Gaston Phebus and the Book of Hunting
We are proud to inaugurate this periodic column with a short biography of Gaston Phebus, Count of Foix, knight, adventurer, huntsman, and author.
After calling on the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and all the saints, Gaston Phebus admits that his life was dominated by three passions: weapons, love and hunting. This he wrote in the year of grace 1387, aged over 50 and owning that the time for fighting and courting ladies is passed, so that it is now the time for him to recover his well-being amongst his huntsmen and to gallop off on long rides after the game described in his work “The Book of Hunting”; a masterpiece that was intensely lived before it was written.
The 14th century saw a renewed interest in instructional books devoted entirely to secular topics. Hunting was one the most popular topics for these handbooks, and none was more famous than the Livre de Chasse de Gaston Phebus.
Gaston III, Count of Foix and viscount of Béarn, was one of the great lords of 14th century France. Born in 1331, he became known as “Phebus”, after the Greek sun god, Phoebus Apollo, because of his fair hair and handsome features. Gaston succeeded his father in 1343, and although still a boy, even by medieval standards, immediately leapt into the turbulent, dangerous world of France in the midst of the first phase of the Hundred Years War, winning his spurs in battle against the English two years later at the tender age of 14.
At this time, Foix and Béarn were not in direct vassalage to the French crown. Despite his early support of the French crown, the relationship quickly became strained because of King Jean's support of the Count of Armagnac, Gaston's sworn enemy. Beginning in 1350, the young count set out upon a course of adventures worthy of the knights-errant of Arthurian romance, leading bands of equally ambitious men on forays into the Pyrenees, the Low Countries, Denmark, even into Prussia to fight in the ranks of the Teutonic Knights. On his return from Prussia, Gaston again threw his gauntlet into the ring of the perpetual struggle for the French throne, easily slipping his alliances from one side to the other as fortune, and the chance at further advancement and profit, led him.
During this phase of Gaston's career, he launched a private war against his old enemy, the Count of Armagnac, capturing him and extorting an enormous ransom. Between this ransom and the wealth acquired along his military adventures, Gaston set to turning his estates at Orthez into a sumptuous court. It was at Orthez that Phebus entertained the famous historian Jean Froissart, whose quill immortalized both the splendor and sophistication of the Count’s court, and the chivalric virtue of its lord. Surrounded by his old companions, his mistresses, his huntsmen and his beloved alan hounds, it was also at Orthez that Gaston was inspired to write the Livre de Chasse, the lavish hunting book that would survive the centuries and become synonymous with his name.
In many ways, the Book of the Hunt was destined to be the final glorious flowering of a very dramatic life. The last decade of Gaston's life saw a slow, but notable decline in his fortunes, beginning with the murder of his sole legitimate son, by his own hand, in 1382. His own estates insufficient to support his lavish lifestyle, and no longer capable of leading young men on wild adventures to make their fortunes, Gaston slowly mortgaged away all that he had acquired, at last signing away all of his property in a secret treaty with Charles VI, making the French king his heir. Now in reality a tenant on his own lands, Gaston III, Count of Foix and viscount of Béarn, died soon after, in 1391; yet his magnificent hunting book, one part bestiary, one part hunting and huntsman manual not only survived, but thrived. Laboriously copied and recopied during the 15th century, thirty-seven manuscripts of his magnificent work still survive, preserving Gaston, his companions, his hard-working huntsman and beloved hounds, at least as he wished them to be seen, for all time.