Sir Thomas Browne (1683) Certain Miscellany Tracts. Tract V: Of Hawks and Falconry, Ancient and Modern, pp. 111-119.







In vain you expect much information, de Re Accipitraria, of Falconry, Hawks or Hawking, from very ancient Greek or Latine Authours; for that Art being either unknown or so little advanced among them, that it seems to have proceeded no higher than the daring of Birds: which makes so little thereof to be found in Aristotle, who onely mentions some rude practice thereof in Thracia;1 as also in Ælian, who speaks something of Hawks and Crows among the Indians; little or nothing of true Falconry being mention'd before Julius Firmicus,2 in the days of Constantius, Son to Constantine the Great.

Yet if you consult the accounts of later Antiquity left by Demetrius the Greek, by Symmachus and Theodosius, and by Albertus Magnus, about five hundred years ago3 you, who have been so long acquainted with this noble Recreation, may better compare the ancient and modern practice, and rightly observe how many things in that Art are added, varied, disused or retained in the practice of these days.

In the Diet of Hawks, they allowed of divers Meats which we should hardly commend. For beside the Flesh of Beef, they admitted of Goat, Hog, Deer, Whelp and Bear. And how you will approve the quantity and measure thereof, I make some doubt; while by weight they allowed half a pound of Beef, seven ounces of Swines Flesh, five of Hare, eight ounces of Whelp, as much of Deer, and ten ounces of He-Goats flesh.

In the time of Demetrius they were not without the practice of Phlebotomy or Bleeding, which they used in the Thigh and Pounces;4 they plucked away the Feathers on the Thigh, and rubbed the part, but if the Vein appeared not in that part, they opened the Vein of the fore Talon.

In the days of Albertus, they made use of Cauteries in divers places: to advantage their sight they seared them under the inward angle of the eye; above the eye in distillations and diseases of the Head; in upward pains they seared above the Joint of the Wing, and at the bottom of the Foot, against the Gout; and the chief time for these cauteries they made to be the month of March.

In great coldness of Hawks they made use of Fomentations, some of the steam or vapour of artificial and natural Baths, some wrapt them up in hot Blankets, giving them Nettle Seeds and Butter.

No Clysters are mention’d, nor can they be so profitably used; but they made use of many purging Medicines. They purged with Aloe, which, unto larger Hawks, they gave in the bigness of a Greek Bean; unto less, in the quantity of a Cicer,5 which notwithstanding I should rather give washed, and with a few drops of Oil of Almonds: for the Guts of flying Fowls are tender and easily scratched by it; and upon the use of Aloe both in Hawks and Cormorants I have sometimes observed bloody excretions.

In phlegmatick causes they seldom omitted Stavesaker,6 but they purged sometimes with a Mouse, and the Food of boiled Chickens, sometimes with good Oil and Honey.

They used also the Ink of Cuttle Fishes, with Smallage, Betony, Wine and Honey. They made use of stronger Medicines than present practice doth allow. For they were not afraid to give Coccus Baphicus7 beating up eleven of its Grains unto a Lentor,8 which they made up into five Pills wrapt up with Honey and Pepper: and in some of their old Medicines, we meet with Scammony and Euphorbium.9 Whether, in the tender Bowels of Birds, infusions of Rhubarb, Agaric,10 and Mechoachan11 be not of safer use, as to take of Agary two Drachms, of Cinnamon half a Drachm, of Liquorish a Scruple, and infusing them in Wine, to express a part into the mouth of Hawk, may be considered by present practice.

Few Mineral Medicines were of inward use among them; yet sometimes we observe they gave filings of Iron in the straitness of the Chest, as also Lime in some of their pectoral Medicines.

But they commended Unguents of Quick-silver against the Scab; and I have safely given six or eight Grains of Mercurius Dulcis unto Kestrils and Owls, as also crude and current Quick-silver, giving the next day small Pellets of Silver or Lead till they came away uncoloured: and this, if any, may probably destroy that obstinate Disease of the Filander or Back-worm.12

A peculiar remedy they had against the Consumption of Hawks. For, filling a Chicken with Vinegar, they closed up the Bill, and hanging it up untill the Flesh grew tender, they fed the Hawk therewith: and to restore and well Flesh them, they commonly gave them Hogs Flesh, with Oil, Butter and Honey; and a decoction of Cumfory to bouze.13

They disallowed of salt Meats and Fat; but highly esteemed of Mice in most indispositions; and in the falling Sickness had great esteem of boiled Batts: and in many Diseases, of the Flesh of Owls which feed upon those Animals. In Epilepsies they also gave the Brain of a Kid drawn thorough a gold Ring; and, in Convulsions, made use of a mixture of Musk and Stercus humanum aridum.

