Falconry is the practice of hunting with birds of prey, and for my MA dissertation I have been exploring the material culture of falconry as it was conceptualised and practiced by nobility and gentility and those in their employ at courts and great houses throughout Afro-Eurasia, c.1400-1650.
The practice of this courtly falconry was a crucial driver and mediator of the intellectual underpinnings of the structuring of human society, political rhetoric, formal education and philosophical thinking, and diplomatic, cultural and economic exchange that united the disparate courts of Afro-Eurasia in the early modern period. None of this human social activity would have been possible, however, without the development of the fundamental human-avian relationship – the engagement between the falconer and the raptor upon which the practice and ideologies of falconry have been designed. The hood, perhaps the most widely recognisable object associated with falconry, can be considered the main material mediator of this relationship. I will be focusing heavily on the construction of this human-avian design interaction in my dissertation, but in this article I will mostly be looking at how the hood is implicated in the establishment, proliferation and mediation of falconry across geographies and time.
What is a hood?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a falconry hood as “a close-fitting cover, placed over the head and eyes of a falcon to keep it quiet when not hunting.” Early modern falconry treatises virtually always omit any detailed descriptions of the acquisition or making of falconry equipment, or “furniture,” as it is very evocatively termed, beyond an occasional very general description of “large” and “deep” hood shape, emphasizing the perceived comfort of the bird. A hood is typically constructed of leather, with a closure and a tassel, plume or topknot that allow a falconer to hood and unhood a raptor sitting on his fist using his opposite hand and his teeth. This covering of the raptor’s eyes has been, at the most basic level, founded in safety and logistical concerns. As part of the sensory and nervous systems that drive their legendary reaction times, raptors’ extremely rapid vision can lead to dangerous, even sometimes fatal, overstimulation. The darkness provided by the hood enables the bird to feel safe and calm. A hood can keep a bird from injuring itself and breaking feathers if it were to become alarmed while tied to a perch; it also keeps a bird from becoming agitated if another nearby hawk is being flown after prey; and will allow the bird to sit calmly on the falconer’s fist or during long periods in transit.
According to the training techniques sections of early modern falconry treatises, the use of the hood was considered crucial during the initial days of the training of a newly-acquired bird, in which the falconer kept the bird on his fist for hours at a time, patiently accustoming the bird to the regular donning, wearing and removal of the hood while simultaneously encouraging the bird to trust the falconer enough to accept feeding while sitting on the falconer’s fist – a process whereby the bird was said to be “made to the hood.” During this early stage of the process, the bird was deprived of its sense of sight the majority of the time, limiting the bird’s exposure to specific people and environments chosen by the falconer. The failure of the bird to accept the hood at this stage, whether because of a badly made hood, or impatience or bad technique on the part of the falconer, was thought to “ruin” or “mar” the bird, rendering it intractable for all interactions thereafter; treatises therefore typically feature a section admonishing the inept falconer and rendering advice for attempting to reclaim a “hood-shy” bird.
Who made hoods?
George Turbervile, in his 1575 Book of Faulconrie, mentions very briefly and tantalizingly that a falconer must be able to make “hoodes, of all sortes,” but it has been only through conversing with currently practicing falconers and hood makers that one can discover that these skills have historically been transmitted person-to-person between falconers; and moreover the crafting of hoods, and all other falconry furniture, is considered fundamental to the profession of falconry. Today, it is common practice for a single falconer to personally make a hood (and all other falconry furniture) from start to finish.
The tools with which hoods are made, including the block forms upon which the hoods of different shapes and sizes are molded, are also typically made by the falconers themselves or inherited from mentors. However, the situation during the early modern period may have been very different. Treatises would seem to imply that each individual falconer would provide all the necessary furniture, and tools to make these, for each individual bird under his care; however, evidence of the great mobility of multiple ranks of professional falconers traveling to posts at courts throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as historian Giancarlo Malacarne’s recent translations of correspondence between Federico II Gonzaga and his falconers paint a picture of large workshop-style situations, with hierarchies of falconers working in concert. Falconers at an early modern court or great household may have had access to the services and materials of woodworkers, smiths, leatherworkers and other crafts- and tradesmen.
