Oh, Deer! Reflections on Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse

This summer, I’ll be presenting a paper at the 23rd International Medieval Congress in the UK on the hunting scenes in A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. I won’t go into much detail in terms of my specific argument, but in preparation, I’ve been researching medieval deer and deer parks quite a lot recently. Part of my interest stems from visits to deer parks. Most recently, I visited the medieval deer park at Fountains Abbey where I was fortunate enough to come across a group of fallow and red deer (about ten total) resting in the shade of a large tree.


Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

The park attendant had warned me that I was very unlikely to see any deer as it was midsummer and midday, but I was determined, and so I left the main trail and wandered deeper into the meadow. There was the occasional sun-bleached branch laying tauntingly in the grass, causing my hopes to soar; might those be antlers? Time and again, they were just branches.

When I first saw the group in the picture above, I doubted I would be so lucky; where best to find fallen branches, after all, than beneath an ancient tree? But as I walked closer, the heads came into view. I stood there for several minutes, aching to get closer but not wanting to spook the creatures, berating myself for not getting a decent camera (the picture above was taken with my camera phone). The deer were clearly aware of my presence; there was a light breeze that no doubt brought my scent to them, and they watched me warily.

Eventually, they tired of my intrusion and rose to their feet. There was no urgency to their movements, but they walked purposefully away from me and out of sight.

"Hunting and Taking the Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

“Hunting and Taking the Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

My experience that day was quite different from what I typically encounter in medieval literature. In the midst of the medieval hunt, the deer’s movements are rapid and frantic. Often manuscript illustrations, such as the image above, depict the deer in flight with hunters in close pursuit. As the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals, the medieval hunt was often a noisy affair:

At þe fyrst quethe of þe quest quaked þe wylde;
Der drof in þe dale, doted for drede,
Hiȝed to þe hyȝe, bot heterly þay were
Restayed with þe stablye, þat stoutly ascryed. (Fitt 3, Stanza 47)

This is reinforced in the image above by the hunters blowing upon their horns and the hounds baying in excitement. Many scholars have explored this type of hunt in great detail; see, for example, Susan Crane’s brilliant book Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. And of course, there were plenty of poachers who relied upon stealth, so I don’t mean to imply that all hunts were vociferous affairs. But I’m interested in the general atmosphere of the deer park–not just the moments in which the hunts take place.

The 1407 edition of Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse (the entire manuscript is available online here) contains several images of deer, and not all of them capture the hunt. Consider this image, which appears early in the text:

"The Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

“The Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

The deer in this image are clearly at rest; a hind and her young lay comfortably on the grass while others graze nearby. This is a moment in which their defenses have been lowered. Those who bow their heads to the ground are for the moment unable to catch the scent of any intruder while those who reach to nibble foliage are physically less able to respond to any threat. True, there are others on guard in this image, but I love that the illustrator has captured so many poses in one small image. Here’s another similar depiction:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 10.57.14 AM

“The Roe” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 14)

The roe deer was slightly smaller than the hart, but still, we see these deer engaged in similar occupations, with the addition of two males at the top engaged in combat (I can’t tell if they are play-fighting or if they are in earnest).

One thing that I appreciate about Gaston Phoebus’s manuscript is that it shows us a different side to humanity’s relationship with deer than that so frequently depicted in medieval romance (including, but certainly not limited to Malory’s Le Morte Arthur, Awntyrs off Arthure, The Avowyng of Arthur, and of course the Tristan romances!). Consider this next image:

"Listening for the Hart's Bell" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

“Listening for the Hart’s Bell” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

The presence of a human does not always necessitate fear and flight among herds of deer. Yes, the man appears to be hiding behind a tree, but there is no doubt that the deer are aware of his presence. While the man is surveying the herd to determine which specific deer he will encourage his lord to pursue, the deer do not view him as an immediate threat. Here’s the description of the image from the Morgan Library & Museum website:

During the month of September when the male hart was in rut, its belling, or roaring, would permit a trained hunter to locate and judge it by ear alone. In the upper left of the miniature are two great old harts belling, extending their necks, and showing their teeth in order to attract the females opposite them.

