Episode 84 – The Art of Hunting with Birds

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This is a whole episode about a book, a book called “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus” the Art of Hunting with Birds. Hunting books are similar to books about fishing, riveting for those who do it, crushingly boring to those who do not.

But this book is about hunting in the same way as the The Old Man and the Sea is about fishing. It is about nature, about the beginnings of science and the awakening of the critical mind. It is about someone who acts and thinks very differently to his contemporaries. Come and take a look…and listen to me getting into a rant.


Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 84 – The Art of Hunting with Birds

In the centre of the city of Heidelberg, former capital of the Palatinate rises the Heiliggeistkirche, the church of the Holy Spirit built between 1398 and 1515. Inside the church you will notice some unusual galleries on the upper floor. This is where the Bibliotheca Palatina, the greatest repository of books and manuscripts in renaissance Germany was once kept. Put together by the Counts Palatinate on the Rhine it contained 5,000 printed books and 3,524 manuscripts. It served as the library of the University of Heidelberg, then and still today one of the foremost places of learning in the country. In 1622 the Catholic league sacked the Calvinist Palatinate. Count Tilly, commander of the Bavarian troops seized the library and was initially ordered to send it to Munich. But the emperor insisted the library was so valuable and famous it was to be sent to the pope in Rome as a sign of his loyalty and esteem.

Amongst the books in the Bibliotheca Palatina, are three of the most famous medieval manuscripts ever made. The Evangeliar of Lorsch made  in around 810 at the court of Charlemagne. It was the blueprint for the great art of medieval illuminations that reached its peak under the Ottonians, many of which you may have seen on my social media posts these last years. One half of it ended up in the Vatican library in Rome, the other half was nicked by the cardinal in charge of packing up the books in 1622. That half is today in Alba Iulia in Transsylvania.

The second superlative manuscript is the Codex Manesse, the collection of medieval Minnesang decorated with colourful depictions of courtly life In the Highe Middle Ages. These I have also used extensively on my website and in the description of my Patreon tiers. The codex Manesse was taken along to England before the fall of Heidelberg by the Elisabeth Stuart, the wife of the Count Palatinate. Her descendants ran out of cash and had to sell it. In the 19th century it was bought back by the University Library of Heidelberg where you can still see it in real life and in an excellent digital version.

The third book and possibly the one outshining even those two was an illuminated manuscript of De Arte venandi cum Avibus, The art of hunting with birds produced around 1260. It contains 111 folios with brilliantly coloured, extraordinarily lifelike, accurate and minute images of birds, their attendants, and the instruments of the art of falconry. This is the famous falconry book of Frederick II. It came back to Heidelberg one last time in 1986 and since I lived there, I managed to see it. I came almost every day since every day the curators would turn over one page to reveal one more of the fabulous images.

Yes, this is a book about hunting and quite frankly I normally put books about hunting in the same category as books about golf – extremely interesting to those who play golf, crushingly boring to everybody else. But this book is not about hunting, it is about nature about the beginnings of science and the awakening of the critical mind. Let’s take a look..

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Frederick II was a hunter. In the 13th century every nobleman was a hunter. Hunting was one of the three things every knight needed to be able to do, riding, fighting and hunting. Maybe by 1230 he also needed to add a veneer of civilisation and gain skills in putting together some nice verses to the unattainable lady of his heart. Durig the crusades the European aristocracy encountered age-old middle-eastern hunting traditions. One was the hunting with cheetahs or as the European sources called them “hunting leopards”. Cheetahs are extremely fast but tire quickly. Hence, they were trained to ride on horseback to the hunting grounds where they would be released. Hunting with cheetahs was the most expensive and most environmentally destructive sport imaginable since the animals do not easily breed in captivity. We know from court records that Frederick was constantly ordering new cheetahs to be brought across from North Africa and the Middle East.

The other hunting tradition that came across from the Middle East was falconry, the hunting with birds of prey. Falconry is still the sport of the emirs, and it is almost as expensive as hunting with cheetahs would be if still allowed. In 2021 a white gyrfalcon was sold at auction in Riyad for $465,000. In Frederick’s time that was no different. A single Falcon could cost as much as small farm.

It seems Frederick was obsessed with falconry. Some argue that he moved the effective capital of his kingdom from Palermo to the small town of Foggia to be able to better hunt with his falcons. He most likely started this passion as a teenager and wherever he travels, he was always accompanied by his favourite birds.

