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:

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“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.


Horses Ex Machina

A few weeks ago, I walked into my Arthurian Legends class prepared to talk about Arthur’s interactions with petitioners at court–male and female. My students had just read Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth” (in Le Morte Darthur) which offers plenty of material to analyze on this topic. My students, however, wanted to talk about two other things: dwarfs and horses.

For those unfamiliar with Malory’s story, let me give a brief summary: a “Fair Unknown” comes to Arthur’s court, takes on a dangerous quest (after spending a year working in the kitchens and being mocked by Sir Kay), and proves himself by his deeds rather than his name (he is later revealed to be the youngest brother of Sir Gawain). Along the way, he is accompanied by a dwarf who serves as his squire. At one point, the dwarf is kidnapped by those seeking to learn of Gareth’s true identity.

The discussion that followed in our classroom was great–lots of thoughtful commentary on human/animal relationships, object/possessor relationships, and of course, plenty of references to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Tyrion Lannister was a favorite point of reference). Several students were quite dismayed at the high fatality rates for horses in Morte Darthur, and the seemingly-endless supply thereof; one student quipped, quite aptly, I think, “Horses ex machina!


Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r

I’ve been exploring for quite some time now human/non-human relationships in medieval literature, thanks in part to Karl Steel’s How to Make a Human (2011), Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within (1994/2010), and most recently, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters (2012). These works, among others, have helped me greatly in thinking about relationships in the medieval Robin Hood ballads as well as within Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth.”

Within the context of my Arthurian Legends course, though, students were concerned about how  a questing knight would often ride a horse to death and casually leap onto another. Arthur does this early in his reign while hunting:

As soone as he was in the forest / the kynge sawe a grete hert afore hym / this herte wille I chace said kynge Arthur / And so he spored the hors / and rode after longe / And so by fyne force ofte he was lyke to haue smyten the herte / where as the kynge had chaced the herte soo long that his hors had loste hys brethe and fylle doune dede / Thenne a yoman fette the kynge another hors / So the kyng sawe the herte enbusshed and his hors dede / he sette hym doune by a fontayne and there he fell in grete thoughtes . . . (Book 1, Capitulum xix–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Horses are also frequently killed (or severely maimed) during battles, tournaments, and single combat. In that day’s assigned reading, for example, Sir Launcelot encounters Sir Tarquine:

And thēne they put theyr speres in the restys / & cam to gyders with her horses as fast as they myght renne / And eyther smote other in myddes of theyre sheldes that bothe theyre horse backes braste vnder them . . . (Book 6, Capitulum viij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

I didn’t have the heart at that point to tell them about what will happen to Sir Launcelot’s poor horse during the later Mellyagraunce episode (think porcupine, but with arrows).

Several students were frustrated with the knights’ attitudes towards horses–that the knights seemed to see their mounts as objects rather than companions that existed merely for their own benefit, that the knight/horse relationship was in no way reciprocal.

I wish I had come across the “Got Medieval” blog’s entry  “On Horses, Getting Back On Them” prior to the discussion in my Arthurian Legends course. Apparently, there exists several marginal images depicting horses reluctant to allow their armed knights to mount them. Horses are pretty intelligent creatures, after all.

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 96v

My response to my students was to draw upon Jeffrey Jerome Cohen‘s discussion of horses in his “Chevalerie” chapter in Medieval Identity Machines (2003), specifically his use of Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage to make the claim that the knight cannot exist without the horse–that the two are fused together in order to create the identity of the knight as a knight. I also told them about an incident during Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram” (which we had to omit due to lack of time) where Palomides, in a fit of jealousy, deliberately kills Launcelot’s horse. Launcelot, in response, is ready to kill Palomides. Gawain, too, shows great loyalty to his horse Gringolet.

But now, looking back, I wish we had prolonged the discussion. How often will a knight, in the heat of battle, pause to rehorse another knight–sometimes even one whose identity is unknown but whose deeds mark him as worthy? What does this action mean? Does it reinforce the idea that a horse is a piece of property, or is it an acknowledgement of the horse’s importance to the identity of a knight? Is the knight doing the rehorsing thinking of the times he too has lost a horse, a companion, a friend, a comrade-in-arms?