The possible involvement of multiple craftsmen becomes further complicated when looking at an opulently decorated hood such as this one in the V&A’s collection, made c. 1570-1629.
The elaborate embroidery covering the hoods, as well as their intricately woven braces, would necessarily have been arranged in coordination with skilled embroiderers. An examination of the interior of the hood reveals that the embroidered fabric was affixed to the separate leather pieces of the hood prior to their being assembled and molded into proper shape.
These completely separate but extremely specialized skill sets – the technical and tacit knowledge necessary for the creation of hood patterns and proper hood fit, and the expertise of intricate embroidery – come together in the finished object, but it remains unclear exactly how and by whom this coordination of skills was orchestrated. This massive, impersonal workshop system sits in an intriguing tension with the assertions of currently practicing falconers and intimations of early modern treatises that when crafting hoods, the importance of a tacit understanding of each individual bird’s physicality cannot be understated. A properly made and fitted hood is essential to the wellbeing of a bird; improper fit can lead to physical injuries or psychological trauma. With these physical issues as well as the concerns of training in mind, the falconer’s motivations in the creation of a hood are emphatically tied to perceptions of the bird’s feelings about wearing it, and each hood is therefore a highly personalised made-to-measure piece of furniture.
The design evolution of the hood
The evolution and global proliferation of hood designs has been anything but straightforward and linear, and this phenomenon may be directly tied to both the personal and embodied nature of the transmission and making processes, as well as perceptions within the fundamental human-bird relationship.
The use of leather hoods seems to have evolved in the middle ages among falconers from the Middle Eastern or Central Asian regions before spreading towards Europe; Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen takes credit for the introduction of hoods and hooding techniques to European falconers in the 1240s in his seminal work De Arte Venandi cum Avibus through Arab falconers he invited to his court in Sicily. It is entirely possible, however, that the craft of hood making may have made its way across geographies even earlier, through Silk Road networks and exchange between the Islamic regions and southern Europe.
Hoods fall into two major categories of design: those made from one piece of leather folded into the correct shape and stitched together, and those made from three separate pieces of leather stitched together. Extant visual sources would seem to corroborate that the former category is the older design, with variants commonly used in Mongolia, South Asia and the Middle East (and Spain). The three-piece design is of somewhat more recent origin, known as the Dutch hood as it was developed by falconers of Brabant; as it begins to appear in images in the mid-to-late1400s, its development can perhaps be placed around 1400.
Within these major design categories, a wide variety of design elements – particularly a diversity of the types of beak openings and braces or closures – can be observed in both extant material objects and visual depictions, speaking to the widespread and continuous use, and recompiling in various permutations, of a multitude of hood design elements from disparate eras and geographies. In light of the lack of written archival references to the transmission of hood design elements, an examination of this material culture represents a valuable entry point for understanding the transmission of hood design elements across geographies, and the breadth of the mobility and information exchange of non-genteel professional falconers.
It can be supposed that an emphasis on creating the best possible wearing experience “from the bird’s point of view” may be both a factor in the longevity of certain designs, and one of the prime motivators in the proliferation and recombining of diverse hood design elements; perhaps the ability to make “hoodes of all sortes” as suggested by Turbervile entailed tweaking familiar designs in order to create hybrid hoods judged to comprise the best possible combination of design elements for the wearing experience of each individual bird under a falconer’s care.
As you can see from the language used in the above paragraphs, physical and logistical concerns are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the implications for both the existence of a diversity of hood designs and the choice to use the hood: the hood allows the falconer to control with whom and what the bird can see and interact, allows the falconer to attempt to design the bird – to objectify it both literally and figuratively. Though much is made in early modern falconry practice of considering or even fetishizing the bird’s subjectivity, in fact when wearing the hood a raptor’s point if view is one of darkness, a blank slate upon which humans might project their desires.
