Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Picturing the Hunt

I was particularly taken by the visual richness of the Gaston Phoebus manuscript we looked at for our last meeting.  The illustrations are so plentiful and so lavishly colorful that one scarcely needs to read the text of the manuscript to understand that hunting was not merely a practical concern but a primary passion of the manuscript’s commissioner.  A number of aspects of the manuscript’s presentation grabbed me, and I bring them up here not so much to illuminate (no pun intended) as to propose different angles of inquiry from which one could interrogate this document.

It was interesting to me that unlike Frederick II’s treatise on falconry, this text was composed in the vernacular.  The later medieval tendency toward vernacular composition notwithstanding, I found myself wondering whether the animals, vegetation, and terrains depicted in the manuscript were “vernacular” as well—that is, whether they were indicative of Gaston Phoebus’s surroundings in the same way that the manuscript’s use of French points to shifts in contemporary society and discourse.  The mountain crags featured in the illustrations depicting wild stags and mountain goats, though stylized and lacking in sufficient detail to enable the viewer to situate them geographically, would seem to be consistent with the terrain of Gaston’s portion of the southern French Pyrenees region.  Furthermore, the text does not deal with imported or exotic (or mythical, for that matter) animals but rather focuses on species that would have been found in Gaston’s immediate environs. 

As far as I know, information on where the manuscript was transcribed and illuminated is either incomplete or unavailable.  But while background on the artists who composed the manuscript’s illustrations would of course be useful in determining whether a specific sense of place directly influenced the visual presentation of Gaston’s text, it is probably safe to say that Gaston himself gave detailed instructions regarding the illustrations.  Both the expense that undoubtedly went into their production and the tremendous detail they lend to their subjects indicate that the illustrations were probably meticulously planned out.  And since the manuscript was intended for nobles by a noble—it was dedicated to Philip the Bold of Burgundy—it would seem to me, then, that attaining a certain measure of authenticity or “correctness” was a major goal for this manuscript, with respect to both the text and the art. 

For its even mix of detailed depictions of animals and extensive discussions of hunting technique, Gaston’s Livre de chasse strikes me as an intermediary between a bestiary and Frederick II’s text.  While it does not attempt to describe every animal in existence, it deals thoroughly with those it does cover, just as it addresses varied hunting practices.  In terms of its visual presentation of the hunt, the manuscript’s repeated depiction of the multiple layers of collaboration involved in a single hunting excursion was especially interesting to me.  Various images depict small armies of people assisting with different aspects of the hunt, underlining both the tremendously involved nature of the enterprise as well as the specific duties of its participants.  Certain miniatures, specifically those showing the proper ways to care for hunting hounds, reminded me of a modern assembly line.  Many of these images offer a clearly hierarchized view of the hunt, with those members of the hunting party charged with more menial tasks rendered smaller and in the bottom of the visual plane while the lord (presumably) and other members in a leadership capacity are featured larger and more prominently, often on horseback. 

Despite the more pronounced appearance of particular figures, the images give a sense of the importance of each stage of the hunt and each member of the party.  Cooperation, the images tell us, is crucial, even to the extent that the animals used for the hunt (horses and dogs) must work in concert in order to make the outing successful.  In a number of scenes, these animals are depicted side by side, often oriented parallel to one another, facing the direction of the prey.  Such synchronization, however, would be impossible without the guidance of the lord, who appears effortlessly superior wherever he is present, be he riding a horse or presiding magisterially from his chair at the head of the feasting table.



  1. Good point - although we talk about the illustrations and text separately, there would have to have been someone overseeing the entire project. It makes me wonder if he might have left out certain animals or techniques simply because he personally didn't favor them...

  2. To know fully what Gaston intended with the images, we would need to look at the other manuscripts, of which there are several dozen. The facsimile we looked at is one of the earliest and best, but as far as I know, it was not the original. So what we have in MS 616 is an illustration of the text, not necessarily Gaston's own ideas about what the animals looked like. We talked in class about Gaston's ordering of the animals and his choices of what to describe. A fuller analysis would might then compare his text with the variations in its illustration. This would be a good way of testing the kinds of things you point out here about the hierarchy of participants in the hunt and the synchronization of activities. Did all of the artists of Gaston's work represent these activities in the same way? If not, what do the differences tell us? And so forth. My sense from the images of the other manuscripts that I have seen is that there is a fair degree of consistency from manuscript to manuscript, but the details might be worth studying. The Bibliothèque nationale has a nice site about its two manuscripts, one of which is the one that we looked at: ms. français 616.