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Economic and Social History Blog

46. The first European birdwatcher (20-5-2020)

The first European birdwatcher (20-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Let me start by admitting a mistake: in the blog about Eleonora of Arborea, I wrote she was the first female birdwatcher, but this ‘mythical’ status among birdwatchers is not correct. After finishing the blog I became more intrigued by her (why is there no decent, English biography?). I found via google books a kind of biography in Italian written by the Italian novelist Bianca Pitzorno, which only mentions that she liked to hunt with falcons, but clearly Bianca was not interested in that part of her life. The next hit was the dissertation of the German biologist Hartmut Walter, who with German rigour finished the myth by showing that she did not describe the bird, and that her only claim to fame in this respect is that she issued a law protecting falcon’s nests against disturbance by humans. When in the 18th century, Eleonora’s falcon was described, her name was used to honour that very early example of bird protection.

So the Italians cannot claim the first female birdwatcher, but they do have good credentials concerning the first male birdwatcher: Friedrich von Hohenstaufen II (1194-1250), King of Sicily and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and a very enthusiastic falconer, who wrote an extensive study (large parts of which were lost), The Art of Falconry, demonstrating his huge knowledge of birds in general and falcons specifically. He was a multi talent, a crusader who conquered Jerusalem without a single battle – via diplomacy and smart negotiations with sultan Al-Kamil – who had constant conflicts with the Pope about who controlled Italy (and was therefore excommunicated), who established the university of Naples, but also kept a large harem after returning from the Holy Land, and a large menagerie with elephants and a giraffe (which was probably the last giraffe seen in western Europe until the VOC rediscovered the species in the 18the century). One of the scientific experiments he carried out was aimed at finding out what the ‘original’ language was; young infants were raised without human interaction – so the nannies had to keep silent all the time – to find out which language they would spontaneously start to speak (the theory was Hebrew was the ‘original’ language and that all other languages were derived from it). Anyway, the experiment failed, but it shows his modern scientific attitude that he designed and carried out an experiment like this (today the ethical commission might have its doubts about it).

In his masterpiece on the Art of Falconry he gave a systematic overview of the state of the art in this field. An important rule was that certain preys should be caught by certain falcons. The largest, most prestigious bird, the crane, had to be caught by a gyrfalcon, the most imperial bird originating from Iceland and the northern part of Norway, from where it was imported at considerable cost. The blue heron was destined to be the victim of the peregrine falcon (the fastest bird on earth, thanks to its explosive dives), and the other water birds could be caught by Saker or Lanner falcons, desert birds from the Middle East. In all cases the preys were much larger than the falcons, so the latter could only catch them by overwhelming their preys in mid-air; they had to rise to considerable heights first, and then in an dramatic dive attack them from behind. But the falcons had to learn how to do this – they needed to build up confidence that they could really catch a much bigger animal. To train the falcons, cranes were collected in the wild and ‘disarmed’ to make them more easy to catch, because a crane that was able to fight back – in the air or on the ground – could injure and even kill the attacking falcon. So the art of falconry was a bit like training David how to beat Goliath – the ‘small’ bird of prey had to develop special skills to be able to overwhelm the large crane or heron in flight. And a constant supply of birds was necessary to train the falcons. As a kind of feudal levy, Emperor Friedrich collected live cranes and herons from his subjects.

The book is full of details of the behaviour of the birds – both the falcons and the preys – which are clearly based on observation and first-hand experience, and not derived from classical or other written sources. He describes the patterns of migration of the relevant birds in detail, largely ignoring what Aristotle has written about it. In passing, he tells us a lot about nature in Italy in this period – for example that there were still many cranes, whereas the crane is all but extinct now (since the early 20th century). The main migration routes of the cranes are now from Northern Germany  to either Spain or Hungary and the rest of the Balkans, but the Italian route which was still important in the 13th century, has disappeared. Perhaps caused by ‘birdwatchers’ such as Friedrich?

Friedrich von Hohenstaufen II, his life, scientific experiments, laws, architecture (he did not build churches, but only one ’mysterious’ castle, the Castel del Monte), and in particular his book have been the subject of many studies, in all major European languages (even some in Dutch). The contrast with Eleonora could not be bigger.

Continue reading: The American split (21-5-2020)


Wood, Casey A.; Fyfe, F. Marjorie, eds. (1943). The Art of Falconry : being the de arte venandi cum avibus of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. London: Oxford University Press.