23 March 2010

Arts and Music: The Falcon in Medieval Art

By Blythe Gifford

As I researched HIS BORDER BRIDE, my May release, I studied the ancient sport of falconry for the first time and became so fascinated that I used it as a symbol throughout my story.

In medieval times, hawking, whether with a falcon or another bird of prey, was not just a leisure pastime. It was a status symbol and the height of "conspicuous consumption." The imagery and language of the hunt permeated art, poetry, language, and even Shakespeare's plays.

Once you become aware of it, you can see references to this "noble sport" in many pieces of medieval art.

First, I'm including an image of a French tapestry from 1500 called Leaving for a Solitary Hunt. (Often, hunts were not solitary jaunts, but huge, elaborate affairs, more like processions than sport.) This beautiful tapestry shows the lord with his falcon, dogs, and an attendant and includes the beautiful millefleur, or "thousand flower" style of background. In this case, the subject is what it seems: the lord going on a hunt alone.

But in other cases, the art carried hidden meaning, for the complex dance of the falcon and the quarry was an oft-used symbol of love. Both men and women participated in the sport, though the most prized hunting falcons were female, not male. In an image, the bird could stand for the woman, the man, or love in the abstract.

The second example here, about 100 years earlier than the previous one, shows a woman holding a falcon being approached by a man who carries a small heart. Because she is holding the falcon, the interpretation is that she has control--that is he loves her more than vice versa, since he is bringing her his heart.

Those symbols may seem obvious, but some of the others in this work are less so. The falcon here represents the noblest of man's aspirations; the flower, the woman's virginity. We also see the lady's dog leaping up on her lap. This would have been understood to stand for male sexuality, as the "lap dog" was where the lover would like to be.

In addition, there are three rabbits woven into the scene. Why? Because in the French of that day, rabbits were called con, which was also the French word for the female sexual organ. (Think of a four letter word in English beginning with 'C' and you'll get the idea.) So while this lovely scene seems chaste, it carries an explicit message about love and sex.

The next image comes from a codex, or a series of bound medieval pages. Here, the woman holds the man and he holds the falcon, who seems to be nibbling on a snack. The interpretation is less clear here. She is in the "dominant" position, but he has control of the falcon, so it may be that he's in charge and has bent her to his will, e.g. she eats at his hand.

These examples are from France, the Netherlands, and Germany. But my book is set on the Scottish border, far from where such beautiful and costly pieces were created. I did discover an image, however, that captured my imagination and served as an important symbol for my book, and my heroine.

This final piece is a fragment of an aumônière, or pouch, embroidered with gilt thread, silk, and satin. It was created in the first half of the fourteenth century, and I like to think that something very much like it could have found its way to Scotland.

Labeled "The Falcon's Return," it shows a lover flying back to his mistress as a falcon would return to her. His arms are long and distorted; his hood and her cloak billow like wings.

To me, the piece is a reminder that even the most well-trained bird is still a wild thing, no more "owned" by the hunter than a lover. Each time the bird returns to the falconer's fist is a choice, as is each return of a faithful lover. No amount of training or force can capture a wild heart.

It must be given. Was this what the artist intended? Well, this is my interpretation. Read into it what you will.

Some of the analyses here were gleaned from THE MEDIEVAL ART OF LOVE, by Michael Camille, published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, in 1998.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting article on falcons. I have added your book to my TBR list since it sounds really good.

Blythe Gifford said...

Thanks! Hope you enjoy it.

Julie LaLonde said...

Your article was absolutely fascinating. It makes me wish I would have taken Eva Gordon's class, "Ancient Falconry" but I was overloaded already. I am going to have to share your post today with two friends of mine who are into art symbolism. I've never heard of the falcon as symbolic---just that it used to be my son's favorite bird (peregrin falcon) growing up 'cause it was the fastest.

Julie LaLonde said...

Oh, and I love your interpretation of The Falcon's Return. It reminds me of a saying I had on my wall as a teen, something like "If you love something, set it free. If it doesn't come back, it wasn't meant to be yours. If it does, love it forever."

Virginia Gal said...


I love this post and it has certainly whetted my appetite for His Border Bride!

I am sensing that there is going to be some sort of storyline where he has to come back to her willingly? I am thinking some sort of proof of true love? oh I hate this wait for the book!

Blythe Gifford said...

Julie: Yes, I wish Eva's class had been offered when I was in the throes of writing this story! I may write more on the falconry aspect as I get closer to the book publication.

And for Julie and Virginia Gal, glad I've perked your interest in the book. It should be available in about five weeks. I'll have an excerpt here at Unusual Historicals late in April.

Julie LaLonde said...

Great. Just be sure to announce it on the HHRW loop!
Don't want to miss it.