Monday 8 April 2013

'Boozing with an Old Codger' by Karen Maitland

When I was researching medieval falconry, I was struck by how many modern words or expressions have their origins in falconry terms. Boozing, for example, it sounds like modern slang, but is corruption of bowse or bouse which refers to a falcon drinking excessively (water, of course, in falconry terms).

Callow meant a bird whose feathers were still growing and was untested on the wing. Fed-up referred to a falcon which had been given a full-ration of food. At which point the bird would lose interest in hunting or doing anything. Haggard meant a bird that was older and captured in mature plumage.  

If you are lucky enough to live in a Mews, you are living in a building in which falconers kept their birds of prey during the moulting period, which could house several hundred birds, because mews comes from the French muer meaning to moult. Other terms, including hoodwink, lure, under the thumb, cadging, gorge, old codger and even mantelpiece all have their origins in medieval falconry.

That falconry terms have come to be so much part of our language, is a measure of how important it was in medieval times. An afternoon’s entertainment for young girls was to bet on whose merlin could catch the most larks, and the greatest spectacular in medieval times was thought to be the Haut Vol ‘the great flight’, when the quarry bird such as a kite, raven, crane or heron climbed high into the air and the bird of prey tried to attack it from above, resulting in a great aerial battles of life and death.

Nearly everyone in the Middle Ages, rich or poor, would have kept a bird of prey, both for entertainment and for hunting for meat. If you’d gone shopping back then, you wouldn’t have seen people taking their dogs for a walk in the towns, but their falcons or hawks instead. This was because birds of prey were often caught from the wild and released again at the end of the season, so every year, women and men would have been seen walking around the towns with birds on their arms to man or tame them. It was even recommended that women took their birds to church. Can you imagine the noise and mess that created, but I bet they didn’t have trouble with pigeons in the church towers in those days.

 The nobility even had charters granting their birds of prey certain privileges. The Lord of Sassy was allowed to carry his goshawks into church and could set them to perch on the main altar. The Lords of Chastelas were allowed to take their place among the canons of the Church of Auxerre carrying their hawks on their fists, wearing their swords as well as their surplices and sporting hats covered in feathers. And the treasurer of this church was permitted to assist at Mass while carrying his sparrowhawk on his arm.

 But it wasn’t only the Europeans who were obsessed with falconry. In the latter half of the thirteenth century, a Mongol Emperor was so passionate about the sport that every year in March he went to Manchuria for the great hunt, taking ten thousand falcons and an equal number of soldiers to guard the hunting birds. He rode out in a pavilion covered with cloth of gold and lined with lion skins, which was borne by four elephants. Inside he kept his twelve favourite gyrfalcons (the royal white falcon) and twelve favourite officers to amuse them. When those on horseback reported the sighting of game he’d open his curtains and cast off the falcons.

Each falcon bore on its leg a tiny silver tablet giving its owner’s mark, and a man known as the ‘guardian of the lost’ would set up his tent on a rise with a banner flying above it so that in the vast camp he could easily be seen. Any owner seeking a lost bird would go to him, and any man finding a lost falcon would take it to the guardian. An early example of a lost property office!

Some people think that the famous Boke of St Albans which lists the birds for each social rank – Eagle for an EmperorA Merlyon for a lady – was a record of who was permitted to keep each type of falcon. In fact a number of the birds listed were never used in falconry, so it would appear that was written more as a satire comparing the temperaments, symbolism and characteristics of birds of prey to the different classes of people. 

 While the gyrfalcon was indeed reserved for royalty, largely because one of these rare white falcons could cost as much as a king’s palace, the other laws governing who could keep which bird were more concerned with what a bird hunted rather than the status of the bird itself. So a serf would not have be allowed to keep a bird capable of hunting game animals because as a serf he was forbidden to hunt game and to own such a bird would have been proof he was poaching

One last thought, if you were a royal falconer and were careless enough to lose your master’s valuable bird of prey, the weight of the bird could be cut from your living flesh – makes docking a man’s wages look positively benevolent, doesn’t it?

(Old Codger? - that's a corruption of cadge, the wooden frame on which the falcons perched and which was carried out into the field by a cadger, usually an old man. The cadger used to beg tips from the nobles as payment for this service.)


Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, I can see, in that last bit, where we got our modern term "to cadge"! :-) What a fascinating post!

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! I did my PhD on medieval hunting (not hawking, which is an entirely different discipline) and there are similarly loads of words taken from hunting terminology. I didn't know about lost hawk office. I don't think there was an equivalent for dogs, but I suppose they are more likely to come back.

The Boke of St Albans does certainly have some satirical content (in the list of 'company terms' - compound nouns - for instance). But it is also a repository of information collected (and corrupted) over centuries, so it may as easily be error. It's a strange text of disputed provenance.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - fascinating stuff!

adele said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks Karen...I've learned so much. And lovely pictures.

Jessica Knauss said...

Wonderful post! I've been reading up on falconry lately, too. Have you happened across anything that indicates whether it is possible for a falcon to have more than one master at a time?

Karen Maitland said...

In the sense that a falcon would have to get used to be handled, fed, hooded and healed by the falconer, who would have to train them and get them fit before hunting, then in the field the bird would have to be willing to ride (all be it hooded) on the arm of the falconer's master or mistress who would released her, it would appear falcons would respond to more than one person. Even though it would be the falconer who would retrieve them from the kill. Certainly there are lots of accounts of where visitors would borrow a host's falcon for day.

King Frederick used to distribute his treasured birds among his favoured nobles to take home and look after during the molt - a favour they dreaded, as not only was it very expensive, but there was also the nightmare that one of the more valuable birds, like a gyrfalcon, would die and then they'd be faced with the cost of replacing it, never mind his wrath.

The old books on the subject do often suggest that master and servant should wear the same colour or use the same glove at the start of the season, and certainly the medieval falconers were advised to always dress the same when dealing with birds, so it maybe that was the key.

Jessica Knauss said...

Thanks, Karen, that's really good information I can use!

Penny Dolan said...

Have just returned to re-read this lovely post. Thank you for all the information and details.

Whisks said...

Well I didn't know any of that. Utterly fascinating, thank you. Off to tweet the link.

Unknown said...

Brilliant post,really interesting