The art of writing about sport is ancient: it goes back at least 2,500 years. This may surprise some readers of the sports pages, and even some of the writers and editors thereof. But more surprising still is the fact that the tradition of sports literature—the tradition that still dominates writing about sport today—was established and defined by four highly unlikely men. The ability to name any of them will win bets at a gathering of experts.
One was a Greek soldier-historian who lived around the 4th century B.C., one a ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, one a tempestuous French count who lived a century or so later and one a man variously described as a black-hearted villain and a hero: a Duke of York of 15th century England.
Yet these men, so dissimilar and separated in time and place, were sportswriters; and anyone who doubts this statement has only to study The Origins of Angling by John McDonald, published this week by Doubleday & Company ($10). The author, who some six years ago wrote in the pages of this magazine the story of Dame Juliana Berners, the 15th century nun supposed to have written The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle (SI, May 13, 1957 et seq.), now traces the lineage of sport still further. And although his preoccupation—he has been a dedicated angler since the age of 12—is primarily with fishing and its literature, he clearly shows the line that leads back over 25 centuries through Edward Plantagenet, Gaston de Foix and Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, to Xenophon.
All of these men wrote on hunting, probably the oldest of all sports practiced by man. All of them wrote of it as sport, separate and distinct from hunting for food. They cared enough to set down the elements of these pursuits as they had learned them, through long and often violent experience, so that they might be well and truly understood and so that others who followed them might practice them in the proper and prescribed way.
September 15, 1963
This was no happenstance: it was the outgrowth of a basic attitude that saw sport as a transcendence of life itself, as a physical exercise to which deep meaning had been added. To them it was noble—both in the social and the moral sense of the word—and heroic, too, for they were heroic men who led heroic lives. And though sport, as McDonald shows, did not in its further development single-mindedly follow this heroic concept—fishing, for example, introduced a more contemplative ideal—it did follow the moral line, which is still the essence of our writing and thinking about it.
Inevitably, in reading about the literary tradition established by these pioneers, one is led to wonder what sort of men they were, what manner of lives they led. They wrote, each of them, with passionate devotion to the art of sport, which was of such importance to them and which, in its basic definition, has remained unaltered through the ages.
All of them were noblemen and soldiers with a literary bent. Xenophon was an active campaigner from about his 20th year; his military writings—he has been called the world's first war correspondent, so lively and contemporary-sounding are the accounts he left behind—are as well known as his philosophical works. Less well known is his work on horsemanship, in which he gives detailed instructions on choosing, grooming, riding and maintaining a horse. The same attention to detail is evident in Cynegeticus, his essay on hunting, the first known study of its kind.
Xenophon hunted with hounds, and his book deals chiefly with the hare, his favorite prey, though he describes boar hunting, too. He was a vigorous man, an adventurer and a first-class leader, and he indulged his taste for sport all his life. But he was a meticulous man, too. His care for detail was intense—he even suggests suitable names for hunting hounds, as well as giving careful instructions for their breeding and training. From a practical point of view, he considered hunting excellent training for the body and the mind; those who pursue it, he said, "will secure health for their bodies, greater keenness of sight and hearing, and a later old age."
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily, King of Jerusalem, last great ruler of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, finished his book De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry) shortly before his death in the year 1250. This extraordinary volume presented, in 589 pages of closely reasoned Latin, the theory and practice of hunting with birds of prey—including observations on their care, feeding, training, breeding and individual characteristics so astute that it is still considered a remarkable ornithological work. Frederick himself characterized his book as the labor of 30 years.
Frederick II was in all respects an exceptional man. His biographers are invariably staggered by his performance, calling him the "scholar emperor," the "sporting emperor," the "infidel emperor" and using all kinds of vivid descriptions in an effort to summarize his talents. He was a German king with a Sicilian kingdom in which he chiefly made his home. His court at Palermo was the center of a cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture where many writers found support. Having grown up in Sicily, he was friendly with Jews and Mohammedans, as well as being the Christian ruler of the Holy Roman Empire—a position which brought him into frequent and far-reaching conflict with his ecclesiastical counterpart, the Pope in Rome. This familiarity with Jewish, Moslem and Byzantine cultures gave him an unusually broad and liberal outlook for his day, and as a scholar and patron he played an important role in the revival of ancient learning.
