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24.03.01 Petrosillo, Hawking Women

24.03.01 Petrosillo, Hawking Women

While falconry was, like hunting, a key cultural activity that materially sustained the nobility’s position atop the social hierarchy of the medieval West, it differed from hunting in one key respect: women practiced this violent art right alongside men. In Hawking Women: Falconry, Gender, and Control in Medieval Literary Culture, Sara Petrosillo offers a fascinating exploration both of medieval literary texts and of falconry, which here emerges as a rich cultural matrix that profoundly shaped medieval culture through its shared history, training, and practice. Focusing on women falconers, Petrosillo here produces a dynamic and rewarding survey that offers vital contributions to feminist studies, to medieval animal studies, and to medieval literary history.

Petrosillo opens the book with a powerful introduction that interrelates the study of medieval literature with the “gendered paradox” (3) at the heart of medieval falconry--namely, the “double position” (3) occupied by female falconers participating in an art that requires those seeking the “control” (3) of birds to periodically release them. Petrosillo compellingly presents Hawking Women as a feminist project by showing how her work links a “feminist formalist approach” that includes often stunningly insightful close-readings of medieval texts with a thoroughgoing study of medieval falconry as a “material practice” (3). While introducing readers to both the culture and practice of medieval falconry, Petrosillo convincingly links the paradoxical status of control within treatises designed to train falconers with analogous reflections on control by medieval theorists of poetics. Examining the fourteenth-century conduct book Le Ménagier de Paris, which included a falconry treatise, Petrosillo persuasively argues that the manual’s goal of “male management” (12) is problematized by the fact that the practice of falconry, with its allowance for active female hawkers and its foundational paradox of controlled hawks necessarily being temporarily freed, offered “female readers” (12) models to reframe their status as unambiguously subordinate subjects.

After introducing the intriguing fact that the default birds in literary depictions of falconry are female due to the biological reality that female hawks are both of greater size and are more “powerful” than males of their species (13), Petrosillo closes the introduction with a riveting reading of the fifteenth-century ballad “Pluk of her bellys & let here flee.” Interpreting this poem through the lens of “falconry training” (16), Petrosillo shows how the poem problematizes the unreflective linkage of “released” hawks with “unruly” women (16), for the constitutive “paradox of control” within falconry necessitates that the falconer “relinquish power back” precisely to the bird demonstrating a threatening “untrainability” (17).

With the goal of intimately linking medieval literary culture and the art of falconry, Petrosillo’s first chapter focuses both on the key phenomenon of control and on the most influential work on falconry in the medieval West, Frederick II’s Liber de arte venandi cum avibus (Book on the Art of Hunting with Birds). Exploring both the complexities of falconry training and the richness of its cultural imprint in medieval literary culture, Petrosillo convincingly establishes how Frederick II influentially classified falconry as an ars (art) (36). This chapter richly details Frederick II’s aesthetically and philosophically ambitious treatise, while arguing that the impressive number of “contradictions” in the “categories” (53) informing Frederick’s work renders falconry as rich of a source of ambiguity and ambivalence as is medieval poetics itself.

Taking up the issue of “reversed sexual dimorphism” (55), Petrosillo’s second chapter explores the phenomenon of release by studying both the iconography in women’s personal seals and the thirteenth-century sonnet “Tapina in me ch’amava uno sparvero” (“Wretched me, who loved a sparrowhawk”). After reflecting on the potentially jarring experience for individuals shaped by “phallogocentrism” and “systemic misogyny” to be introduced to the “different world” (56) where female hawks are the dominant member of their species, Petrosillo proceeds to intriguingly map the “dimorphism” of hawk physiology onto poems of the Sicilian School (57). Both within the bipartite structure of the sonnet under consideration, which was likely produced by La Nina Siciliana (57-58), and in the doubled space produced by its placement within a “tenzone” (58), Petrosillo uses close-reading to show how La Nina Siciliana speaks doubly--both to the “male beloved” on the poem’s surface and, more subtly, to general readers as she “conveys her own poetic identity” (63). Petrosillo also offers here some excellent discussion of seal iconography, showing how the importance of the bird and falconer becoming “extensions of one another” (75) reveals the powerful potential of hawking for medieval women as expressions of self-possession.

