The medieval Viscounty of Béarn occupied a strategic position at the crossroad of dominions held by France to the northeast, England to the northwest, and Aragon to the south. Extending from the Pyrenees to the plains of the river Gave de Pau, the territory benefited from its position straddling ancient trade routes that continued to provide a corridor linking French Languedoc and the kingdom of Aragon with the English ports of Bordeaux and Aquitaine. A new chapter in the history of Béarn began in the late thirteenth century when the Count of Foix married the last of the ruling Moncade dynasty. Although the area, population and economic output of these newly combined territories were not exceptional, Foix-Béarn soon emerged as a disproportionally important geo-political unit. The independent and often conflicting histories of its different constituent parts resulted in complicated and unstable feudal allegiances, which gave the Counts considerable room for manoeuvre when dealing with the feuding powers in the Hundred Years War. In the period that interests us here, these assets were skilfully exploited by the most famous representative of the House of Foix-Béarn, Gaston III ‘Fébus’ of Foix, who enjoyed an often tempestuous rule from 1343 to 1391.
Under Gaston’s rule, Foix-Béarn was first a local nuisance for the French crown but ultimately it became a linchpin for its international ambitions. As befitting an important political centre, the production, performance and circulation of poetry, music, and literature of different kinds thrived at Gaston Fébus’s court, which was had its main seat in Orthez in Béarn. Indeed, the Count himself demonstrated personal interest in the patronage and distribution of such cultural capital, and he even turned his own hand to literary composition. This chapter surveys the cultural transformation of Béarn under Gaston Fébus and his immediate successors. It explores Gaston’s patronage of native and local traditions, and his apparent participation in the poetry competitions of the Jocs Floraux in Toulouse, and how his tastes grew increasingly cosmopolitan in line with his political pretentions. From the 1360s onwards, his brilliant court became a hub for the most up-to-date products of French literary and musical culture. He is thought to have owned a copy of Machaut’s Voir dit and possibly one of the spectacular manuscripts containing the poet-composer’s entire output. The poet-chronicler Froissart visited Orthez in the late 1380s and read to him his Arthurian romance, Meliador. Several songs surviving from that time attest to the Count’s taste for the most avant-garde songs of the French tradition. Gaston Fébus also bequeathed from his own pen two works in French, including the celebrated hunting book that circulated widely amongst the European nobility for decades to come.