Ultimately, however, this is a mutual design interaction – the raptor’s own agency comes into play when it is unhooded, and the human must trust it to fly free and return. The bird’s behaviour while unhooded is the catalyst for the formation and structure of the human-avian relationship, and of early modern falconry practice as a whole.
 Giancarlo Malacarne, Lords of the Sky: Falconry in Mantua at the time of the Gonzagas (Mantua: Artiglio Editore, 2011), pp. 8-9.
 “…then may you hood hir with an hood that is large and deep enough, so that it neither hurt nor touche hir eies…” George Turbervile, The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking for the Onely Delight and Pleasure of all Noblemen and Gentlemen (London: Chistopher Barker, 1575), p. 91.
“She must have a hood of good leather, well made and fashioned, well raised and bossed against hit eyes, deepe, and yet straight enough beneathe, that it may the better abide on hit heade, and yet never hurte hir.” George Turbervile, The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking for the Onely Delight and Pleasure of all Noblemen and Gentlemen (London: Chistopher Barker, 1575), p. 100.
 Helen Macdonald, Falcon (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), pp. 20-21.
 Allan Oswald, The History and Practice of Falconry (St. Helier, Jersey Channel Islands: Neville Spearman, 1981), p. 72.
 George Turbervile, The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking for the Onely Delight and Pleasure of all Noblemen and Gentlemen (London: Chistopher Barker, 1575), p. 79.
 Edmund Bert, An Approved Treatise of Hawks and Hawking (London: T. S. for Richard Moore, 1619), pp. 11-12, 14.
 For example: Ch. 1 “How to make a Hawke hoode well, that will not abide the sight of the hoode, but bite at it, and with her feete strike at thy hand and hoode, bate, shricke, hang by the heeles, and will not stand upon the fist; and this shall be done within fortie eight houres, with lesse then fortie bates.” Edmund Bert, An Approved Treatise of Hawks and Hawking (London: T. S. for Richard Moore, 1619), p. 43; and, “…it is hard to work that out againe, which she is suffered to take at the first, and most commonly she will be subject to it ever after, whether it be good or evill.” Symon Latham, Latham’s Falconry, or The Faulcons Lure, and Cure: In Two Bookes (London: I. B. for R. Jackson, 1615), p. 10.
 “…he muste be able to make his lures, hoodes, of all sorts, Jesses, buets, & other nedeful furniture for his hawk, and must not be without store thereof to allow his betters and states in the fielde, if happily they want any such devises.” George Turbervile, The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking for the Onely Delight and Pleasure of all Noblemen and Gentlemen (London: Chistopher Barker, 1575), p. 78.
 Jacques van Gerven, the falconer/hood maker who has very generously described and demonstrated the hood-making process for me, actually inherited his block molds; almost 200 years old, they were passed down through generations of the prominent Mollen family of professional falconers.
 J. M. P. Oorschot, Vorstelijke Vliegers En Valkenswaardse Valkeniers Sedert De Zeventiende Eeuw (Tilburg: Stichting Zuidelijk Historisch Contact, 1974), pp. 290-297.
 “We … summoned from the four corners of the earth masters in the practice of the art of falconry. We entertained these experts in our domains, meantime seeking their opinions, weighting the importance of their knowledge, and endeavoring to retain in memory the more valuable of their words and deeds.” C. A. Wood and F. M Fyfe, trans. and ed., The Art of Falconry, being the ‘Arte Venandi cum Avibus’ of Frederich II of Hohenstaufen (Stanford, CA, 1943), p. 3.
 Hood patterns from Jacques van Gerven.
 Allan Oswald, The History and Practice of Falconry (St. Helier, Jersey Channel Islands: Neville Spearman, 1981), p. 75.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Emily Aleev-Snow –
Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.
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