Art in Pursuit
Hounds, nature, God, and medieval man.
Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
Boar hunting began on Michaelmas, when the animal was fleshiest. The polar opposite of the stag, the boar was the original bête noire, 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 the 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 well-being was too minor: 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 their 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, and 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. Le Livre de la chasse is 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.
A 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 a 1909 reprint 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." Roosevelt reserved his highest admiration for the roving hunter who penetrates the wilderness with simple equipment and shifts for himself.
Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and other publications.