For Frederick Falconry was not just a way to pass his time but became a scientific endeavour. The fruit of this endeavour was the book I saw in Heidelberg in 1986 – de arte venandi cum avibus – about the art of hunting with birds. Here is in his own words why he wrote it:

Quote: “We have investigated and studied with the greatest solicitude and in minute detail all that relates to this art, exercising both mind and body so that we might eventually be qualified to describe and interpret the fruits of knowledge acquired from our own experiences or gleaned from others. For example, we, at great expense, summoned from the four quarters of the earth masters in the practice of the art of falconry. We entertained these experts in our own domains, meantime seeking their opinions, weighing the importance of their knowledge, and endeavouring to retain in memory the more valuable of their words and deeds.

As the ruler of a large kingdom and an extensive empire we were very often hampered by arduous and intricate governmental duties, but despite these handicaps we did not lay aside our self-imposed task and were successful in committing to writing at the proper time the elements of the art.” (end quote)

So far so good. Frederick is an obsessive falconer who spends every minute he can spare to either. Hunt himself or hear other people talk about falconry and keeping it all in his head. But it is not. just that, he gets his scholars to collect all and everything ever written about birds and falconry. If it is in Arabic or Greek he has someone translate it into Latin. That is how Michael Scot, his astrologer and multipurpose genius comes to translate Aristotle, in particular “de Anima” – about the soul and “de Animalis”, about the Animals. These translations will make their way into the hands of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinus who will make these books the bedrock of scholasticism. But that is not what he had them translated for. It was for the birds.

And as he was hunting, observing, listening to his falconry experts, going through his books and notes he comes to a set of conclusions that makes this book and its author so different from most things written in the 13th century:

Quote: “Inter alia, we discovered by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed whenthey appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds. There is another reason why we do not follow implicitly the Prince of Philosophers: he was ignorant of the practice of falconry— an art which to us has ever been a pleasing occupation, and with the details of which we are well acquainted. In his work, the Liber Animalium, we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay.” End quote

Frederick II says that Aristotle is sometimes wrong, that he paddles hearsay and does not check his sources. Not something you find very often, or ever before the 16th century.

Dissing Aristotle flies into the face of any scholastic whose primary assumption was that the authorities, i.e., the bible, the church fathers and the great ancient philosophers were absolutely right. And where the great professors of Paris, Bologna or Oxford found the authorities might on the face of it diverge they strained every one of their synapses to find an interpretation that let both still be right. Finally if compromise cannot be found despite all these efforts, the decision which one was right was based on seniority, i.e., bible first, Aristotle. What played no role in a dispute was actual observations, proof that came bottom-up, not top down.

Frederick operates in the diametrically opposite way. As he says in his introduction: “Our purpose is to present the facts as we find them”. And he puts this into practice. His book consists in total of six chapters, the first is about “The general habits and structure of birds” and the other five about specific techniques of hunting with falcons. I am no biologist, but I understand that his observations were a mainstay of ornithology well into the 20th century. Reading in it, it is clear that what he describes is based on observations. He tests Aristotle’s theories against his observations and where the theory falls short, he puts the prince of philosophers aside and develops his own hypothesis.

Then he tests his hypotheses. For instance he believed  ostrich eggs could be incubated in the sun, and found they could, at least in Puglia. Another concerned the habits of vultures specifically whether vultures exclusively eat carrion. For that he left some vultures without food for several days. Then he put live chicks into their cages. Despite being extremely hungry, the vultures did not attack and eat the chicks. That was proof that vultures only ever eat carrion. Then he wanted to find out whether they detect their food by sight or by smell. He took two vultures and had his men stitch the birds’ brows below its eyes, a long-standing technique applied to falcons that may be painful but not long term harmful to the animal. Then again, he left them hungry and presented them with carrion. The vultures could not see it and left the food untouched, which convinced him that vultures find food by sight, not smell.

He describes himself as an inquisitor, at that time not a laden word, but describing someone who seeks the truth by investigating the circumstances.

At his court other biological and medical sciences also flourished. His court doctor, Thomas of Antioch had studied medicine in Baghdad and brought the much more advanced medical knowledge of the east to the university of Salerno, the leading medical faculty in Christian Europe at the time. Thomas also helped design the criteria for the approbation of doctors and pharmacists, something unknown elsewhere. Jacobus Ruffus, nephew of Frederick’s marshal, wrote the very first book about veterinary medicine of the Middle Ages which includes a rudimentary notion of mendelian inheritance identifying recessive and dominant traits in horses.

His insistence that scientific proof was superior to the faith in established authorities added to the bewilderment that his contemporaries experienced in his presence. That came on top of all the other ways in which he deviated from the monarchical normcore of the 13th century. He had an interest in other religions, he maintained regular exchanges with the court of Sultan Al Malik of Egypt and other Muslim rulers, he had turned his kingdom of Sicily into an absolutist regime and he was in constant conflict with the church.