This revival, begun in earnest in the previous century, had reached a high point in Frederick's time: at his Imperial court, translators put a good deal of ancient Greek and Arabic writings into medieval Latin. Michael Scot, astrologer and translator of Aristotle, was his friend and counselor, and Frederick was in a position not only to quote the great Greek, the Prince of Philosophers, but also to find fault with him as a writer about birds. "We discovered," he wrote in The Art of Falconry, "by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon, more particularly in his descriptions of the characters of certain birds.... In his work, the Liber Animalium, we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth," concluded Frederick, in words which many a sports editor has repeated, with variations, to erring writers through the centuries, "never follows mere hearsay."
Red-bearded, bald and shortsighted, Frederick must have been an enormously dynamic man. The source of his driving energy was passion—not only a passionate dedication to what he believed in, but also a passionate determination to see that it was done right. This is evident in his life as a politician and a soldier (though he was not great as a military leader), and it is obvious in his writings on falconry. He loved the sport, but he felt it was misunderstood. In the very first words of his treatise he speaks of "the many errors made by our predecessors who, when writing on the subject, degraded the noble art of falconry by slavishly copying the misleading and often insufficient statements to be found in the works of certain hackneyed authors. With the object of bequeathing it to posterity we now offer a true and careful account of these matters between the covers of this monograph."
Having thus denounced all available writings on his favorite subject, Frederick then candidly set forth his own credentials: "We have investigated and studied with the greatest solicitude and in minute detail all that relates to this art, exercising both mind and body so that we might eventually be qualified to describe and interpret the fruits of knowledge acquired from our own experiences or gleaned from others. For example, we, at great expense, summoned from the four quarters of the earth masters in the practice of the art of falconry. We entertained these experts in our own domains, meantime seeking their opinions, weighing the importance of their knowledge, and endeavoring to retain in memory the more valuable of their words and deeds."
Why all this incredible effort and expense? To understand this is to understand what sport has really meant to men for centuries, even millenniums: not a spectacle, not an adventure, not a means of relaxation and change from daily routine and toil, but an integral part of life. No one has yet succeeded in defining this adequately; perhaps it is beyond definition. Frederick, too, sought to define that meaning. "The pursuit of falconry," he wrote, "enables nobles and rulers, disturbed and worried by the cares of state, to find relief in the pleasures of the chase. The poor, as well as the less noble, by following this avocation, may earn some of the necessities of life; and both classes will find in bird life attractive manifestations of the processes of nature. The whole subject of falconry falls within the realm of natural science, for it deals with the nature of bird life."
But what particularly attracted the Emperor was that falconry has rewards all of its own, inherent in the difficult task of training wild, rapacious birds to do man's will. He scorned hunting by means of nets, snares, bows and arrows, spears and other instruments; he even looked down on hunting animals with other animals such as hounds and leopards. "It is true," he said, "that [these] latter are more popular, because their technique is crude and easier to learn; falconry, on the other hand, is less familiar and does not commend itself to the majority because skill in it is difficult to acquire and because it is more refined.
"Any dabbler in venery," Frederick concluded scornfully, "can readily hold in leash or let loose dogs or other quadrupeds; but in the pursuit of falconry no tyro can so easily join in the chase, either to carry his birds or to throw them off at the quarry. Falcons and other hawks are rendered clumsy or entirely unmanageable if placed under control of an ignorant interloper. By using his hearing and eyesight alone an ignoramus may learn something about other kinds of hunting in a short time; but without an experienced teacher and frequent exercise of the art properly directed no one, noble or ignoble, can hope to gain in a short time an expert or even an ordinary knowledge of falconry."
Clearly, what appealed to Frederick in hunting, besides the passion of the chase, was finesse. Entirely different in all respects except in his dedication to his sport was Gaston de Foix, who wrote, a century later, the celebrated hunting treatise, Livre de Chasse (The Book of Hunting).
Gaston III, Count of Foix and Béarn, was destined from birth to be a man of character and accomplishment. The kings of Aragon, Navarre and England were his kinsmen, and his lineage was studded with the names of famous warriors. His two principalities lay on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, and the castle of Orthez was his stronghold, built by his great-great-grandfather, Gaston VII of Béarn, whose daughter's marriage with Roger Bernard III of Foix united the two formidable houses. The author of Livre de Chasse was, therefore, a prince of considerable standing among the royalty of Europe, and he lived up to it in every way.
