Falcons in the Territory of the Teutonic Order and the Duchy of Prussia

by Marie-Luise Heckmann (University of Potsdam) with the assistance of Dieter Heckmann (Secret State Archive of Prussian Cultural Heritage, Berlin)

Old-French translation of Emperor Frederick II’s ‘De arte venandi cum avibus’, depicting falcons given as a present to a ruler, Bruges around 1482. Source: Wikimedia commons, public domain

The present article addresses the topic of “Falcons in the Orderland and Duchy of Prussia” in regard to the interplay between humans and animals. The hawks (i.e. peregrine, gyrfalcon) serve as climate indicators on the one hand, and as examples for the price of rank and status in the political game of power on the other hand. Depending on the respective onset of winter, they turn out to be ecologically and economically scarce, which caused a need to budget

The ecological costs of falconry and the export of hawks of the Prussian rulers can be quantified with the respective weather and the resulting number of hawks, which arrived between late August and mid-December in Old Prussia. The lack of animals and the annual dates of bird migration resulted mainly from the weather phenomena on the Kola Peninsula in June, July and August of each year. The Fennoscandian climate is likely – as it is today – to have alternated with the weather in Central Europe. Frostbursts and gusty winds in summer on the Kola peninsula were probably associated with frequent northwest current high-pressure conditions in central Europe, as a rainy summer in Central Europe often correlates with a significant decline in falcons in the following autumn.

The beginning of winter, and here the hawks prove to be climate indicators, was indicated by their departure as soon as the water began to freeze. The pivotal point of this article is: The earlier winter began, the earlier the falcons left Prussia, Lithuania and Livonia. The onset of winter, looking at the falcon’s catching dates, moved from the end of the 14th century to the second third of the 16th century on average by about four weeks, from the third week of November to the third week of October. The reason for this was evidently the beginning of the Little Ice Age.

The regional fishing dates also show hawks migrating in the wake of their prey – small and medium-sized birds – from the inland lakes and rivers, where they arrived in late summer, to the Baltic Sea coast, which they left at the onset of winter. For a particularly long time, the mild climate of the Curonian Spit influenced by the effects of the Gulf Stream (long hours of sunshine, warm water) allowed the hawks to find food. Thus, the falcon in Prussia can provide basic knowledge about the historical migration of birds before the age of ringing.

Hawks have been investigated for Prussia mainly in terms of hunting, catching and killing, as well as princely gifts and diplomatic exchanges. The Great “Marienburger Tresslerbuch” (a special account book, 1398-1409) allows not only important insights into the scope and costs, but also into the methods of falcon-catching and the addressee of the falcon gifts of the Grand Master respective the Duke in Prussia. The falcon letters, several falcon lists and individual contracts with falconers, which are quite often used since the end of the 14th century, make it possible to limit the fishing times, as well as to reconstruct the falconers’ travel routes to Western and Central Europe.

The economic costs of politically-diplomatically motivated Hawk gifts for Western and Central European princes included the catch premiums and the travel,  and subsistence costs of the falconer and his animals. In Mark Prussian, they were in the lower to middle double digits and can be seen as a contribution to peacekeeping, for timely information and for the (occasional) participation in the political power game of their time. In other words, a hawk for the French king is just a fifth to a quarter as much as a stallion for the battle.

In Preparation in Polish: Sokoły w państwie krzyżackim i księstwie pruskim – rzadkie dobro ekologiczne i ekonomiczne, in Człowiek – Klimat – Przyroda. Perspektywa antropocentryczna [Man, climate, nature. An anthropocentric perspective], ed. Piotr Oliński / Wojciech Piasek, Toruń.

Already published in German: Falken im Ordensland und Herzogtum Preußen – ein ökologisch und ökonomisch knappes Gut, in Jahrbuch Preußenland 8 (2017), pp 7-40.

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