In Book Ten of Morte (still in the adventures of Tristam), King Mark orders Sir Tristram to challenge Sir Lamorak de Galys during a tournament. I find Tristram’s response very interesting:

Syre said sir Tristram ye byd me doo a thynge that is ageynst knyghthode / And wel I can deme that I shal gyue hym a falle / For hit is no maystry / for my hors and I ben fresshe bothe / and so is not his hors and he . . . (Book 10, Capitulum xxxiij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Tristram does not want to fight Sir Lamorak because unlike the latter, he has spent most of the day on the sidelines as an observer. What really interests me, though, is his inclusion of the horses–both his and that of Lamorak–in his consideration. Of course, a weak or injured horse can be a liability, but so too can a weak or injured knight in that he can make errors in judgement that can lead to the horse’s injury or death. But might this be an acknowledgement that horses are more than vehicles for knightly prowess?

Although I’ve loved horses my entire life, I’ve had few up-close encounters with them–as a teenager, my neighbors would allow me to stroke their horses’ noses, and during a semester abroad in college, I took an Equestrian Studies course in England. I’ve always seen intelligence and compassion in the eyes of every horse I’ve met, but I do not know horses as well as I would like.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand . . . I can’t remember a time when I did not have either as a companion, and the majority of my life, I’ve had both. When I first moved to Colorado, our cats remained in Kansas with my spouse for the first month or so, and let me tell you, never has a house felt less like a home.

More recently, following my spinal surgery, my cats were a near constant presence. They snuggled with me to comfort me during the endless pain-filled nights preceding the surgery, and they kept me company afterwards.


In this picture, the boys are getting ready to duke it out for the heating pad that I had just vacated.

Just now, as I write this, another one of my cats just settled down next to me. Although she’s a little grumpy that my lap is currently occupied by my computer, her body is positioned alongside my thigh and she is purring. I’m sitting on a couch, and there is plenty of room–but right now, she finds comfort in being this close to me. And I have to say that the feeling is mutual.

My cats are a vital part of my family. They are not possessions. Each has such a unique personality and we relate to one another in very different ways.

Growing up, my family always had German Shepherds. One in particular still holds a special place in my heart–Ivory. She was a pure-bred white shepherd, and she accompanied my father and me the first summer that we spent hiking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. She was . . . not stupid . . . but sometimes I wondered what was going on in her head. She was the sort to chase anything. A huge black snake, a stag with an impressive rack, a fully-grown black bear. Thank goodness none of these creatures ever bothered to look behind them.

One of my most vivid memories of Ivory took place just north of Damascus, a small city just inside the border of Virginia. The shelter we stayed in that night was in the middle of a forest, and yet, just behind the shelter was a beautiful, small meadow. If you’ve ever seen a fox leaping up into the air and diving down into the snow as it hunts, or if you’ve seen a deer bounding away across a field, then you can imagine how my Ivory pounced. I loved watching her, and she and I spent a good part of that evening chasing each other through that meadow, now lit by the setting sun.

Another memory of Ivory remains. As I noted in an earlier blog post, I liked to . . . well, I liked to take my time while hiking. I liked to look for salamanders under logs. I liked to pause when the forest yielded a panoramic vista of the valleys below. I liked to look at the trees and the plants and the birds, and well, you get the idea. My father, on the other hand, was all business when it came to hiking. Get up and get going. Resting was for after you set up camp at the end of the day. So Ivory got into the habit of traveling between us. Somewhere in Tennessee, the trail crossed a gravel road. For once, I wasn’t very far behind my father, so when I came to the road, I saw my father just beyond, with Ivory in the middle of the road, waiting for me to catch up.

Just then, a pickup truck filled with young men came roaring down the road.

To my horror, Ivory just stood there, unsure of which one of us to run to.

When the driver of the truck saw Ivory in the middle of the road, he sped up.

Thankfully, Ivory ran to me just in time. My dad, furious, screamed at the departing truck, throwing rocks at them. The people in the truck kept going, and we, terribly shaken, left the road for the safety of the forest. Although I did not let any physical distance build up between us, my dad spoke very little to me the rest of the day.

Losing Ivory would have been the same as losing a friend, a sibling, a parent.

Medieval theologians for the most part did not question whether or not non-human animals had souls; for many, the possession of a soul was unique to humans. There were a few who did not accept this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that an animal’s soul dissolved upon the moment of death while Adelard of Bath noted that because animals “have sensation and the judgement to desire or avoid things” (Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets 2), they must possess souls.