He was, for one thing, enormously wealthy. His enthusiastic biographer, Jean Froissart, described his castle as one of the finest royal residences of any Christian land and stated that in a vault below one of its towers was kept a treasure chest containing "one hundred thousand florins thirty times over"—the only way of saying 3 million florins before the word million was invented. It has since been figured out that this amounted to about $8 million. This was more money than any European king could claim to have, and Gaston lived accordingly. Froissart relates that he had 1,600 hounds and, on one occasion, when he met his cousin Edward, the Black Prince, and his bride at Tarbes, Gaston had 600 horses in his train. The festivities at Orthez were legendary in Europe for their lavishness and display, and the castle was understandably high on the list of European aristocracy as a place to be invited to. But not only kings, princes, nobles and ambassadors were guests there; Gaston, too, was a liberal patron of the arts and, while he was not the scholar Frederick was, his court was nonetheless frequented by poets, scientists and artists of the day.
Gaston himself moved about in all this glittering pageantry and wealth with the absolutism of a great feudal lord. As a boy he was strikingly handsome, with a head of golden hair so flamboyant in appearance that he was nicknamed Gaston Phoebus—a name, incidentally, that was also attached to the hunting treatise he later wrote, Livre de Chasse, and is still used interchangeably with its title. From boyhood on, his temper was as flaming as the sun which he took as his emblem. "I was wayward and frivolous," he wrote later, "so that I shamed my parents, and all the world said: this one can never be worth anything; unhappy country of which he will be the ruler." The world was only partly right, for Gaston proved to be a good ruler, but his temper plagued him throughout his life and finally led him into a terrible tragedy, the killing of his only son.
As a huntsman, Gaston was no less passionate in his love for the sport than was Frederick, but his favorite method of pursuit gave far more outlet to his violent temperament than did the Holy Roman Emperor's fine and delicate art of handling birds of prey. Gaston hunted with hounds and made the kill himself, as was the custom of the day. A passage from the famous medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that describes the ideal hunter might well describe him:
"But then came the lord himself, spurring his horse, and saw the boar standing at bay. He got down from his horse, and left it standing there, and drew his bright sword, and went forward with long strides, passing through the ford to where the grim beast was waiting for him. The boar watched him coming with his weapon in hand, and his bristles rose and he snorted so fiercely that many feared for the knight. The boar made straight at him and the man and beast fell locked together and the water swirled about them. But the beast had the worst of it, for the man watched his mark well at the first charge, and drove the sharp steel firmly into his throat, right up to the hilt, and pierced the heart. The boar snarled and gave up the fight and made away across the stream, but a hundred hounds fell on him, biting furiously, and the men drove him to open ground where the hounds finished him off."
This was a situation in which Gaston often found himself; his knowledge of the game he hunted was acquired at first hand. In his book he describes them with a sense of detail that overlooks nothing and a sense of drama that sends shivers down through half a millennium of time. Of the boar, for example, he says:
"It is the beast of this world that is strongest armed, and can sooner slay a man than any other. Neither is there any beast that he could not slay if they were alone sooner than that other beast could slay him, be they lion or leopard, unless they should leap upon his back, so that he could not turn on them with his teeth. And there is neither lion nor leopard that slays a man at one stroke as a boar does, for they mostly kill with the raising of their claws and through biting, but the wild boar slays a man with one stroke as with a knife.... It is a proud beast and fierce and perilous, for many times have men seen much harm that he has done. For some men have seen him slit a man from knee up to the breast and slay him all stark dead at one stroke so that he never spoke thereafter. I myself have often been thrown to the ground, and my courser with me, and the courser killed."
And later, writing of the boar's wariness and courage: "A boar hears wonderfully well and clearly, and when he is hunted and comes out of the forest or bush or when he is so hunted that he is compelled to leave the country, he sorely dreads to take to the open country and to leave the forest, and therefore he puts his head out of the wood before he puts out his body, then he abides there and harkens and looks about and takes the wind on every side. And if that time he sees anything that he thinks might hinder him in the way he would go, then he turns again into the wood. Then will he never more come out though all the horns and all the holloaing of the world were there. But when he has undertaken the way to go out he will spare for nothing but will hold his way throughout. When he flees he makes but few turnings, but when he turns to bay, and then he runs upon the hounds and upon the man. And for no stroke or wound that men do him will he complain or cry, but when he runs upon the men he menaces, strongly groaning. But while he can defend himself he defends himself without complaint, and when he can no longer defend himself there be few boars that will not complain or cry out when they are overcome to the death."
