I recently blogged about birds of prey in medieval culture with particular reference to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. Originally, what follows was a part of that entry, but I’ve decided the topic deserves its own post because I wouldn’t want people to miss out on the stupendous manuscript to which I direct you below!
In relation to my previous entry, if you want a good sense of just how popular and skilled the arts of hawking and falconry were in the medieval period, take a look at this digitalised edition of a thirteenth century copy of De arte venandi cum avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) by Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor. It’s known as the Manfred manuscript and is housed in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.
This chap, and his treatise on falconry, was really advanced for his time. He approached ornithology with a genuine empiricism (inspired by Aristotle), quite different to the prevailing mode of interpretation by which nature was regarded as an allegorical code to God’s divine intentions. It was Frederick, for example, who first decided to dispprove the centuries-old folklore belief that barnacle geese grow from drift wood or dead trees. He sent envoys to northern countries to find evidence. Of course, they found none! I came across this digital edition of the text very recently (see here). I’m a sucker for medieval manuscripts depicting birds of any sort, and I’m aware of most, but this thing is just something else. It’s full of birds! And accurately depicted birds too: black vulture; falcon (look like juvenile sakers or lanners by colour, but possibly peregrine); gyrfalcon; eagle owl, long-eared owl; barn owl; lapwing; curlew; white-fronted goose (I think); greylag goose; barnacle goose; black stork; white stork; European crane; grey heron; bittern … the list goes on and on! If any ornithologists want to tackle the trickier species, write a comment to this entry and let me know what you think. The images in this manuscript perfectly suit Frederick’s (more) scientific approach and provide another great example of how the ways in which medieval writers thought about and dealt with birds/nature were complex and diverse. Many birds are labelled, too (in Latin, of course). The second half has some fascinating depictions of courtly types attending to and training with their birds, or wonderfully intricate images of falconry equipment.