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Nouvelles Pod #13 - Sara Petrosillo

 Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast 13: Dr. Sara Petrosillo

Interviewer: Elise Robbins (ER); Interviewee: Sara Petrosillo (SP)

Time: February 16, 2024; Location: Hagerty Hall 142 (ASCTech Academic Technologies Studio)

 Interview Transcript:

ER: Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University. I'm talking today with Dr. Sara Petrosillo, who is giving one of our keynote lectures for our biennial Popular Culture and the Deep Past celebration. Her talk today is titled “‘Ther is Fair Game’: Falconry as Spectator Art.” Dr. Petrosillo is an associate professor of English at the University of Evansville. Her scholarship focuses on medieval literature and feminism, and her book about the cultural influence of falconry on medieval reading practices called Hawking Women: Falconry Gender and Control in Medieval Literary Culture was published just last year with The Ohio State University Press. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Petrosillo.

SP: Thank you so much for having me, Elise.

ER: Awesome. So, before we delve into a lot of more specific questions, I would love if you could just tell our listeners more about yourself. When did you first become interested in Medieval Studies? What were some of the early experiences that shaped your research directions?

SP: Sure. So, I came to Medieval Studies because I love language, and I love learning about how language changes over time. So, I got to take some really great medieval classes as an undergraduate. And then I got to study abroad in Florence and read The Decameron. And it was just really life altering. So, learning Italian and then coming back and reading Chaucer and reading Canterbury Tales kind of grabbed my heart. So, that's how I got into it. And then I had the opportunity to move back to Italy after that and really immerse myself in Medieval Studies and get first-hand encounters with manuscripts. So, yeah, that's how I got into it.

ER: Very cool. So, for you, it's kind of getting to be like really in it and like a part of it that felt like a personal connection that grabbed your heart. Yes.

SP: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely.

ER: What about, so today you're talking about falconry. Obviously, falconry is kind of a specific area of Medieval Studies. Can you tell us more how you were drawn to that specifically?

SP: Yeah, sure. So, it started when I was living in a town in southern Italy called Brindisi, and there was everywhere, all over the place on pubs, the cathedral was famous for hosting his wedding: this figure named Frederick II. And I wanted to know more about him because he was so important to the city, you know, appearing in reenactments everywhere. And I found out that he was really important for a lot of things. But what was so important to him was falconry, and that he wrote a thirteenth-century falconry treatise that was so specific and meticulous and influential. And then I started to notice falconry kind of everywhere. So, like, at the airport, I would see the, like falconry mobile with a falcon painted on it. And then the driver would have a falcon on his glove getting ready to, um, you know, um, do some falconry abatement to clear the runway. And then I just started noticing it in literature, in medieval literature everywhere. And so, I think connecting this thing that I observed, just, you know, in my day-to-day life, living in this medieval city and then looking in the text and finding references to it there, I wanted to know more.

ER: Very cool. That's so interesting because I feel, I mean, I have only ever lived in the United States and, so far as I know, like falconry is not necessarily like a major part of [things here].

SP: You still have to really kind of search to find it. But like things, things like when, if you go to Pompeii and Herculaneum, there is an old, not that old comparatively, but from the 20th century, these mews that were built and so a place to house falcons and hawks in Herculaneum. They ran out of funding. There's not currently a resident falconer, but there used to be and to serve that purpose of abatement. So, to prevent pigeons from ruining the ruins at Herculaneum. So, they integrate it and you'll find this, you know, in the United States and cities as well, that abatement. But, you know, seeing it in a setting like Herculaneum is pretty, pretty spectacular.

ER: Yeah, I can only imagine. So, abatement being, like, getting the pigeons away. There’s a very practical purpose.

