by Brooke Chilvers
I was raised in the school of fair-chase hunting by several professional hunters, including my husband, Rudy Lubin, who for decades offered tracking-on-foot safaris in the Central African Republic. These were the very opposite of “Toyota Safaris” on fenced game ranches in southern Africa, or extreme-distance shooting of antelope at more than 750 yards.
I am forever pleased by the images of chivalrous hunting traditions from the knightly Middle Ages as described by Gaston Phébus, the Prince of Foix and Béarn, in his Livre de la Chasse, (The Hunting Book), written in 1387.
Phébus, who owned 1,600 hunting dogs and 200 horses, judged to be ignoble any hunting techniques designed to take game by surprise, precluding them employing their instinctual abilities and natural cunning. “I should teach only to take animals nobly and graciously and to take pleasure in so doing,” he wrote.
Phébus was completely familiar with the behavior, strategies, and ruses of the species he hunted in his native Basque Country, including badger, bear, red stag, chamois, ibex, wild boar, otter, and wolf. His greatest pleasure lay not in “the slaying of the hart, but in the incidents that led up to it,” because these were the truest test of his own nerve, skill, conviction, and strength.
When approaching a large boar on horseback, he advised: “Hold your spear about in the middle, not too far forward lest he strike you with his tusks, and as soon as the point has entered the body, take the haft of the spear under your armpit and press and push as hard as you can and never let go of the haft…”
The Master of the Game, written in 1406, is actually a translation of Phébus’s codex to which its author, Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York (of Shakespeare’s Richard II fame) added five chapters on British sport. In an edition published 118 years ago, the excellent foreword describes the book’s spirit of “sport for sport’s sake” that “animated our common forebears centuries ago.,
“Later on, men grew soft and the use of gunpowder removed many of the risks of the chase until sport was degraded to mere slaughter, and men were securely ensconced in danger-proof stands to which they were driven in chariots or carried in litters.”
Such practices “made scant demands upon the hardier qualities either of mind or body… [It] makes no demand upon the prowess of the so-called sportsman, is but a dismal parody upon the stern hunting life in which man trusts to his own keen eye and heart of steel for success and safety in the wild warfare waged against wild nature.”
It was President Theodore Roosevelt who wrote that foreword in the White House on February 15, 1904.
Teddy admired both men, “For each of them the chase stood as a hardy and vigorous pastime of the kind which makes a people great.” And although Teddy believed that “The chase is the best of all national pastimes… It is a mere source of weakness if carried on in an unhealthy manner, or to an excessive degree, or under over-artificial conditions… and if serious work is sacrificed to its enjoyment, it is of course noxious.”
Teddy celebrated the willingness of the hunter to endure fatigue and face risk. “It is a good thing for a man to be forced to show self-reliance, physical and moral… Hunting is praiseworthy very much in proportion as it tends to develop these qualities… which is a good thing for any nation to see brought out in its sons.”
But when the object of hunting, writes Teddy, is “to make huge bags at small cost of effort, and with the maximum of ease… save marksmanship being required,” these “are sure signs of unhealthy decadence in sportsmanship.” Even worse if the goal is merely “the publication of the record of slaughter.”
Looking at the retired PH who is looking at the deer on the far side of our gully, perhaps recalling past pursuits of Lord Derby eland or lion, I know he agrees with Teddy that “No form of hunting has ever surpassed in attractiveness… the man who with simple equipment, and trusting to his own qualities of head, heart and hand, has penetrated the uttermost regions of the earth, and single-handed slain alike the wariest and the grimmest of the creatures of the waste.”
Brooke Chilvers plans to visit the restored remains of Phoebus’s Medieval Chateau de Mauvezin in the gourmet Gers region in southwestern France, and has already picked out her restaurants.