As the latter conflict, the one with the popes intensified, this mixture gave rise to rumours and tall tales that have been repeated down the centuries. They paint Frederick as a gruesome and godless ruler. And as they keep getting repeated, we will repeat them here too.

One story was that he used men who had been convicted to death in his experiments. One he had put into a sealed wine barrel to find out whether his soul would leave via the bunghole as he suffocated. Another experiment involved two men, both were given the same food, one then ordered to rest and the other to go for a long walk. Once the second men returned, both were killed, and the content of their stomachs investigated to find out whose digestion had proceeded he furthest. And finally, he allegedly undertook an experiment I will not recount here. Google it under Frederick II Language experiment if you are so inclined.

All these allegations are from a book by Salimbene di Parma, a Franciscan Monk who wrote a treatise comparing Frederick II to the ten plagues 30 years after Frederick’s death. So not exactly an impartial eyewitness. Most historians hence dismiss these claims as outright phantasies. I would like to agree, but then if Frederick was indeed of a scientific disposition and – in line with the culture of the time – had little regard for the rights of convicted criminals, these first two experiments are not completely impossible to have happened. The language experiment however must be propaganda.

Falconry was Frederick’s total obsession, but not his only interest. He was as I said before a man of unquenchable curiosity. When he had a chance to meet the great mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci he took it. Whether he understood the Fibonacci retracement, a set of ratios to identify support and resistance levels in a trend, I very much doubt. These calculations are still used today by so=called technical analysts in the markets and drive billions of dollars of investments.

He also picked up another habit of life at the great Muslim courts. Rulers and their courts would send out letters to renowned scholars, seeking answers to questions they had been discussing. Sometimes the scholar would then publish the questions and answers in a book, thereby elevating both their own standing and that of the noble questioner.

The Arab philosopher Ibn Saib wrote a book he called the “Sicilian Questions” which included enquiries allegedly posed by Frederick and his court as well as his responses. Modern historical science has rejected the notion that these queries had indeed originated at Frederick’s court, but the fact remains that one of the most renowned eastern scholars thought it would elevate his standing to pretend the questions came from the emperor.

Even if the Sicilian questions were never posed, we know from multiple sources that Frederick did host and sometimes participated in philosophical and theological debates and posted problems to scholars in east and west . There were not only Christian scholars at his court but also Jewish and Arabic men of letters. A jewish member of his court Jakob ben Anatoli describes debates about the works of Maimonides and whether they could be brought in line with Aristotelian thought. Equally Juda ben Salomon who helped translate Arabic and Hebrew texts reports about discussions of the Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law and theology.

Frederick’s interest in Jewish culture and theology becomes very public during his stay in Germany in 1236 when he is called upon to adjudicate on a case of Blood Libel.

To explain this we have to go back to the year 1177 when Thomas of Monmouth, a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Norwich publishes a book entitled the life and miracles of St. William of Norfolk. According to Thomas of Monmouth, William was a 12-year-old boy of unusual innocence. One day – so Thomas tells us- young William was abducted by Jewish men he did not know who bound and gagged him. They then allegedly shaved the boy’s head, put a crown of thorns on him and fixed him to a cross in a mockery of the crucifixion. Afterwards disposed of the body in a well. In his treatise Thomas  quotes a convert from Judaism, brother Theobald of Cambridge who claimed that the Jewish faith required an annual sacrifice of a Christian child to ensure the return to the Holy Land and to punish the Christians for the persecution of the Jews.

The publication of this book led to copycat accusations of Jewish communities for this so-called Blood Libel. In total there may have been as many as 150 such accusations during the Middle Ages which almost inevitably ended with the lynching or burning of members of the Jewish community. I guess I do not have to tell you that not a single one of these accusations had any link to reality.

One such case was brought before Frederick in 1236. The citizens of Fulda had killed 34 of their Jewish neighbours after five children were found burned to death in their house at Christmas. The Jews were accused not just of the usual ritualistic murder but also of drinking the children’s blood and using it to bake matzos, the traditional bread to be eaten at Passover. The citizens of Fulda brought the bodies of the five children to Frederick’s Pfalz in Hagenau. Ever since Henry IV, all Jews were unfree serfs of the emperor and hence under direct imperial protection. The citizens of Fulda needed confirmation that they had acted legally in the destruction of imperial property.

Frederick was familiar with the Talmud and Jewish customs and hence did not believe that any such crime had been committed, well apart from the murder of the 34 Jews that is. But he also understood that if he just decided it on the back of his own knowledge, the general population may not come along with his judgement and Blood Libel would continue.