SP: Getting the pigeons away. Yes. And then if you go out in the fields, maybe they're building a new Costco somewhere, you might see some falconers out there, tight. They're kind of hard to find in modernity, but not so in the Middle Ages, super popular for men and women, which was really the thing that pulled me in. Because I don't consider myself that instinctual with animals. But I love reading, and I love reading metaphors about women, about gender. And so, when I found out that women were not just allowed to practice falconry, but that it was part of their educative program and that they were expected to learn it, women who would have been, you know, of a certain class and had access to education, that they were also encouraged to learn about the ins and outs of falconry. That really intrigued me a lot.

ER: That's fascinating. I mean, you might get to this in your talk later, but I I feel like probably the assumption would be, you know, “Oh, falconry, like it's for the men.” Right? So. I don't know what the question is there, but just is that kind of always the case that, you know, for women, it's like part of their education? Was it supposed to be kind of a practical thing, or was it more like they're learning other skills through it, or just, what? Tell me about that.

SP: Oh no, not practical. We will talk. I will definitely get into that more later. But just to give you a taste. So, it's completely impractical. I mean, the resources, the outlay, the time, the energy. So, much more costly to have a falcon or a hawk than whatever they might bring back. And so it's really for the art of it, showing that you can train this bird to come back to your fist and that you can make it have beautiful flights. I think that's the art of it. And I suppose that as opposed to other hunting arts that are more on the ground and seem, at face value, bloodier and gorier, this one, especially with falcons that are hunting and catching their prey in the air, there's a little bit more distance between the human and the killing, the violence—although when I started going out on my own with falconers, it's very bloody. But I think like compared to hunting deer or hunting other animals and especially with hounds, that kind of thing. Yeah.

ER: So we're like, oh, in theory this is not as messy for the ladies with the, with the death.

SP:  Not as messy. And it's very precise. So, so many mistakes could ruin the training, even kill the bird. So, there's a lot more precision involved. And it's a very intellectual pursuit, figuring that precision out even more so in the Middle Ages where they don't have digital scales to feed their birds. So, I think the kind of challenge of it, too, would prove that a lady, or a man, right, pursuing that or learning about it, has patience, has a lot of good virtues and qualities, that would make them a successful falconer.

ER: I had never thought about it. I mean, I guess I haven't thought about falconry like a lot in my life, but I've not thought about it necessarily like that. But I can imagine you're right. There has to be, with training any animal to do something, but I guess particularly with like a bird of prey…

SP: Yeah. So that's a great point that humans live alongside lots of animals, and they employ lots of animals in partnerships to go and work with them or for them. So, what distinguishes falconry? Frederick in his treatise really talks about this, and I'll talk about it more later, is that falcons and hawks are not domesticated like dogs. And they can never be tamed. They can only be trained. And so, there's a really fine distinction there. And so that’s [what it means] when people like in the Middle Ages, like Frederick, considered [it] an intellectual pursuit. It doesn't seem like it could be, right. It seems very physical or tactile, but figuring out how to proportion everything to keep the hawk or falcon from fleeing is really a challenge.

ER: That is interesting. It feels kind of like maybe they would feel like they're walking like a tight line.

SP: Yeah, you can't use things that you can use for dogs, like affection and you know, they're not social. They're not living in a pack, in the European breeds. So that just doesn't work for them.

ER: Yeah. So, you started kind of by mentioning that you encountered, you saw as you encountered, you know, Frederick II, you then began to like, read more into what was important to him, which was falconry. You started to see falcons and falconry around you. And you mentioned now that you've been out with falconers or you've done some falconry for yourself. Can you tell us about that? Just the experience of it?

SP: Yes. Yeah. Oh, so fantastic. There are a few places in the United States where falconers are licensed to also take non-falconers out. It's very regulated here in the United States. It’s a little bit different in Europe. It's a little bit easier to go on a falconry experience. But when I was living in California, in the Sierra foothills, I got to go a couple times with West Coast Falconry, and do a falconry apprentice workshop. And then also they have [where] you can go out in the foothills with falconers, with a group of people and fly the bird from the fist, and it's pretty, pretty incredible. And then in my new location in Evansville, I've gotten to go out with the falconers there. Not a tourism experience, but as a I'm trying to break in and be recruited as a potential apprentice one day, right. And so, showing up to their Sunday morning hunts has been part of that regimen and going out with them and hunting with a goshawk and a red tailed hawk. So, it's just been really fantastic to get to go with them and see some of the things that I've read really be borne out and in real life. Yeah.

