Pompous and pretentious birds of prey

Today’s my birthday and I was lucky enough to have a morning’s falconry experience bought for me by my lovely girlfriend at the Hawking Centre in Doddington, Kent. Just the most stupendous thing, to be up that close, handling and flying magnificent birds of prey – Asian brown wood owl; barn owl; Harris’s hawk; African hooded vulture.

It’s probably not a surprise that the day got me thinking about raptors that crop up in my research. Birds of prey were perhaps the most significant and prized of all birds in the medieval period (well, for the relative few who had wealth and leisure anyway); they were kept and maintained for the hugely popular pastime of hunting/hawking. They also came to accrue great cultural, heraldic import as well though, because of their associations with the nobility. By the 15th century, there was a clear and strict hierarchy of bird status to human status, as outlined in The Boke of St Albans, ranging from the eagle for an emperor, down to the kestrel for a knave (hence the title of Barry Hine’s popular novel about a young, troubled working-class lad in a mining community who rears a kestrel).

In my PhD work on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, I write about how Chaucer invokes the embedded associations between raptors and the elite classes to great comic effect. The poem, in my reading, is partly a takedown of the medieval symbolism attributed to birds of prey, both in literature and in life. What happens in the Parliament is that the birds, having already been placed above their station in that they achieve equivalent human social statuses, push things a step further – they are so thoroughly imbued with their humanised sense of grandeur that they speak and act as if they actually are the human nobles upon whose arms they have been trained to sit. The thing is, they keep on behaving like birds, despite their pretentions. So Chaucer is able to create great humour by having the birds oblivously do things that keep puncturing their humanised delusions. For instance, in the typical, rhetorical catalogue of birds that begins the debate, the birds of prey seem to find it difficult to resist biological fundamentals. In the passage below, there are numerous references to instinctive killings and violence:

the ‘goshauk, … doth pyne
To bryddis for his outrageous rauyne;
The gentyl facoun, that with his feet distraynyth
The kyngis hand; the hardy sperhauk eke,
The quaylis foo; the merlioun that paynyth
Hymself ful ofte the larke for to seke.
(335-40)

the goshawk, … does harm (pain)
to birds [to satisfy] his excessive appetite;
The genteel falcon, who strains with his feet
[upon] the king’s hand; the hardy sparrowhawk too,
the quail’s foe; the merlin that pains
himself very often to seek the lark.

Even the falcon, who is not depicted in pursuit of prey, is still a falconer’s bird and his talons ‘distraynyth’. As the bird’s talons grasp the king’s hand, there is the impression that its natural habits are barely concealed by its taming: the bird’s ultimate ‘kynde’ (instinct) is to hunt and kill for itself, far less any aristocratic role it has been assigned.

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