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 Emperor… A 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.)