I know where I stand on the question. There’s no doubt in my mind that they do.

Of course, we must be careful lest we impose our modern perceptions on the medieval period, but this is where Susan Crane’s excellent book Animal Encounters has helped my thinking–specifically her first chapter which discusses the Irish poem “Pangur Bán” in order to break down the distinction between human and non-human. In fact, here’s the image from the cover of her book:


From the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

I love this image. When I first saw it, I thought the horses were hugging (and thankfully, I’m not the only person to have thought this–in fact, the Medieval manuscripts blog at the British Library has composed an entry to clarify the issue here). The horses are, like the two knights alongside them, engaged in combat. If horses were indeed dumb beasts, mere vehicles to their knights, wouldn’t they, when their riders alight, stand passively by (or, overwhelmed by the noise of battle, run away)? Horses have a long history of being trained for battle–of learning to strike out at enemies with their hooves–but it’s my understanding that they do so only as a result of specific instructions given to them by their riders.

Why, then, do these two horses fight? Might it be, as the Medieval manuscripts blog suggests, drawing upon entries in medieval bestiaries, out of a sense of loyalty to their knights? The parallelism in the positions of the horses relative to the knights is striking; the feet of the knight/horse on the left is just slightly raised in comparison to the knight/horse on the right, and the arm/head and front leg of the knight/horse on the left falls between the viewer and the body of the knight/horse on the right. If the horse fights, out of loyalty (as opposed to a result of its training), this suggests to me more of a partnership.

But I’ve rambled on for long enough. Let me close with this final image, from one of the Reynard the Fox manuscripts; here Tybalt the “Prince of Cats” taunts Reynard as he rides off on a horse.

Go give your furry friend some love, will ya?

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Roman de Renart; Paris, BnF, Fr. MS 12584, fol. 63r

Forest Management

We’re moving in less than a week, and I find myself wondering how on earth I’m going to get everything packed.

But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to go through everything and purge the household of a lot of things we no longer use. That stuffed cat massager that’s been hiding at the back of the hall closet? Goodwill. That metallic shoe rack? Goodwill. That beautiful yellow prom dress that my grandmother gave me when I was in college (come on–there’s no way I could pull off yellow with my complexion)? Goodwill. The husband’s made several trips already.

When we first moved here, it was in stages. I moved out first, with just the essentials (read: the cats) while my husband stayed with his job until he found a new one here in Colorado. Later, the rental house that we had lived in previously sold, so the husband lived in his mom’s basement for a few months until he moved out here with me permanently. That meant that the husband packed up everything in the rental house. And I mean everything, even if we no longer used it. I wasn’t there to supervise or help pack, so rather than wonder if we really needed something, he (and my parents, who helped him pack up the house) put it on the truck. I was pregnant and exhausted, so I didn’t go through all of the boxes. And I learned what “packing” meant to him. He would take a large box–say, three feet high by two feet wide and long–take one of his desk drawers, and dump it into the box. With a layer of about 4-5 inches of stuff, he would then tape the box shut. Needless to say, once we decided to move this time, I told him to leave all the packing to me, and he graciously accepted (he gets the bulk of the cleaning in return; a fair trade to my mind).

So today, as I was weeding through a pile of dresses, I found myself thinking back to the various weddings at which several were worn (a favorite was a spaghetti-strap black floor-length one–it had a long and wispy cape-thing in the back, perfect for the “I’m Batman” look). Many of these dresses only saw the light of day once, and they’re too fancy to teach in. So which box do they go in? Goodwill or new house? The husband wandered in and began looking through the donation pile. “How can you get rid of your sunflower dress?” he teased. “You’re denying your Kansas roots.” The sunflower dress went, but many more stayed. Even if I never wear them again, they still remind me of friends I no longer see, of the joy of sharing momentous occasions with loved ones. Of being younger and healthier and skinnier.

It’s hard to declutter.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both Biology and English, and one of my favorite science classes was Wildlife Ecology. Not only did we learn about best practices for forest management at the time. We also learned some of the history of forest management practices and how they evolved over time. It’s always fun to think about how the classes I took as an undergraduate still influence what I do today. My love of Celtic mythology came from a class in which we read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and a recent academic project deals with medieval forest management in the Robin Hood ballads.

Not only is it difficult to declutter a house–there’s a lot of junk in my mind (clearly).