Petrosillo’s next chapters take their cues from the steps involved in medieval falconry training, allowing readers to imaginatively retrace the embodied practice of falconry that shaped so much of medieval culture. Petrosillo’s third chapter, focused on the practice of placing captured birds in an enclosure, offers a resonant reading of Marie de France’s Yonec by pairing the poem with a strangely truncated hawking manual that was included with it in British Library MS Harley 978. Closely reading the hawking manual that shares miscellany space with Marie de France’slais, Petrosillo engagingly demonstrates how the practice of enclosing birds paradoxically strengthens them after the “trauma” (88) of their capture. Reading Yonec through the lens of falconry, which quite literally shared space with the poem, Petrosillo reads the unhappily married (and conventionally enclosed) lady of Yonec with two kinds of enclosure: the jealous husband’s harsh containment of her proves to be a “damaging mode of confinement” (94), whereas the “hawk-knight” whom the lady herself “conjures” (96) from her space of confinement produces a second form of enclosure that allows her to experience the sort of “healthy transformation” (96) desired in falconry training discourse.

Petrosillo’s next chapter turns to the practice of seeling (the sewing shut of falcon’s eyes, which was part of the process of their being made to become accustomed to humans), while exploring both medieval memory training and the popular romance Sir Orfeo. While exploring the process of seeling as involving the use of “a controlled mutilation” (the sewing of the eyes) to prevent a violently disoriented hawk’s “uncontrolled self-mutilation” (108), Petrosillo helps us see how the process parallels medieval understandings of memory in the concern of those training the falcon that the bird’s “mind’s eye” not be activated by its temporarily closed “eyes” (108). Petrosillo shows how trainers “strategically” brought in “new memories” to hawks by controlling “brightness,” as the trainer guided the bird to see “what the falconer wants it to see” (112). Petrosillo then reads Heurodys’s act of “self-mutilation” (106) in Sir Orfeo as due directly to her “memory” of the “brighter” (115) fairy world into which she had been abducted. After dwelling on Heurodys’s status as one of a multitude of female falconers encountered by the self-exiled Orfeo, Petrosillo persuasively presents Heurodys as, despite traditional efforts to focus on the male protagonist, the character who most displays “agency, self-possession, and prowess” (123). Petrosillo argues further that Sir Orfeo effects a reclamation of the Classical Eurydice, through a “feminist poetics” (132) that shows both the costs to women’s bodies and their own propensity to still “exert ethical control from below” (132).

Petrosillo next considers mewing (the housing of falcons in a mews during the period of their molting), in order to explore the “trope of the changeable woman imagined as a molting” hawk (133) by engaging with a number of medieval literary works. Petrosillo turns to Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligès and its character Fenice to establish how women and infidelity were linked in medieval literature: the linkage of Fenice with a “mewing hawk” both frame Fenice’s adultery and supply it with a metaphor of change, even as Fenice’s “desire to exit her enclosure” (137) maps onto medieval falconry experience. Petrosillo next reads the thirteenth-century fabliau Guillaume au faucon, whose “cunning use of the pun ‘faucon’ (falcon / false cunt)” offers a complex “reworking” (137) of Chrétien’s metaphor, as part of an “alternative mode of reading romance” (144) in which the lady of fabliau appropriates the metaphor controlled by the lover in Chrétien. After exploring Guillaume de Machaut’s extended engagement with falconry in his allegory Le dit de l’alerion (146), Petrosillo uses references to mewing to propose a “new understanding of female agency” (153) in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which, Petrosillo convincingly argues, “reconfigures expectations about fidelity to admire Criseyde’s spectacular flight and fight for control” over how she will be “interpreted” (165).

Petrosillo turns to Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale in her conclusion, which explores the topic of healing by considering the concept of metonymy within the worlds of female falconers. Petrosillo powerfully condenses the argument in Hawking Women as involving a “feminist poetics” that highlights the “metonymic relationship between handler and hawk” (that is, the status of each as extensions of the other, with women often side-by-side with predominantly female birds) rather than a “metaphorical” (169) one (that is, where a hawk is merely abstracted as a symbol for a woman). Reading Canacee in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale as a “falconer,” Petrosillo provides a compelling reinterpretation of the bird’s love “lament” (170): the bird’s physical proximity to Canacee’s body while she laments creates a “metonymic connection” both between these characters and “between poem and listener” (173), while Canacee’s construction of a mews steers the work away from mere reporting of a lost love and instead into the “poetic space” of “memory” (174).

Petrosillo’s volume includes a highly useful Guide to Terminology that defines key concepts from ornithology and from the history and culture of falconry.

Hawking Women is an astute and rewarding volume that is as successful in its study of medieval falconry as it is in its stimulating readings of a satisfying range of medieval texts. Scholars of medieval romance will find much to appreciate in this work, which combines well conducted close readings with excellent engagement with secondary scholarship. The volume is particularly successful in its argument for the mutually informing discourses of embodied medieval practice and medieval poetics. Readers of Hawking Women will surely appreciate the scope and depth of the influence of medieval falconry after reading this thorough and theoretically rich volume.