Friday, February 29, 2008

A name for female hawks

Chaucer paper doll by David Claudon

Yesterday John Blakeman wrote that while male hawks are called tiercels by falconers, "there is no really fine, deliberate designation of a female" among hawk species. Chris Karatnytsky, one of the Central Park owl prowlers, begs to differ:

Dear Marie,

John Blakeman should not lose sleep over the failure of falconers to choose a properly serious name for the female hawk. A poet has done so for us. The female is a "formel." I know this not as a student of falconry, but as a student of Chaucer, the great poet of the medieval period who is considered the "Father of English Literature."

Geoffrey Chaucer is the author, most famously, of The Canterbury Tales. (It was an innovation and his greatest bequest to Shakespeare, not to mention the rest of us, that Chaucer wrote prose and verse in the vernacular language, as opposed to Latin or French.) But the work of interest to the topic of tiercels and formels is his seven hundred line allegorical dream poem called Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of the Fowls), first printed by William Caxton in 1478.

Parlement of Foules
is largely centered around the comic debate that ensues among a gathering of birds after three tiercels declare their intentions to marry a formel. In the end, Nature herself steps in to grant the formel a year's "respit," so that she can well ponder the decision to select her mate and then choose him of her own free will -- "to have my choys al fre". (Holding out for Pale Male, I betcha.) Then, the dreamer awakens.

Parlement of Foules is interesting, not only for its forward-thinking philosophy in matters of feminism (Chaucer clearly loved women), but also in that it is the first occurrence in literature of Saint Valentine's Day as a special occasion for lovers. And, of course, there are the birds...

According to the on-line version of The Oxford English Dictionary, tiercel is derived from "tierce," a word of obscure origin indicating "a third part" of something. One-third, that is. Thus, from the first, the tiercel was recognized as the smaller bird, less adapted to the chase, and therefore less valued. At least, this was according to the standards of the day as described by a contemporary. The formel claimed status as the "fore-male."

formel regards,
Chris Karatnytsky

PS from Marie: As it happens, Chris K. and her border collie Fig both play pivotal roles in the central story of my forthcoming book Central Park in the Dark.

PPS Happy Leap Day to one and all.