But back to my point. Forest management has changed drastically over the years. During the Middle Ages, coppicing was a common treatment of trees to ensure faster and plentiful growth.

People still coppice trees today (I accidentally did this to a tree in my front yard before I learned what coppicing was) but not as frequently (there’s mixed feelings as to its sustainability and efficacy). Here’s what a forest that has been heavily coppiced looks like:

During the Middle Ages, the forests belonged to the king, and from the time of William the Conqueror and on, several laws–the “Forest Laws” were established to protect forested areas and its wild inhabitants. Not out of any sense of ecological sustainability or love of nature, mind you–rather, the kings of England loved to hunt, and they wanted to be sure to have plenty of game when the desire arose. This is the main offense of Robin Hood and other medieval outlaws–he hunted the king’s deer. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, the king arrives in Northern England, and he retires to one of his reserves to hunt:

All the compasse of Lancasshyre
He went both ferre and nere,
Tyll he came to Plomton Parke;
He faylyd many of his dere.

There our kynge was wont to se
Herdes many one,
He coud unneth fynde one dere,
That bare ony good horne. (1425-32)

Now, I have my own ideas as to why the king does not find any deer, but I’m not going to go into that here.

I’ve been to a few of these royal parks–one just this last summer–and I was very fortunate each time to not have the king’s luck. Years ago, I saw two stags fighting, and this last summer, at Fountains Abbey, I saw a herd of fallow and red deer:

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Notice that it’s not a heavily forested area in the sense that there are not a lot of trees. Rather, medieval “forests” often encompassed quite a range of landscapes (after all, the word “forest” is from the Latin forīs, “out of doors.” Wood, in addition to venison, was always a highly-sought after commodity during the Middle Ages. Thus, not only did the Forest Laws restrict locals from harvesting the deer; as Jean Birrell notes, “it was forbidden even to remove a branch from a tree” (“The Medieval English Forest” 78). Collecting downed wood was okay, but it was illegal to sell the wood. Of course, many people broke these laws (and the Crown was often okay with it because the fines that were developed to deal with vert and venison offenses brought in significant amounts of revenue). People still used forested areas for livestock such as pigs, horses, and cattle, and the landscape would benefit from the droppings left behind by the grazing animals. The collection of branches on the ground would help prevent clutter that could result in large wildfires.

Later periods saw carefully cultivated forest areas, where human senses of order were imposed on landscapes. Any undergrowth was considered “clutter” and removed, trees were shaped and spaced neatly in lines (sorry that I can’t remember the specifics, and my wildlife ecology book is packed away!). These highly artificial forest management trends were quite harmful in that they discouraged the biodiversity that a healthy landscape needed. Fallen trees and branches were removed, with the result that small creatures could not use them for homes, and any nutrients and minerals that had been locked inside of the wood could not then return to the soil through the process of decomposition.

Fortunately, our senses of forest management have evolved to the point where we understand that the “clutter” is necessary. We do controlled burns here and there, which help to decrease the intensity of naturally-occurring wildfires and which also benefit the local ecology by returning nutrients back to the soil.

But are we really necessary to the process, or is this yet more evidence of our anthropocentric perspective, our need to master nature? I remember hiking through a section of the Appalachian Trail after Hurricane Hugo hit. Thanks to many crews–paid and volunteer–the trail had been cleared of major debris (someone wrote “Hugo was here” on one of the tree trunks along the trail), but even so, the damage was extensive. Massive trees had been uprooted, and trunks were splintered. But the only real reason why the crews were so hard at work was for the human element–so that hikers could get through. The forest would survive. It would regrow. Hurricanes–like the wildfires in Yellowstone–had hit that region before, and they would do so again. We weren’t needed.

Too bad my clutter is not so self-sufficient. So, back to packing and decluttering. As I manage the urban forest around me, I hope that I’m not adding to the waste but rather contributing to the cycle of exchange, at least in some small part.

Copses and Cathedrals

I work on a beautiful campus. You don’t believe me? Take a look:

P07-17-15_11-11Lots of trees and green open spaces. The buildings . . . well, they’re buildings. To be honest, I don’t really pay much attention to a building unless it has medieval connections. So much for American architecture.

