Art in Pursuit
Gaston Phoebus’s incomparable 14th century hunting manual at the Morgan Library
“Illuminating the Medieval Hunt,” at The Morgan Library, New York, is a seductive window into the difference in temper between the Middle Ages and our own more complacent era. On exhibit are some fifty illuminated pages from the Morgan’s manuscript by Gaston Phoebus (1331-91), La Livre de la chasse, the most famous hunting manual of all time. It was a bestseller in its day, prompting multiple copies and translated into various languages, first in commissioned manuscripts, later in printed editions.
The feudal epoch was one of wide accomplishment, ranging from technological advance to the arts of governance. Among these last was warcraft, agent and protector of statecraft. Feudal nobles were landed rulers but, above all, they were warriors — mounted cavalry. Prowess in close-quarters combat, an occupational requirement, found ritualized expression in the hunt. The blood sport of princes, hunting was proxy for the arts of war; it kept men in trim for battle. (A modern analogy might be George Patton’s 1941 Louisiana maneuvers in which his 2nd Armored Division attacked, not an enraged boar, but Shreveport.)
Surnamed Phoebus — Latin for Apollo — in tribute to his manly beauty, Gaston III, Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn in southwestern France, was one of the most powerful French feudal nobles. A man of arms, he was also a talented naturalist whose expertise in the hunt was sharpened by expeditions north during lulls in the Hundred Years War. He pursued game across Sweden, Norway and East Prussia and read every available manual on hunting. He dedicated his own to friend and fellow warrior-huntsman Philip the Bold, who first saw battle at age 14.
Disbound for conservation reasons and the preparation of a facsimile (happily on hand to be leafed through), the Phoebus manuscript is uniquely accessible just now. Two dozen additional rare volumes on the hunt, dating from the 11th century to later Persian and Mughal works, complete the display. The Morgan’s copy was most likely commissioned by Philip’s son from a Parisian workshop around 1407.
The Phoebus manuscript is a jewel of medieval illumination. The hand of the calligrapher is as subtle and measured as the painter’s. Undulating, chiseled script, no less beautiful than the coloration, knits text and imagery together. The architecture of each vellum page has a harmonic integrity that testifies to the vitality of medieval aesthetic sensibility.
Here are more than antiquarian objets d’art. The charm of the exhibition is incidental to what it portrays of a chivalric culture that spread across Europe, even to Syria and the edge of the Arabian desert. The loveliness of the manuscript holds lessons of its own. The medieval imagination transformed aesthetic pleasure into a mystical joie de vivre inextricable from contemplation of the Good, beauty’s transcendent source. Art-for-art’s- sake would have been an unintelligible creed.
Phoebus describes the habits of wild animals; the nature of dogs and their care; the elaborate techniques of hunting with dogs and the less laudable ones of hunting with traps, snares, and cross bow. He begins by invoking the Trinity and the Mother of God before praising the virtues of the chase. Starting in the wild before daybreak and lasting until prey was run to exhaustion, the hunt was a rigorous campaign. It banished idleness, thereby causing men “to eschew the seven deadly sins.” [The author himself dropped dead at the end of a grueling bear hunt.] Phoebus thought 7 or 8 a proper age to begin a boy’s training in the hunt. Stamina and resourcefulness were best acquired early, because “a craft requires all a man’s life ere he be perfect thereof” and it is never too soon to learn to dread failure. Physical and moral courage were of a piece.
Like the fabric of medieval life itself, the rubrics of the hunt were intertwined with the liturgical calendar, the cult of the saints and codes of courtesy. The great stag was strong, swift, cunning and bellicose (“wonderfully perilous”); hence, the worthiest prey. Stag hunting began and ended on two different feast days of the Holy Cross. In between, around Mary Magdalen Day, when deer polished their antlers on trees, was the optimal time for tracking them. A tree “frayed well high” indicated a tall, hale specimen. So did the size of hoof prints and the quality of his bellow. One miniature shows scouts returning to camp with droppings, another indicator of size, displayed for noble inspection.
Boar hunting began on Michaelmas, when the animal was fleshiest. Polar opposite of the stag, the boar was the original bête noir, a menacing symbol of evil and a fierce, dangerous opponent. A pair of boars is depicted copulating, the artist’s way of indicating their base nature. Badgers, on the other hand, were not fair game; besides being inedible, they slept too much and had few defenses. Phoebus’s sporting dismissal of them, portrayed close to their burrows, is analogous to chivalric refusal to kill an unarmed man. Otters, foxes, rabbits, hinds, wild goats, reindeer, bears, wild cats (“their falseness and malice are well known”), and the hated wolf are treated in turn.
Running with hounds was the favorite and most respected form of the chase.
Phoebus, whose kennel numbered 1,600 dogs, lavishes attention on “the best knowing of any beast God ever made.” In what is almost a canticle to hounds, the author describes them in terms befitting the ideal Christian knight. No attention to their wellbeing was too minor to mention. They appear in almost every miniature, on the chase or in the hands of groomsmen who examine their ears, trim and bathe their paws, tend wounds.
The strategies and risks in selecting prey, tracking, ambushing and killing it are described with precision and illustrated with verve. (Not always accurately, since Parisian illuminators did not get into the woods much.) So are the protocols for ritual dismembering of the stag. Since women practiced falconry, hawking was preferred for May, Mary’s month. Hunting-hawks, like dogs, were deemed capable of fealty; their self-sacrificial acts of loyalty, real or mythical, are sweetly illustrated.
The Phoebus manuscript ends as it began, with prayer. The extended display closes with a 17th century Mughal scene of a female hunter holding a gun, the weapon that finished hunting as Phoebus knew it. La Livre de la chasse is an an exquisite emblem of chivalric culture, one that marked Western civilization with unique characteristics the future will be lucky to sustain. An exhibition that breathes life into even a single part of it is a welcome event.
Postscript: Edward of Norwich, Duke of York, later to die at Agincourt, translated Phoebus’s manual into English, under the title The Master of Game. Theodore Roosevelt, writing from the White House, introduced the 1909 reprint edition with praise for the great medieval lords as “mighty men with their hands and terrible in battle” as well as cultivated statesmen. At the same time, he lamented the eventual deterioration of the hunt into destructive obsession and a riskless “parody of the stern hunting life.” He reserved his highest admiration for the roving hunter who penetrates the wilderness with simple equipment and shifts for himself.
“Illuminating the Medieval Hunt” at The Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 212-685-0008).
This essay appeared first in The Weekly Standard on June 2, 2008.
Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey