Master of the Game

No this is not about a new action movie, but rather a medieval book on hunting by Gaston de Foix, also called Gaston Phoebus, because of his bright blond hair like the Greek sun god.

Gaston Phoebus Figure 3
left to right, Gaston of the gleaming hair, the Arms of Foix-Béarn and a statue of Gaston.

Before your eyes glaze over at the prospect of reading history, we promise you drama, danger, murder and what is possibly the very first Burning Man festival. Plus pretty pictures of animals.

Gaston (1331 – 1391) was the 11th Count of Foix (in what is southern France today) and Viscount of Béarn (southwest France, today  Basque country and Gascony- Ariane’s neighborhood). From all accounts he was an interesting guy. He reportedly had three “special delights” in his life: “arms, love and hunting.”

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Map showing Béarn with purple outline, right by the Pyrenees, and Foix with red outline.

Which brings us to the point of this post; Gaston Phoebus wrote what is arguably the most famous book on hunting ever, Livre de chasse (Book of the Hunt) in the 1380s. He was a great huntsman – perhaps the greatest of his day. It was the pursuit of his lifetime to the very end: he died from a stroke while washing his hands after a bear hunt.

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Hunting a bear.

But the book is his legacy and actually comprised of four books: On Gentle and Wild Beasts, On the Nature and Care of Dogs, On Instructions for Hunting with Dogs, and On Hunting with Traps, Snares, and Crossbow.

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A full page of Gaston’s Book of the Hunt.
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Detail of the hares.

An impressive document on natural history, describing animal behavior as well as the stages of hunting those animals, it is considered to be one of the finest manuscripts of its time. It’s a powerful cultural history that took such care with observations of the natural world that it was in use as a textbook right into the 19th century.

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And it was a bestseller right from the start (as much as things could be when entirely hand-lettered, drawn and painted). The courts of France and Burgundy considered it a work of art, and in some hands it certainly was. Shining with gold and richly colored, perhaps the finest example is from the Masters of Bedford workshop.

Since it’s game season, and we are having a sale on all game meat this week (save 15% – no hunting necessary!), we wanted to share a little of this beautiful book with you. If you would like to see  more, check the Morgan Library & Museum website.

Book of the Hunt Gaston Phoebus DEER

Book of the Hunt Gaston Phoebus BOAR

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What about the murder, the drama and Burning Man? Well, Gaston Phoebus had a son who, in adulthood, tried to poison his father. Then later, Phoebus accidentally stabbed and killed this only son in a fight. That’s Shakespeare-level drama.

While he had no heir, he did have four illegitimate sons. And one of them was burned alive at an unfortunate performance at a ball in Paris for King Charles VI of France. The Bal de Ardents, or Burning Man Ball, went down in history when a costume brushed against a torch and spread rather quickly, killing four dancers in the fire while the court watched. And here is where our story ends.

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Le Bal des Ardents, illuminated miniature from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, note the dancer plunged into a wine barrel on the right, and how the musicians continue to play.

 

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