Hawking in medieval England – the archaeological evidence

“An eagle for an Emperor, a gyrfalcon for a King,
a peregrine for a prince, a saker for a knight,
a Merlin for a Lady, a goshawk for a yeoman,
a sparrowhawk for a priest, a musket for a holy water clerk,
a kestrel for a knave.”

(The Boke of St Albans, c. 1486)

Hawking or falconry is the pursuit and capture of birds and small mammals by trained birds of prey. The origins for the sport are unclear, but from its introduction into Europe from Asia in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, it rose to become one of the great field sports of the medieval period. Unlike the pursuit of deer, hawking was not the sole preserve of the nobility, but was accessible to those lower down the social strata, provided they had sufficient resources, although this in effect prevented ownership of hunting birds by the poor. The ‘Boke of St Albans’ (c. 1486) demonstrates how the type of bird kept related to an individual place in the social hierarchy.

What evidence though exists for this sport in the archaeological record?

Finds of hawking equipment such as hawk rings have been recovered from sites such as Heddingham Castle and Bigglewade. Such items are obviously direct evidence for hawking, and as such have great value in tracing the history of the sport. However, the small size of many items of falconry equipment and the fact that a number are made of leather, which has often decayed in archaeological deposits, means that such survivals are rare.

Another potential source of data is the remains of the birds themselves. The recovery of hawk bones obviously confirms the existence of those species at the site. However, it is necessary to consider in what capacity the birds were present. Were they trained birds involved in field sports or were they wild? This question can perhaps never be resolved with absolute certainty, but certain sources of evidence do provide the means of resolving the question with some degree of confidence.

Firstly, it is necessary to investigate whether the birds would be expected to occur naturally in the environment in which they were found. Non-native species are far more likely to represent a bird imported for falconry than an accidental death of a wild bird. In addition, ecological requirements and patterns of behaviour can be informative. The two most common falconer’s birds, the Goshawk (Accipter gentilis) and the Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), are specialist hunters which require sufficient cover in the form of trees or scrub to be able to ambush their prey. This hunting behaviour, combined with a lack of predisposition towards carrion, makes them ill-suited to urban environments. The presence of either in an urban context is most likely, therefore, the result of human activity.

The situation with falcons is more complex. The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) are both common sights in modern town centres, which is a testament to their adaptability. However, with regards to the Peregrine, this has only occurred in areas where there were suitable roosting and nesting sites, such as office blocks, which would have been less readily available in most medieval urban centres. This would suggest urban finds of this species in a medieval context represent trained birds. However, the presence of wild birds drawn in from nearby mountains or sea cliffs can never be entirely excluded. Rural sites are, of course, another matter entirely, and such criteria are of less use for distinguishing between wild and trained birds.

In a few cases, such as that at Faccombe Netherton, pathological changes were observed in two of the Goshawk skeletons that may provided additional osteological evidence for hawking. One had slight exostoses on the left tarsometatarsus, though to be the result of trauma due to the jesses. Another possessed a possible false joint on the dorsal end of the left coracoid, a type of injury that is generally the result of chasing prey in modern birds.

A final source of evidence lies in the remains of the game caught by trained birds. However, such an approach should be treated with caution given the many other possible sources of such game.

Reference:

Cherryson, A. K. 2002. The identification of archaeological evidence for hawking in medieval England. Acta zoologica cracoviensia 45 (special issue): 307-314

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