Here in Colorado, I’ve lost count of the number of encounters I’ve had with deer. When I first moved here, I spent an afternoon hiking up the aptly named Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not surprisingly, along the trail was a small group of mule deer–perhaps six or seven–casually grazing.We like to get up to the park early in the morning, have breakfast, and then hit the trails, and one morning, a young doe strolled by us as we munched away on sausage, biscuits, and eggs.


And it’s not a proper visit to the park if we’ve not seen at least one elk. Going up to the mountains is particularly fun in the fall when the rutting season takes place. Hearing the elk bugle is quite an experience, and we’ve had to wait patiently as large herds of elk crossed the road. One male with an impressive rack, stood firm in the middle of the road, glaring at us in our cars while the rest of the herd made its way across.

We were even fortunate enough to see two moose a few summers ago as they waded across the shallow Sprague Lake. Having reached a particularly fertile spot in the water, they stood patiently, munching away on vegetation as people gathered on the shores to snap pictures.

Moose August 2011

Each of these encounters shows how accustomed deer and their relatives can become when they are exposed to humans repeatedly and, perhaps more importantly, are exposed in an environment in which they are not preyed upon by humans. This is often the case, I am learning, in many of the medieval deer parks.

One of the texts that I’ve been reading is John Fletcher’s 2011 Gardens of Earthly Delight: The History of Deer Parks. Fletcher is the “UK’s most pre-eminent deer vet” (you can read more about him here), and his book is incredibly well-researched and compelling.


I’m only a few chapters in so far, but it’s been fascinating (and can I nerd out for a moment and comment on the rich irony of his last name?!?). For so long, humanity’s relationship with deer has centered on control. Stone-age evidence reveals artificial structures designed to help drive and capture deer, as well as the transportation of deer across waterways in order to establish deer populations in a wider variety of places–both are practices still continued today. Antlers helped in the evolution of humanity as well–I had not been aware of how important they were, both in shaping the flint tools that enabled humans to bring down larger prey and in enabling early humans to break open bones to reach the nutrient-rich marrow that propelled the development of our brains.

Fletcher also discusses the domestication of deer and how they can be trained to come to humans even for just a handful of grain. It is surprising, he notes, that deer have not been domesticated as cows and pigs have been, but Fletcher’s hypothesis is that this is due in part to the ritualistic significance of the deer hunt and the strategy and skill often needed in pursuit of the deer. Indeed, as Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, in his fifteenth-century hunting treatise The Master of Game, writes, “The hertes bene the liȝtest beestes and stronge and mervelously of grete connyng” (15). The deer is often described as a noble creature (and bestiaries often imbue deer with religious significance–see, for example, the Aberdeen Bestiary’s description of deer here). In Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, deer are not the only creatures featured–illustrations of hares, bears, wild goats, badgers and wild boars appear, among others–but only the deer require subterfuge.

The illustrations of the other hunted animals show no physical separation between the hunter and the hunted; for example, here’s the illustration of the hare hunt:

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“Shooting Hares with Bows” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 107)

In the medieval deer park, then, an artificial structure, the hunt becomes particularly complicated due to the context of human-deer relations. Depending on the frequency of the king’s attendance, deer may become very lax in an environment where they have few predators (beyond the occasional poacher). They may become accustomed to caretakers who hover on the periphery, maintaining a watchful eye on their “livestock,” if you will, noting the ages of the males, the richness of their droppings, et cetera. Perhaps it is in these precise settings that the noise of the medieval hunt–the baying of the hounds, the sounding of the horns, the jostling of the horses–becomes particularly necessary in order to jostle the deer out of their complacency and to add challenge to the hunt. Those deer parks where the deer are less accustomed to human presence–or perhaps are hunted more frequently–may be the sites where the elaborate blinds are needed.

Of course, there are other considerations–the number of deer being hunted, the social class(es) of the hunters, the size of the hunting party, the purpose of the hunt, the skills and/or preferences of the hunters, etc.–but to what extent is the medieval hunt impacted by the centuries of human-deer interactions?

As always, thanks for reading.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.


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