The Magazine

Art in Pursuit

Hounds, nature, God, and medieval man.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Illuminating the Medieval Hunt

The Morgan Library

Through August 10

"Illuminating the Medieval Hunt" at New York's Morgan Library is a seductive window into the difference in temper between the Middle Ages and our own, more complacent, era. On exhibit are some 50 illuminated pages from the Morgan's manuscript by Gaston Phoebus (1331-91), Le 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, the agent and protector of statecraft. Feudal nobles were landed rulers but, above all, they were mounted warriors: 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 S. 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 manual to his 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 Library'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 crossbow. 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 gruel-ing bear hunt.) Phoebus thought seven or eight 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 Magdalene 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 hoofprints and the quality of his bellow. One miniature shows scouts returning to camp with droppings, another indicator of size, displayed for noble inspection.