In such manner and detail does Gaston describe the principal animals of the chase as he came to know them in a lifetime of hunting; but he is no less detailed in his account of the hounds, which he honors throughout as the hunter's indispensable companions, deserving his most scrupulous care. He writes of their wounds and how to treat them, of their sicknesses and the best cures for them and of their nobility in anecdotes that compare them favorably—indeed, sometimes more than favorably—to men. He writes of rabies and of mange, and where he does not know of a treatment he says so, and where he does, he gives explicit instructions. Some of his ointments make the gorge rise, concocted as they are with quicksilver, spittle "of four fasting men," verdigris, old swine's grease, and the whole stirred and stamped together; others make eminent good sense even today. A kennel constructed according to his directions would serve well for any modern pack, with an effective drainage system, a loft above to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter, doors in front and in the back "and a fair green, where the sun shines all day from morning till eve."
The book was begun in 1387, when Gaston was 56 years old, a time of life when he may well have felt that contemplation and the creation of a permanent record of his acquired experience and skill were in order. Six years before, his son had died violently—some said by the count's own hand. The boy had innocently become involved in an intrigue on the part of Charles the Bad, the appropriately nicknamed King of Navarre, who was Gaston's brother-in-law. Gaston suspected that his son meant to poison him and, in fearful rage, threw him into prison and executed 15 of the boy's young friends for complicity. Later, after a visit by the count, his son was found dead of a wound in the throat, apparently inflicted, either accidentally or in another fit of rage, by a small knife with which Gaston was wont to pare his fingernails.
Whatever the truth, the tragedy hit Gaston hard. He lived for 10 years more, but never spoke of his son again. He died in August 1391, after a bear hunt in the woods of Sauveterre not far from Pamplona. It was a swelteringly hot day, and the bear was not taken until late afternoon. Gaston attended the ceremonial curie after the killing and then went to a nearby inn to rest. He had just put out his hands to have cold water poured over them when he suffered an apoplectic stroke and died. He was 60 years old.
At the time of the death of the Count de Foix, Edward Plantagenet, second Duke of York to be, was a young man of 18 in distant England. Few men at this point in his life would have picked him as a likely author of the most famous book on hunting ever to be written in the English language. True, he had a sporting heritage—his father, Edmund of Langley, had the reputation of a man who put his love of hunting and hawking ahead even of his duties to the state—but he was obviously destined for far bigger things. He was a favorite of King Richard II, his cousin, who had already created for him the title of Earl of Rutland and was to shower him in the near future with a plethora of other titles and responsibilities, including Admiral of the Northern Fleet (at age 19), Admiral of England (at age 20), Earl of Cork, Constable of the Tower, Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of the Channel Islands, Warden and Chief Justice of the New Forest, Lord of the Isle of Wight and Warden of the West Marches.
The fact that Edward wrote his famous book at all is almost certainly due to his near-fatal predilection for plotting. Even in those days of constant intrigue, he won himself a reputation as a master at this risky game. He plotted for Richard (even to the extent, some say, of sending two of his servants to help assassinate his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester) and later plotted against him. His actions alienated Richard's successor, Henry IV, but Edward won back his favor, only to take part in another plot against the young King—this time to be imprisoned at Pevensey. At one time he had 20 gages thrown down to him—20 challenges to mortal combat (one historian even claims there were 40). When he wrote his book, in 1405, he was only 32 years old, yet he had enough honors and dishonors on his record to fill a lifetime.
Whatever his moral fiber—and it must always be remembered that those were times when most men admitted more openly than they do today their conviction that political ends justify almost any means—there was no doubt that Edward was dedicated to the art of hunting no less wholeheartedly than Gaston de Foix and Frederick II.
