Medieval sports were, for the most part, chances for men to practice their martial skills in less dangerous and destructive ways, and largely relegated women to the role of cheerleaders on the sidelines. There was one sport, however, that welcomed both men and women to the field (literally): falconry.
Rooted in the ancient world, falconry was used for necessary hunting in the Middle Ages – such as finding food and killing vermin – but it was also an extremely popular sport for the nobility. Falcons and hawks were usually trained to hunt small prey, like rabbits and other birds, as they do in the natural world, but their training was sometimes expanded to include attacking larger prey, like deer, in order to weaken and distract the animals so that hunters and their dogs could finish them off (Stuhmiller, p.701). Unlike boar and stag hunting, falconry did not involve a face-to-face encounter with a dangerous and panicked animal, so it was a much safer sport for respectable medieval ladies to participate in: less physically demanding, less rushed, and less bloody.
There was a wide range of birds for medieval people to train and use to hunt, including the gyrfalcon, goshawk, and sparrowhawk. A common bird for ladies to hunt with, though, was the peregrine falcon, and not just because grey goes with everything. Peregrines were a good choice for ladies because they are relatively small, therefore lighter to hold on the fist, and they are especially graceful in the air. Peregrines attack their prey by closing their talons into fists and diving, breaking the bones of other birds and knocking them out of the sky. This means that these falcons don’t often have the bloody, feather-shredding battles that some other raptors do (which could also be why some medieval men preferred the drama of hunting with bigger hawks). In order to accomplish this backbreaking feat, peregrines execute spectacular dives in excess of 300 kmph – they are the fastest creatures on the planet. Pretty awesome accessories for medieval ladies to wear on their arms, if you ask me.
Because falconry allowed for women and men to spend the day riding sedately out into nature and having picnic lunches in full view of dozens of chaperones, it was the perfect opportunity – and excuse – for them to flirt and get to know each other. Soon enough, falconry became inextricably linked to romance, and no wonder: it involved temporary blindness (for the hooded falcon), being tied to a master, luring, and hunting. Falconry to courtly love is no great leap of imagination.
Medieval writers could not resist bringing love and falconry together. In one version of Tristan and Isolde, Isolde is compared to a falcon on the hunt with darting eyes (Clason, p.48); in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles, the raptors are arguing over mates (Clason, p.47); and in the Middle English Sir Orfeo (ll.303-308), it is an otherworldly party of women hunting with falcons that leads Orfeo to his lost lady-love. Marie de France takes the hawking and love theme one step further in Yonec, a lai in which a knight actually shapeshifts into the body of a hawk to visit his lady for romantic liaisons, imprisoned, as she is, in a tower. The beautiful illustrations in the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse feature lots of falconry and romance, and I especially love the famous page 69r, which features two snuggling lovers and a woman with a grey bird (perhaps a peregrine) on her fist. Outside of the realm of books, archaeologists have also found ladies hunting with falcons on both mirrors – often a lover’s gift – and on the carved hilt of a knife (Gilchrist, p.110, 127).
If you’d like to read an authentic medieval manual on falconry (minus the romance), you can check out a thirteenth-century book, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, written by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Frederick II. For a much more modern and personal account, which incorporates T.H. White’s (author of The Once and Future King) own experience with hawking, I’d recommend the award-winning H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. For a deliciously cheesy ‘80’s movie about love, birds, and lovebirds, check out LadyhawkeBroderick, and Rutger Hauer.
Danièle Cybulskie is a contributor at Medievalists.net. Follow Danièle on Twitter: @5MinMedievalist