ER: Would you say that's kind of the biggest—Or just how does that influence your research or help you think about your research? The historical aspect of it anyway?

SP: Yeah, even though it's a practice that continues, there's so many different approaches to it today, even though modern falconers still look at Frederick II’s treatise and they go, “Oh, he got a lot of things right.” But, you know, we have telemetry, so we can track when the bird gets lost. We can track it with a radio transmitter, you know, and we have, like I said, digital scales. So, there's a lot that's so very different. But I do think that the first thing I noticed when I actually had a hawk fly at me, right, and land on my fist. They're so strong and powerful, and they fly so fast that you expect it to be a really heavy landing. And there's so very light. And so, seeing how light they are and really understanding how easy it is to give them too much to eat or not enough, and how that could be really detrimental to their health as well as to them coming back to you made me appreciate that aspect of the training behind it a lot more.

ER: So you're able to kind of see the finesse that has to happen in the training and like their feeding and care.

SP: Exactly. If they're fed too much, they won't come back because why would they need you? You just supply the food. They'll stay out in the trees once you let them go. And they're happy to do that. And if you don't feed them enough, then not only is that dangerous for them, it weakens them. They're not strong enough to fly. They might get upset at you and foot you or, um, grab you in the face, right? Be aggressive. So, there's really so much that is dependent on getting them to be the right weight, which, I think even though I had read about it, seeing modern falconers really fret over that and worry over that helped me appreciate it more.

ER: Yeah, that makes sense. I think if I would read it, I'd kind of wonder, like, okay, is it that big of a deal? But then to see it in reality like lived out and still being something that's talked about with modern falconers is interesting. I have like a deathly fear of birds, so the thought of a falcon just flying at me immediately struck fear into my heart. But you? You know how you said, I think initially you might have said that, you know, animal study was not kind of what got you into this. But do you feel like that kind of connection with the animal has done something for you?

SP: Absolutely. I mean, I think, especially considering, you know, our modern climate crisis right now and how much all animals, all nonhuman animals, but especially birds, can tell us and show us that people refuse to believe—just their migration patterns, how they've changed, right? Their habits have changed. So many of them are dying or becoming extinct. So, seeing the world from that perspective, I think has helped a lot.

ER: That's really cool. To kind of switch gears a little bit. I think for a lot of, you know, I mean, anyone who's done research in a very specific field, but then is also like their teaching. It can sometimes be a challenge we want to be able to work our kind of niche area into our teaching. Have there been opportunities for you to teach about falconry, like incorporate it in your classroom? What's that been like?

SP: Yeah, I have been so lucky to be able to teach falconry and nature in literature a couple of times. 

ER: Very cool, that’s amazing

SP: So, I did include a couple medieval texts, including some excerpts from Frederick the Second. 

ER: Not too much, right, just a little to get them into it.

SP: Not too much because I'm talking about first year seminar and general education classes. People don't know necessarily what they're signing up for, and they certainly don't think they're going to be getting medieval literature for 15 weeks. But we have read things like some YA literature like My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George. I've just had really wonderful conversations with students about it that has really changed my thinking on some things. Like my understanding of the female being the dominant in the species, I knew that, but reading through that with students and reading a book called Frightful’s Mountain by Jean Craighead George, and which is told from the perspective of the falcon and the students were all just like, “Yeah, she's in charge. She's the one who lays eggs, she's bigger.” And it just really put things into perspective for me of what was a takeaway for them, that they could imagine a species where the female was on top was kind of an incredible takeaway. 

