Frederick and Falcons in Faenza


John Gould, Falco Islandus, J. F. Gmel., Iceland Falcon, Adult, c. 1832

From History Today:

In the winter of 1240 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was encamped in the snowy fields around Faenza. After crossing the Alps to put down a rebellion of Italian city-states three years earlier, he had found himself drawn into a protracted conflict with Pope Gregory IX. It had not been an easy struggle. He had been excommunicated, deprived of the imperial throne and repeatedly frustrated by a lack of men and money. A few months previously, however, he had launched a new campaign, which he hoped would change the course of the war. Ravenna, his first target, had fallen quickly. But Faenza was a different matter. Ringed by formidable walls, it was defended by a strong garrison and could count on regular supplies from its allies. To make matters worse, the weather was atrocious. By the time the first frosts set in, Frederick’s army was already running short of food and he was so hard up that he had to pay his troops with leather coins. The outlook was bleak. If Frederick failed here, his whole campaign risked collapsing – and, if it did, the pope would be quick to take advantage.

Yet, as the fate of his empire hung in the balance, the emperor’s thoughts were far away. Night after night, he would shut himself in his tent with a translation of Moamyn’s famous treatise on falconry and let his mind soar across the seas to the skies above Sicily.

Falconry was, by then, a common pursuit. Having been introduced to Europe from Central Asia or the Near East, it had been practised at least since the ninth century and, though found at most levels of society, had become a favourite pastime of those who aspired to noble rank. Knights were expected to learn how to hunt with falcons and hawks as readily as with horses and hounds; and even prelates are known to have carried them as a mark of status. Many books had already been written on the subject. Some of the most authoritative – like Moamyn’s Kitāb al-mutawakkilī – were in Arabic or Persian. But a growing number were being produced in Latin or romance vernaculars.

“A Philosophy of Falcons”, Alexander Lee, History Today

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