Thursday, May 22, 2014

Count Gaston of Foix's noble medieval household

A page from the Chronicles.

Often we read in Amadis of Gaul that he was well received at the castle of a nobleman, but we get few details. Audiences at the time knew what that meant, so there was no need to elaborate. Now, however, it’s not so obvious.

Here is an account of a visit to a noble household by Jean Froissart (1337-1405), a French author who traveled widely. His book, Chronicles, has long been an important source for historians about events in the last half of the 14th century, especially the Hundred Year’s War.

This excerpt is from Book III, Chapter 13, translated by T. Johnes in 1805:

“...The count received me most handsomely, and retained me in his household. Our acquaintance was strengthened by my having brought with me a book which I had made at the desire of Winceslaus of Bohemia, duke of Luxembourg and Brabant; in which book, called Le Meliador, are contained all the songs, ballads, rondelays, and virelays which that gentle duke had composed. Every night after supper I read out to the count parts of it, during which time he and all present preserved the greatest silence; and when any passages were not perfectly clear, the count himself discussed them with me, not in his Gascon language, but in very good French.

I shall now tell you several particulars respecting the count and his household. Count Gascon Phoebus de Foix, at the time of which I am speaking, was about fifty-nine years old; and although I have seen very many knights, squires, kings, princes, and others, I never saw anyone so handsome. He was so perfectly formed that no one could praise him too much.

He loved earnestly the things he ought to love, and hated those which it became him to hate. He was a prudent knight, full of enterprise and wisdom. He never allowed any men of abandoned character to be about him, reigned prudently, and was constant in his devotions. There were regular nocturnals from the psalter, prayers from the rituals to the Virgin, to the Holy Ghost, and from the Office for the Dead.

He had, every day, distributed, as alms at his gate, five florins in small coin, to all comers. He was liberal and courteous in his gifts, and well knew how to take and how to give back.

He loved dogs above all other animals; and during summer and winter amused himself much with hunting. He never indulged in any foolish works or ridiculous extravagances, and took account every month of the amount of his expenditure. He chose twelves of the most able of his subjects to receive and administer his finances, two serving two months each, and one of them acting as the comptroller.

He had certain coffers in his apartment, whence he took money to give to different knights, squires, or gentlemen, when they came to wait on him, for none ever left him without a gift. He was easy of access to all, and entered very freely into discourse, though laconic in his advice and answers.

He employed four secretaries to write and copy his letters, and these were to be in readiness as soon as he left his room. He called them neither John, Walter, nor William, but his good-for-nothings, to whom he gave his letters after he had read them to copy or do anything else he might command.

In such manner lived the Count de Foix. When he quitted his chamber at midnight for supper, twelve servants bore each a lighted torch before him. The hall was full of knights and squires, and there were plenty of tables laid out for any who chose to sup. No one spoke to him at table unless he first began the conversation.

He ate heartily of poultry, but only the wings and thighs. He had great pleasure in hearing minstrels, being himself proficient in the science. He remained at table about two hours, and was pleased whenever fanciful dishes were served up to him – not that he desired to partake of them, but having seen them, he immediately sent them to the tables of his knights and squires.

In short, everything considered, though I had before been in several courts, I never was at one which pleased me more, nor was ever anywhere more delighted with feats of arms. Knights and squires were to be seen in every chamber, hall, and court, conversing on arms and armor.

Everything honorable was to be found there. All intelligence from distant countries was there to be learned; for the gallantry of the count had brought together visitors from all parts of the world....”


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