And so he staged a huge public trial. He invited theologians, scholars who could read Hebrew and also recent converts from Judaism who could credibly describe the Jewish law. They all pointed out not only that there is no requirement to sacrifice a Christian child every year but that their faith explicitly prohibits the ritual shedding of any blood, human or otherwise.

It was more than just a court decision it was an attempt to end this madness once and for all. Unfortunately this did not work out fully and persecution of Jews continued across Europe. The papacy and other monarchs too tried to stop the maltreatement of the Jews. Their approach tended to be a blunt, don’t do it by the order of the king. As far as I know, Frederick was the only one who tried to persuade the people by bringing proper evidence to the table, another sign of how his approach and thinking differs from other medieval rulers.

And that now gets me off to a rant. Over the last 40-50 years or so historians have worked hard to prove that Frederick was not unusual for the Middle Ages. They argue that he was not the first to bring Arabic and Jewish scholars to his court, his grandfather Roger II did so too, they argue Frederick did not write his book on Falconry himself, because it was common for monarchs to be ascribed authorship when in realty their scholars had written it all, his son Manfred is cited as the translator of a Hebrew text when he spoke no Hebrew, they tell us that negotiating possession of  Jerusalem for Christianity wasn’t a major achievement because Al Kamil was willing to hand it over anyway. I lost it when I read the Hans Martin Schaller, a highly respected scholar argued that Frederick was a very pious monarch, no different to other men in his position.

I really do not get this. I am not a proponent of the great man theory of history. I am the first to admit the Otto the Great or Frederick Barbarossa were very much a product of their times and one was lucky, the other less so. And I hope you noticed that I believe Frederick’s policy in Germany had a detrimental effect on the long-term development of the Holy Roman Empire.

But Frederick as a pious monarch, give me a break. The man built hundreds of castles and only one church, I repeat one, in a reign of nearly 50 years, one. Compare that to contemporary monarchs. Louis IX of France, admittedly, St. Louis, paid 100,000 livres for the large silver chest that housed the crown of thorns he had acquired from Constantinople and that he had brought barefoot and in a hare shirt into Paris himself. There he had built the Sainte Chapelle the most marvellous gothic treasure that cost him another 40,000 livres. Louis IX went on two crusades that achieved nothing but knightly tales, one of which he died on, he passed severe laws punishing blasphemy and targeted the Jews and had the Talmud burned. That is a pious king.

Meanwhile in England, king Henry III of England was almost equally pious, just less popular. He spent vast amounts on church ceremonies and tried to turn Westminster into a rival of the Sainte Chapelle.  Ah, and he had the Jews first robbed and then made to wear yellow badges.

None of these guys had spent time observing the flight of a swan and comparing it to what Aristotle or Pliny the elder or an Arab scholar had said about the flight of swans. None of them had questioned Aristotle’s idea of spontaneous generation that believed that crocodiles suddenly appeared from mud. None of them thought that facts are superior to dusty books.

Yes, I agree that Roger II and the whole Norman court in Sicily was a fascinating intellectual environment rivalling that of Frederick’s court in Foggia. The same goes for Alfonse X of Castile, but these guys are the exception. There is not much science and philosophy coming from Richard Lionheart, Philippe Auguste or any of Frederick II’s own predecessors, except maybe of Otto III.

Sometimes there are exceptional individuals, not superior in all and everything, just very different. Frederick was not the smartest political operator of his time, that was Philippe Auguste. He was not the best fighter, that may have been Richard Lionheart. But to say he was dull, that just is not true.

He grew up with a patchy education from some papal legates who were busy trying to keep a crumbling kingdom together. Maybe that need to make it up for himself is where he got his interests and his contrarian way of thinking from, who knows. But I am not going to believe for a moment that he was the same sort of ruler as Konrad II or Lothar III, two very much run-of-the mill medieval rulers, successful rulers and interesting in their own way, but not exceptional personalities.

o.k. rant over. Do not get me wrong, I am not dismissing modern scholarship. We certainly do not want to get back to the unfettered hero worship of Ernst Kantorowicz though I love quoting him and he is an amazing writer. Without recent publications in particular by Hubert Houben and Olaf Rader this podcast would be utterly lost. So thanks modern scholarship, could you. Just just stop trying to be controversial by making everyone samey!

And that gets us to the end of this episode. Next week we will resume the narrative. Time to go for another attempt at breaking these pesky northern Italian communes with an quick detour via Vienna and maybe we even get to the bit where young Enzo becomes king of Sardinia. I hope you will join us again next week.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

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