Labours of the Month: May

A man on horseback holds a falcon. Trin MS B.11.31, f. 5r
A man on horseback holds a falcon. Trin MS B.11.31, f. 5r

With summer just around the corner, outdoor pastimes are the order of the day. Among the most ancient and noble of these is falconry and it is this aristocratic pursuit that is the first of two Labours of the Month for May.

A hawk from a 13th century Bestiary. Trin MS R.14.9, f. 101r.
A hawk from a 13th century English Bestiary. Trin MS R.14.9, f. 101r.

Developed in Mesopotamia perhaps as early as 2,000 BC, falconry is the hunting of wild animals using a specially trained raptor (bird of prey). While falconry is often used to describe hunting using any bird of prey, including hawks and buzzards, it should technically only refer to the flying of falcons, raptors of the genus falco.

Falcons make ideal hunters thanks to their sharp eyesight, speed and manoeuverability in the air, and their powerful talons. However, it is difficult and time consuming to train them owing to their complex needs and the trusting relationship that must exist between the falconer and the bird. Therefore, while some peasants may have flown birds of prey to hunt for food, falconry is most often associated with the wealthy and noble who could afford to employ specialist trainers and keepers. These individuals occupied a prestigious position within the houses they served and the title of falconer to nobles and royals was often hereditary, passed from father to son.

Indeed, medieval falconry was rigidly hierarchical. The Book of St. Albans (1486) details what sort of bird of prey was appropriate for various social ranks, from Emperors, who were said to fly eagles, vultures and merlins, down to knaves or servants, who could only fly kestrels according to the book. Owing to the expense of buying and keeping them, falcons and hawks became symbols of power, prestige and strength used in heraldry. Hunting parties were a chance for nobles to gather and show off the skills of their birds of prey and by the later middle ages these parties had become highly stylized and extravagant rather than a way of acquiring food.

A falconer and a maid. Trin MS B.11.4, f. iii verso.
A falconer on horseback greets a maiden. Trin MS B.11.4, f. iii recto.

The idea of the thrill of the chase and the associations with chivalry are enough to explain the connection between falconry and courtly love, the second Labour of the Month for May. “Maying”, celebrating May Day, was used as a euphemism for outdoor canoodling by Thomas Morley in the popular balette “Now is the Month of Maying”, published in 1595. Indeed, there seems to be something in the air in May, for in the image from B.11.22, a 13th century Flemish Book of Hours, a couple appears to have abandoned all pretenses at flying the falcon on the young man’s wrist and are paying much more attention to each other than to the wildlife they might be hunting. Medieval courtly literature frequently plays with tension between the rigid hierarchy of society and the wild pleasure of both hunting and romance.

A youth and maid on horseback. Trin MS B.11.22, f. 2r.
A youth and maid embracing on horseback whilst on a hunt. Trin MS B.11.22, f. 2r.

Courtly love is a fitting companion to May’s most famous festival day, May Day, which falls on 1st May. Many of the fertility rites celebrated by ancient pagans on or around the first day of May were absorbed by Christian Europe in the middle ages and have survived to the present day, such as dancing around the May Pole, crowning a May Queen, and giving May baskets. It has also been assimilated by secular Europe as a day of labour strikes and demonstrations known as International Workers’ Day.

Gemini represented as two upper bodies sharing a pair of legs. Trin MS B.11.7, f. 3r.
Gemini. Trin MS B.11.7, f. 3r.

Later in the month the zodiac switches to Gemini, the twins. Commonly identified as Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda, Gemini is frequently represented by idealized versions of the male form. Often, the two figures are shown holding a shield between them, as seen in the full page images above. In B.11.7, however, Gemini is symbolized by conjoined twins, with two torsos sharing a single pair of legs. Along with images of Gemini as two heads sharing one body or of two lovers, this is another common interpretation of Gemini.

Whether or not you’re a noble, a worker, a lover, a falconer or a Gemini, we wish you an auspicious month of May!

2 thoughts on “Labours of the Month: May

  1. Pingback: Labours of the Month: October | Trinity College Library, Cambridge

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