Richard Vernier's biography of Gaston Fébus is a tale well told. It examines the life of Fébus in its various incarnations, as crusader in Prussia, author of a famed treatise on hunting, host to the chronicler Jean Froissart and effective ruler of a rugged, "untidy" (10) domain. Gaston emerges from Vernier's portrait as a three-dimensional character, who possessed consummate political skills and whose court at Orthez served as a vibrant cultural center for musicians, poets and minstrels.
The study is divided into three main sections. The first deals with Fébus' early years, from his ascension to political power at age fourteen (1345) to his stint as a crusader against the Wends in Prussia (1357). It was during the crusade that Gaston gained--or more precisely bestowed upon himself--the nickname Fébus (Phoebus), evocative of Apollo, the sun God of classical antiquity. The second section recounts Fébus' accomplishments as ruler, patron of the arts and author of the hunting manual, Livre de chasse as well as a less renowned book on devotional prayers. The third and final part deals with Fébus' personal troubles, in particular the "mystery at Orthez"--the murder of his eldest son and heir, which may have been the work of the Fébus himself. Vernier subtitles this last section "The Undoing" and devotes a great deal to assessing what actually happened.
Vernier makes high claims for Fébus as a ruler. He describes him as "a new type of learned pragmatic ruler," who was "distinct from the feudal mold" (viii). The statement seems a bit excessive. But Fébus was indeed successful, demonstrating skill in dealing with his powerful neighbors and in exploiting the limited resources of his mountainous domain. Fébus managed to avoid participation in the wars between the kings of England and France, whose vassal he was. He also generally evaded the advances of the powerful nearby counts of Amagnac, traditional enemies of his state. Vernier credits Fébus with good fiscal management, gaining revenue through taxes and war-related ransoms, which were sufficient to fill his treasury. This was no small feat considering the nature of Fébus' state. It consisted of less than 25,000 hearths and was geographically dispersed, covering 35,000 miles of rough terrain near the Pyrenees. The main counties of Foix and Bèarn were quite different from each other. Nevertheless Fébus held them together, setting up his court in the latter. Vernier credits Fébus with creating a species of standing army, which helped deflect the ravages of roaming mercenary companies as well as discourage invasion by neighbors.
Vernier's central interest is in the cultural aspects of Fébus' rule and the activities at his court at Orthez, for which Fébus is perhaps best known to posterity. The famous chronicler Jean Froissart, who visited Orthez in 1388, described it as an opulent and lively center. Fébus enjoyed public spectacles and was an avid patron of the arts, with a particular affinity for musicians. Fébus collected books, including the works of ancients such as Ovid and Pliny, and of closer contemporaries such as Vincent of Beauvais and Marco Polo. For Vernier, however, Fébus' most conspicuous cultural deed was his authorship of the Livre de chasse, the treatise on hunting. The work, which became a standard in its field, contains also an intriguing self-description, in which Fébus described himself as a man who took "especial delight in three things--war, love and the chase." He judged himself best at the last, thus the reason for writing the book. Vernier gives an admirably close reading of text, bringing it to life. We find out, among other things, the proper way to hunt a Pyrenean bear, whose meat was nevertheless unsavory except for the paws (135).
The last three chapters of the book (9-11) deal primarily with Fébus' personal difficulties ("The Undoing"). Vernier carefully describes Fébus' marital problems, the separation from his wife, and the plot against him by his eldest son that led to the famous unsolved murder. Vernier searches the extant sources for clues to help solve the mystery. Did Fébus kill his own son in a fit of rage over an attempt to poison him? What was the nature of his son's plot? Vernier treats the issue in its larger context, in terms of broader political machinations involving disaffected barons. Vernier offers no firm conclusions, but his close study of the sources sheds much light on the event.
The strength of the book is that it is well written and clearly organized. Vernier has an eye for evocative detail. We learn, for example, that Fébus had a quick temper and that he lived a nocturnal existence, unusual, as Vernier notes, in a medieval world "lit by fire." The weakness of the book, however, is that it breaks no new ground. The material is taken from secondary sources and much studied primary ones. Vernier owes a great deal to Froissart's Voyage en Bèarn, which describes the chronicler's stay at Orthez with Fébus. Like that work, Vernier is steadfastly upbeat and positive, giving his book the uncomfortable feel of hagiography.