For the better preservation of their Health they strowed Mint and Sage about them; and for the speedier mewing of their Feathers, they gave them the Slough of a Snake, or a Tortoise out of the Shell, or a green Lizard cut in pieces.

If a Hawk were unquiet, they hooded him, and placed him in a Smith’s Shop for some time, where, accustomed to the continual noise of hammering, he became more gentle and tractable.

They used few terms of Art, plainly and intelligibly expressing the Parts affected, their Diseases and Remedies. This heap of artificial terms first entring with the French Artists: who seem to have been the first and noblest Falconers in the Western part of Europe; although, in their Language, they have no word which generally expresseth an Hawk.

They carried their Hawks in the left hand, and let them flie from the right. They used a Bell, and took great care that their Jesses should not be red, lest Eagles should flie at them. Though they used Hoods, we have no clear description of them, and little account of their Lures.

The ancient Writers left no account of the swiftness of Hawks or measure of their flight: but Heresbachius14 delivers that William Duke of Cleve had an Hawk which, in one day, made a flight out of Westphalia into Prussia. And, upon good account, an Hawk in this Country of Norfolk, made a flight at a Woodcock near thirty miles in one hour. How far the Hawks, Merlins and wild Fowl which come unto us with a North-west wind in the Autumn, flie in a day, there is no clear account; but coming over Sea their flight hath been long, or very speedy. For I have known them to light so weary on the coast, that many have been taken with Dogs, and some knock’d down with Staves and Stones.15

Their Perches seem not so large as ours; for they made them of such a bigness that their Talons might almost meet: and they chose to make them of Sallow, Poplar or Lime Tree.

They used great clamours and hollowing in their flight, which they made by these words, ou loi, la, la, la; and to raise the Fowls, made use of the sound of a Cymbal.

Their recreation seemed more sober and solemn than ours at present, so improperly attended with Oaths and Imprecations. For they called on God at their setting out, according to the account of Demetrius, τὸν Θεὸν ἐπικαλέσαντες, in the first place calling upon God.

The learned Rigaltius16 thinketh, that if the Romans had well known this airy Chase, they would have left or less regarded their Circensial Recreations. The Greeks understood Hunting early, but little or nothing of our Falconry. If Alexander had known it, we might have found something of it and more of Hawks in Aristotle; who was so unacquainted with that way, that he thought that Hawks would not feed upon the Heart of Birds.17 Though he hath mention’d divers Hawks, yet Julius Scaliger, an expert Falconer, despaired to reconcile them unto ours. And ’tis well if, among them, you can clearly make out a Lanner, a Sparrow Hawk and a Kestril, but must not hope to find your Gier Falcon there, which is the noblest Hawk; and I wish you one no worse than that of Henry King of Navarre; which, Scaliger saith, he saw strike down a Buzzard, two wild Geese, divers Kites, a Crane and a Swan.

Nor must you expect from high Antiquity the distinctions of Eyess and Ramage Hawks, of Sores and Entermewers, of Hawks of the Lure and the Fist;18 nor that material distinction into short and long winged Hawks; from whence arise such differences in their taking down of Stones; in their flight, their striking down or seizing of their Prey, in the strength of their Talons, either in the Heel and fore-Talon, or the middle and the Heel: nor yet what Eggs produce the different Hawks, or when they lay three Eggs, that the first produceth a Female and large Hawk, the second of a midler sort, and the third a smaller Bird Tercellene or Tassel, of the Masle Sex;19 which Hawks being onely observed abroad the by Ancients, were looked upon as Hawks of different kinds and not of the same Eyrie or Nest. As for what Aristotle affirmeth that Hawks and Birds of Prey drink not; although you know that it will not strictly hold, yet I kept an Eagle two years, which fed upon Kats, Kitlings, Whelps and Ratts, without one drop of Water.

If any thing may add unto your knowledge in this noble Art, you must pick it out of later Writers than those you enquire of. You may peruse the two Books of Falconry writ by that renowned Emperour Frederick the Second;20 as also the Works of the noble Duke Belisarius, of Tardiffe, Francherius, of Francisco Sforzino of Vicensa; and may not a little inform or recreate your self with that elegant Poem of Thuanus.21 I leave you to divert your self by the perusal of it, having, at present, no more to say but that I am, &c.


Original marginalia are in green.