Theodore Roosevelt, in a foreword written at the White House in 1904 for a modern edition of Master of Game, spoke of both Gaston and Edward in admiring terms: "Both...show an astonishing familiarity with the habits, nature, and chase of their quarry. Both men, like others of their kind among their contemporaries, made of the chase not only an absorbing sport but almost the sole occupation of their leisure hours. They passed their days in the forest and were masters of woodcraft."
Edward, however, almost certainly had other motivations than a powerful dedication to the sport that prompted him to write Master of Game. He needed royal favor and, indeed, might well have wanted to express gratitude for the royal favor shown him in not cutting off his head after he plotted against the King. His dedication to the young Prince Henry is couched in most humble terms:
"To the honor and reverence of you my right worshipful and dread Lord Henry by the grace of God eldest son and heir unto the high, excellent and Christian prince Henry the Fourth (by the aforesaid grace, King of England and of France), Prince of Wales, Duke of Guienne, of Lancaster, and of Cornwall, and Earl of Chester:
"I, your own in every humble way, have ventured to make this little, simple book, which I commend and submit to your noble and wise correction; the book which, if it pleases your aforesaid Lordship, shall be named and called Master, of Game."
And, as noted earlier, shortly after his release from Pevensey Castle Edward was in fact made Master of Game to King Henry, a title which he still held when he died at Agincourt.
Edward, too, clearly stated his preference in hunting: he was interested in hunting and hounds. "For, although hawking with noble hawks for the heron and for waterfowl is noble and commendable," he wrote in his prologue to the young prince, "yet it seldom lasts, at the most, over half the year. And even if man found enough game to hawk at between May and Lammas [August 1], no one could find any hawks to hawk with. But as for hunting, there is no season of all the year that game cannot right well be found in every good region, and also hounds ready to chase it."
Edward's book is for the most part a careful and literal translation of Gaston de Foix's Livre de Chasse, but the additions which he wrote himself are important to historians as well as lovers of the chase. Three centuries and a half had passed since William the Conqueror landed at Hastings and brought French manners and French hunting practices to English soil—and in Edward's added chapters can be seen the influence of Norman French upon an Englishman. His concern is primarily with technique, and rightly so, for, as he says to the young prince: "Although I am unworthy, I am master of this sport with that noble prince your father, the aforesaid sovereign and liege lord of us all. And because I would not want his hunters or yours that now are, or those that come hereafter, to be ignorant of this art in all its perfection, I wish therefore to leave this simple record. For as Chaucer says in his prologue of the 25 good women, 'By writing, men often have memory of things past, for writing is the key of all good remembrance.' "
And in this spirit Edward makes it clear that in England the truly noble sport is running with the hounds; that falconry—so dear to Frederick a century and a half earlier—is less noble and less rewarding; and that cultivation of the art is a responsibility of noblemen and kings. For, having instructed on such matters as "How the Hart Should Be Moved With The Lymer And Run To And Slain With Strength" and "Of the Ordinance And The Manner Of Hunting When The King Will Hunt In Forests Or In Parks For The Hart With Bows And Greyhounds And Stable" and many niceties of technique and ceremonial, he concludes with a restatement of his purpose:
"And in my simple manner as best I could and as might be learned of old and many diverse gentle hunters, I did my business in this rude manner to put the craft and the terms and the exercise of this said game more in remembrance and openly to the knowledge of all lords, ladies, gentlemen and women, according to the customs and manners used in the high noble court of this Realm of England."
Different as they were as men, rulers and even to some degree as sportsmen, Frederick the Emperor, Gaston the Count de Foix and Edward the Duke of York expressed, each in his own way, a creed so rooted in the deepest motivations of huntsmen that it is as true today as it was then, and as dominant in the vastly increased scope of sporting literature. Passion and tradition, in their words, make the art. Passion is the hunter's fundamental driving force—sport is the thing he loves, for its own sake. But tradition shapes it—and for all three of these ancient huntsmen this was as important as the sport itself. For all three ultimately took to the pen to put into words that would long outlive them their own accumulated wisdom and experience—to bequeath, as Frederick put it, "to posterity...a true and careful account of these matters."
And, as Gaston wrote and his translator Edward quotes him: "He never saw a man that loved the toil and the joy of hounds and of hawks who did not have many good habits. For that comes to him from great nobility and gentleness of heart, of whatever rank the man may be, whether a great lord or a small one, a poor one or a rich."