on falconry and hawking visit EdC Medieval Falconry.}

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