1 In Hist. Anim. 620.a-b: “In Thrace, in the district sometimes called that of Cedripolis, men hunt for little birds in the marshes with the aid of hawks. The men with sticks in their hands go beating at the reeds and brushwood to frighten the birds out, and the hawks show themselves overhead and frighten them down. The men then strike them with their sticks and capture them. They give a portion of their booty to the hawks; that is, they throw some of the birds up in the air, and the hawks catch them.” Aristotle goes on to say, somewhat less plausibly: “In the neighbourhood of Lake Maeotis, it is said, wolves act in concert with the fishermen, and if the fishermen decline to share with them, they tear their nets in pieces as they lie drying on the shore of the lake.” One wonders exactly how wolves may have “acted in concert” in fishing.

2 Julius Firmicus Maternus, whose astrological works contain a fair amount of information, in passing, about fourth century Roman life.

3 Need a note here.

4 An anterior talon; strictly, the innermost of the three anterior talons.

5 Chick-peas. Cicer survives only in the genus name; the earlier form — chich or chiche or chich-pease — was unfortunately eliminated, partly no doubt because it is difficult to pronounce, but largely through the influence of Dr. Johnson, one of the more somnolent of our Homers.

6 Or stavesacre, a species of Delphinium. It is, like most or all delphiniums, quite poisonous. Pliny mentions its external use as a parasiticide.

7 “Or mezerion” adds Browne in MS. Daphne mezereon, whose bark, leaves and berries are used medicinally as stimulants and vesicants, as well as purgatives. It is poisonous, at least in large amounts. On this as on various other plants, the authorities are divided on the question of just how poisonous.

8 Lentor is either a stiff paste or a viscid component isolated from blood.

9 Convolvulus scammonia, a purgative. Euphorbia, or spurge, is a violent emetic and cathartic; it is also used, mostly in veterinary medicine, as a vesicant.

10 Polyporus officinalis, a fungus which yields a purgative.

11 Mechoacan or jalap, a purgative obtained from the root of a bindweed, Ipomoea jalapa.

12 Filander is the name of both an intestinal worm in Hawks and the disease it causes. Interestingly, the plant stavesacre mentioned above and in note 5 is also known as filander. Its purgative properties can help eliminate the worm.

13 MS Sloane 1827 reads “drink”, and continues “and had a notable medicine against the inflammation of the eys, by juice of purslain, opium, and saffron.”

14 De re Rustica. Conrad Heresbach's 1594 Rei rusticae libri quatuor universam agriculturæ disciplinam continentes.

15 And then, no doubt, fed with poisonous concoctions to see what would happen.

16 Nicolas Rigault, d. 1654.

17 In Hist. Animal. 615a1: “The hawk also builds in inaccessible places. Although a ravenous bird, it will never eat the heart of any bird it catches; this has been observed in the case of the quail, the thrush, and other birds.” The hawk that lives in the alley behind my house eat pigeons, beginning with the main carcase, sometimes eating all of the pigeon, sometimes leaving wings and head. And lots and lots of feathers.

18 Eyess or eyas (from nyas, in turn from niais), a young hawk (technically a nestling) who is untrained. A ramage hawk is one that has begun to fly and hence is somewhat wild. A sore hawk is one that has not yet moulted; now usually called a red hawk; sore is from the same (disputed) source as French saur, saure, meaning “red” or “chestnut”, not related to our sore meaning “wound”). An entermewer or intermewer is a hawk between her first moulting and her second (all of this occurring before she is two years old). A hawk of the fist is one , so far as I can understand it, that flies straight at the game upon seeing it; a hawk of the lure is one is made to fly up and wait for the prey; but some falconry books equate hawks of the fist with short-winged hawks and hawks of the lure with long-winged falcons. Of course the two sets of distinctions may be the same, if short-winged hawks also are hawks that fly or are trained to fly straight at game.

19 They are called “tercellene” from a belief that either only one-third of hawks are male or that male hawks are born from the third egg, which amounts to much the same thing. Accipiters lay from one to four eggs, usually one at a time with a period of a day or two in between. The eggs hatch in the order they are laid, and the young birds grow rapidly. The first bird hatched may well be two or three times as large as its youngest sibling born a few days later; and as they are also quite aggressive, it might well kill its younger rival. This undoubtedly helped foster the reports repeated by Browne. I can find no evidence whatsoever that there is any greater likelihood that the first egg will produce a female.

20 Holy Roman Emperor, his De arte venandi cum avibus.

21 De Re Accipitria, in 3 Books.

This page is by James Eason.