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.