Chivalry on the Wing
Medieval Falconry

Essay by
Scott Farrell


May 2005


Most people envision knights as armored warriors on horseback riding into battle or tournament with their swords and lances. Yet medieval chronicles remind us that martial activities like tournaments and sword-fighting were only a small part of a knight's lifestyle. While jousting was referred to as "the sport of princes", it was falconry that was considered "the sport of kings".

I was recently invited to attend a hands-on falconry seminar at the Forest of Dean Falconry Center in Gloucestershire, England. This session, led by center directors Graham Howley and Andrew Nedoma, provided a fascinating look into hawking in the knightly tradition, but it also highlighted some insightful parallels between the practice of medieval falconry and the leadership principles of the Code of Chivalry in the 21st century.

In today's world, when we think of human-animal interactions, we imagine a situation of "ownership", as is common with dogs, cats and other pets. But to a knight or a medieval falconer, a bird was not a pet — it was a free-flying wild animal quite capable of providing for itself. This is reflected in the terminology used to describe the process of working with a hawk: A bird that is ready to hunt is described as manned, not tamed.

This is an important distinction, because in the field a knight had to understand that his hawk did not work for him, but rather worked with him. To hunt with a hawk is to establish a bond of mutual trust with a strong and aggressive comrade. The falconer who tries to establish dominance over a bird by force or intimidation is likely to see his bird flying for the horizon at the first opportunity.

In fact, working with a hawk is an exercise in humility — when recalling a hawk in the field, the falconer raises his hand high, allowing the bird to attain a position of superiority, to literally "look down" on its handler, as it flies to the falconer's gauntlet. Only when a bird feels it has achieved such a position of supremacy will it return to the falconer in order to continue pursuing its quarry.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the fact that the relationship between a knight and his falcon was a fleeting one — in the Middle Ages a young bird was taken from the nest in the spring, trained and "manned" in the summer, hunted in the autumn and then, in the lean days of winter, released back into the wild. The process was repeated each year with a newly caught hawk or falcon.

There are some valuable lessons to be found in this "falconry metaphor" for the chivalrous leader:

  • Whatever the situation or goal, each member of the team must be respected for the tools and contributions they bring to the hunt.
  • A leader must be willing to make periodic gestures of obeisance to his or her team members; to allow them to see that they are worthy to be give a position of supremacy from time-to-time.
  • Trying to establish dominance over your team members by force or intimidation is likely to backfire; showing respect and admiration is a much better way to keep your hunting partners from soaring for the horizon.
  • And finally, begin each day with the recognition that your team members always have the option of spreading their wings and flying off to more productive hunting grounds. This will keep you focused on the value of working with a team of strong, aggressive hunters rather than finding comfort in the company of docile, domesticated pets.

Hawks and falcons are as much a part of the tradition of chivalry as swords and armor. These magnificent birds represented the knight's responsibilities, not as a warrior, but as an honorable manager surrounded by strong, capable individuals who would not tolerate disrespect or mistrust. Leaders in the modern world can glean some important lessons by considering the principles of medieval falconry as a part of the leadership secrets of the Code of Chivalry.


© 2005 Scott Farrell

My thanks to the staff at the
Forest of Dean Falconry Center
for providing information used in this article. — SF

The tradition still soars at
Chivalry Today:
Reimagining the Code of Chivalry

Scott Farrell's
Living in the Current Middle Ages

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