And then in in one version of that class, I had two students who met in that class, and they actually fell in love and got married and had another student from the class officiate the wedding. And they used falcons—like little falcon pins or falcon trinkets as their like, favors—because they had met in that class. So, you know, did not expect that. Then every time they would see each other or see me, they would do like a little, they made up a little falcon hand symbol and like scree at one another. When I do those classes, I always like to take them to a conservation place. So, we'll go to a state park or a place where there are falcons and hawks that are in either rehab or they can't fly again,so they're there for educational purposes. So, they get to meet them up close too, which is really neat.

ER: That is so cool. I love the falcon wedding. Like that's so beautiful.

I had one last question for you, that I always struggle how to word this question, but I honestly also feel like you kind of answered it. One of the, you know, facets of Popular Culture and the Deep Past, this event that we're doing, is being public facing. It's inviting the community to learn about medieval and Renaissance worlds, but then also in a way to encounter things that might feel familiar or relatable. And I feel like with talking about your students, like talking about, you know, their experience of visiting falcons, but then also reading the book where there's the perspective of the female falcon that, you know, feels like it was relatable, familiar to them. 

So I guess, if you have anything else to add about how do you see this period and place, the things that you study, falconry or not being significant or relatable to people today. That we should continue to do things like PCP and try to bring the community into that?

SP: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think I'm coming to that answer from two angles. So, the first is textual and reading and always questioning where we get our expressions. I mean, there are so many falconry metaphors that we still use, like to wrap someone around your finger or have someone under your thumb, right? But also just lots of metaphors about the body and about control and just to not accept them without questioning where they come from or what the dynamics are behind them. So, you know, instead of just dismissing cliches and not using them, say, “Well, where did some of these expressions come from?” And if I learn about where they come from, does that help me either choose not to use them anymore or feel like I can regain control of the narrative with them? 

But then in terms of falconry specifically, I mean, I think anybody that has had a close encounter with a hawk—and especially with a falconer and get to see a falcon or hawk fly from the fist and back to it—and when you are stopped at a highway road and you see, you know, a hawk on the on a post, or see one flying in the air… I mean, it's like, they've been here for so long. They're so reptilian, they're like dinosaurs. But then they can also be so close to you, right? Very, very close to the car and then fly so high away that they really, I think, can enchant. And I think that that is a feeling that you can have as a modern person driving your car and safely pulling over to observe them, or as a person from the 13th Century admiring them in the trees or on the fist as well. So, I think that is more of a kind of like serene connection, that kind of contemplating what it means to be able to fly so high. So, I think, I hope that when people read about falconry or see it referred to in medieval literature, then when they observe falcons, whether in the wild or a falconer they might encounter, that they maybe appreciate the species a little bit more. 

ER: Hmm I love both. I think there are kind of like two parts of your answer there, and I really love both of them. I mean, you were talking about the kind of metaphors, right, that have made it into the English idiom and being able to use historical study to understand where they came from but then also to use them or not use them in more ethical and responsible ways, that kind of looking backward gives us a way to either reclaim or respect differently today. And then similarly, being able to see like throughout history, like how humankind has interacted with other animals or been able to hopefully experience awe. 

SP: Yeah, exactly.

ER: In maybe some way that could help us with our current ecological crisis.

SP: Right to see ourselves as not always the best.

ER: Yes because we’re not!

SP: Right. Because hawks and falcons can do one thing (well, many things like fly), but their vision so outmatches ours. To know a little bit about that and think about that kind of knocks us off our pegs a little bit.

ER: Which it should. I mean, without going into a whole discussion, like I think, to realize that where we've gotten is not inevitable and our position is not inevitable and that we can choose to work with and respect all the other beings and species out there rather than continuing down our current trajectory--.

SP: Of domination.

ER: Of domination! Yeah. That that is both a possibility and probably the most beneficial possibility I think is really is interesting and beneficial. So. Thank you. I think that's all the questions that I have for you.

SP: Thank you so much.

ER: I'm really excited to hear your talk later. And for us to go hang out with some falcons later. Hopefully I can get over my fear of birds. But thank you so much, Dr. Petrosillo, for joining us.

SP: Thank you so much for having me.