By Malve von Hassell
As a child, I loved the lore and legends surrounding falcons, in my mind’s eye following the majestic flight of peregrines and snowy-white gyrfalcons across the hills of Apulia.
Historically, falcons, like other birds of prey, performed an important service for human beings by helping to get meat on the table. Originating in Central Asia about 4,000 years ago, the art of falconry knew no boundaries; cultures in Mesopotamia, Central Asia, the Middle East, ancient Kiev, and Europe have shaped and been shaped by it.
Falcons were captured in the wild in Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Germany as well as in the Middle East. Falcons were traded as vastly valuable luxury items, exchanged as gifts, and used as ransom. Falcons represented an international currency as well as a shared language of values and ethics, with the art of falconry as a stand in for social norms and codes of behavior.
In the Middle Ages, the rules of falconry reflected the social order. Birds of prey from kestrels and sparrowhawks to gyrfalcons were ranked in a strict hierarchy, specifying who could own what type of bird. These ranks mirrored and reinforced the human hierarchy and system of ranks, with women, priests, servants, and children at the bottom of this social order. Keeping a bird of prey above one’s station was punishable; it could even mean having one’s hands cut off. Falcons were treated with honor according to their rank in the hierarchy of birds. This meant ironically that they also could be punished if they transgressed against that hierarchy, for instance, if a falcon attacked an eagle, the lord of birds.
The history of falconry is inextricably linked with that of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily, King of Germany, King of Jerusalem, and Holy Roman Emperor as well as with his favorite son Enzio, known as Falconello or ‘the Little Falcon.’ According to a legend, a white gyrfalcon appeared at every major turning point in the emperor’s life, and his soul was said to have turned into a falcon upon his death.
|Frederick II © Malve von Hassell.
Frederick II was known as ‘stupor mundi’ or the ‘wonder of the world’ for good reason. Born in Sicily in 1194, he spoke at least 6 languages including Arabic. He was avidly curious about the world, supported math and sciences, and commissioned translations of scientific works from Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. In 1224, Frederick II founded the University of Naples Federico II, the world's oldest public non-sectarian institution of higher education and research. The emperor supported the famous medical university of Salerno, the Scuola Medica Salernitana, remarkable for the fact that professors and students included both men and women. Frederick II also was a poet in his own right and founded the Sicilian School of Poetry.
|Pouilles Castle, Italy.
Frederick II designed some of his own castles. The Castel del Monte in Apulia, declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996, represents an intriguing blend of elements of the Antiquity, the Islamic Orient, and the early Gothic. It is notable for the use of the octagon which is recapitulated in its eight towers and the shape of each tower. The innovative design of the building included piped water, cisterns, and qanats for transporting water in underground channels. The precise purpose of Castel del Monte has never been fully determined. Some historians have argued that it was meant to be a hunting lodge. The building was only partially completed at the time of the emperor’s death in 1250.
|Castel del Monte ©Malve von Hassell.
The world of Frederick II was rife with lethal conflicts, and Frederick II himself engaged in acts of outright cruelty and ruthlessness. Yet, at the same time there is much to admire about this era, and some have called Frederick II a renaissance man three hundred years before his time.
Frederick II spent over thirty years writing a book about the art of falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus. In his prologue, he apologizes that it took him a long time to finish this work but that he had some other things to do as well. It is an astounding compendium that addresses everything from the proper habitat for birds of prey, their capture, breeding, and training, their feeding and medical care, and even a chapter on how to release a falcon back into the wild.
The emperor’s writings on falconry could be read as life lessons. For instance, the discussion of what makes a good falconer, e.g., patience, hard work, and the ability manage one’s temper, could apply to anyone trying to be successful. “A bad temper is a grave failing. A falcon may frequently commit acts that provoke the anger of her keeper, and unless he has his anger strictly under control, he may indulge in improper acts toward a sensitive bird so that she will very soon be ruined.” Lessons on how to treat a volatile bird of prey with respect and how not to break his spirit are as important as the lessons on how to treat a bird in captivity and how to go about releasing that same bird.
One of the biggest sources of grief in Frederick II’s life was the imprisonment of his son Enzio by an enemy of the emperor, the city of Bologna. Enzio was 31 when he was captured and 54 when he finally died in prison, despite numerous attempts to free him. Enzio like his father was a member of the Sicilian School of Poetry and wrote a collection of profoundly moving sonnets while in prison.
It flies far away to claim its dominion,
sailing to its castle in the middle of the blue sea,
the little falcon, and the sky overflows with joy.
With historical figures like that and their association with falconry in the 13th century, a work of fiction practically writes itself. Meanwhile, the challenge in writing a story that would introduce this fascinating era to young readers is to not get carried away in adding too many historical details. I admit I got carried away.
The Falconer’s Apprentice
By Malve von Hassell
In this story of adventure and intrigue, set in the intense social and political unrest of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteenth century, a 15-year old orphan embarks on a precipitous flight across Europe to rescue the falcon Adela. Andreas, assistant to the head falconer in a castle in the north of Germany, is appalled when his young lord imposes the death sentence upon a young peregrine falcon. In deciding to hide and ultimately escape with the falcon, Andreas breaks several laws of medieval society—failing to obey a direct edict from his lord and stealing, both subject to severe punishment. A crotchety falconer, a secretive trader and his feisty daughter, a mysterious hermit, a young king in prison, an aging emperor, and an irascible Arab physician are among the principal characters encountered by Andreas in the course of his journey.
Written for readers age twelve and above, this coming-of-age story conveys life in medieval Europe, with bedbugs next to silver chalices, food ranging from the moldy to the sublime, and intellectual sophistication side by side with rank superstitions. Original poetry by King Enzio, imprisoned in Bologna, and writings about falconry by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen are incorporated into the novel. The eight parts of the novel reflect the eight octagonal towers of the Castel del Monte, a critical turning point in the protagonist’s life.
Pick up your copy
The Falconer’s Apprentice
Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. Working as an independent scholar, she published The Struggle for Eden: Community Gardens in New York City (Bergin & Garvey 2002) and Homesteading in New York City 1978-1993: The Divided Heart of Loisaida (Bergin & Garvey 1996). She has also edited her grandfather Ulrich von Hassell's memoirs written in prison in 1944, Der Kreis schließt sich - Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft 1944 (Propylaen Verlag 1994). She has taught at Queens College, Baruch College, Pace University, and Suffolk County Community College, while continuing her work as a translator and writer. She has self-published a children’s picture book, Letters from the Tooth Fairy (Mill City Press, 2012) and her translation and annotation of a German children’s classic by Tamara Ramsay, Rennefarre: Dott’s Wonderful Travels and Adventures (Two Harbors Press, 2012). The Falconer’s Apprentice (namelos, 2015) was her first historical fiction novel for young adults. There are two forthcoming historical fiction novels, one set in Jerusalem in the time of the crusades, Alina: A Song for the Telling (BHC Press, 2020), and one set in Germany in 1645 and 1945, The Amber Crane (Odyssey Books, 2020). Currently, she is working on a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany.
Sources [in the public domain]
The Art of Falconry by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, edited and translated by Casey A. Wood & F. Marjorie Fyfe Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1943, p. 151.
Poemi Italici e Canzoni di Re Enzio, Giovanni Pascoli, IV Edizione, Nicola Zanichelli editore, Bologna 1928. [translation of poem excerpt by Malve von Hassell]
Gyrfalcon in flight
[Image IMGP4033, drawing, owned by me]
Castel del Monte
[free/no permission required]
Layout of Castel del Monte
[image IMGP4032, drawing, owned by me]