I’ve enjoyed walking around campus this summer, taking much needed breaks from my window-less office to get some sun and fresh air. I tend to follow the same route each time, and I enjoy noticing things that I’ve missed on previous passes. This is my favorite part of my walk:

P07-17-15_10-47It’s not particularly beautiful, but what I love about it is the smell. See that pine tree along the path? It’s one of many, and they’re up on a hill, which means that each time I walk by, the breeze fills my nostrils with the scent of pine. And each time, I’m reminded of hiking in Vermont years ago.

When I graduated from college, my parents’ gift to me was a summer-long hiking trip with my father. We chose to do the Long Trail, which runs the vertical length of the state of Vermont, beginning near Williamstown, Massachusetts, and ending at the Canadian border, for a total of 273 miles.


I had spent previous summers hiking in Wyoming, Tennessee, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, and a variety of other areas within the continental US, but this would be my longest continuous hike. I still vividly remember that first day. We had parked near the trailhead–the shelter where we would stay that night was just a few miles in–and once we set up camp, my dad hiked back down to move the car to a more permanent spot. That left me in the forest for a few hours. What do I remember from that first day? Lots of noises. Strange rustlings, eerie creakings. I knew it was just chipmunks and squirrels foraging and the wind blowing through the trees, but it was still spooky, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into that summer.

But the uneasiness quickly passed, and the summer progressed. And I’m glad that I persisted. The view from Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak at 4,393 feet–yeah, I know, it’s just a baby compared to the Colorado 14ers) was spectacular, and once we had finished the trail, we stopped at Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire, and from its summit, we could see the entire line of peaks we had just spent the summer climbing (and the blueberries along the trail were ripe and plentiful–yum!).

Not my picture (from http://www.juskuz.com/2012/09/25/hiking-mt-mansfield/), but this is definitely similar to what I remember seeing at the summit of Mount Mansfield!

My favorite parts of the trail that summer, though, were not the spectacular vistas (of which there were many), but rather the deep forests through which we walked. I don’t have any pictures of these places, but they are etched in my memory. Thick, rugged trees holding up dense canopies, and underfoot, layers upon layers of pine needles and velvety moss. Thin rays of light illuminate the surroundings just enough that you have no real sense of what time it is. And the air. So still, yet so . . . pungent. Full of life. And the intoxicating smell of pine. Not the oppressive, menacing forest of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood. Far from it. But rather, a step back in time, as cliched as that may be. A timeless place.

A religious place.

I love cathedrals. Whenever I manage to travel to Europe, I have two objectives: visit a castle and visit a cathedral (or other old church). I love the history, and I love the stillness. The vertical lines of the architecture. This summer, I visited Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks:

P07-03-15_06-22The abbey was abandoned in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape were stunning. Had I not been pressed for time, I would have lay beneath those monumental beams for hours. Yet these masterpieces of human artifice, which seek to reach to the heavens themselves, are nothing compared to those ancient forests just below the treeline in Vermont (I’ve stumbled across a few places in Colorado that reminded me of Vermont, but just a few–the mountains here are called the Rockies with good reason!).

I think some of my preference for copses over cathedrals stems from my childhood. I have a distant memory of a church service held in the woods–whether it is real or due to a painting by my grandfather, I’m not sure. Summers were spent in the mountains whenever possible, and like my father before me, my idea of getting away from it all is to go to the mountains.

As a result, I find myself drawn to descriptions of forests in medieval literature. Two that immediately come to mind are the following:

The Awntyrs Off Arthur (late 14th – early 15th century)

Then durken the dere in the dymme skuwes,
That for drede of the deth droupes the do.
And by the stremys so strange that swftly swoghes
Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (53-58)

Whenever I teach this poem, I’m always struck by the sound in these lines. The hard stops of /d/ that evoke the deer as they are driven into the depths of the forest (King Arthur and his hunting party in pursuit), interrupted by the fricatives /s/ that accompany the stream of water that suddenly splashes across the page.

Or this excerpt from the fifteenth-century ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk”:

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,

To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene wode tre. (1-8)

This is a much more peaceful moment, one where the forest is bursting with fertility and bird song. When Robin and his men appear, they are not threatening or disruptive; they are as much at home in the forest as are the deer that they illegally hunt.

But in neither text does the forest take on any religious dimension. For that, we’d need to turn to another favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain must find the Green Knight, in the mysterious Green Chapel, within a year to meet the demands of a contest. Gawain must travel through treacherous landscapes:

Þay bo3en bi bonkkez þer bo3ez ar bare,
Þay clomben bi clyffez þer clengez þe colde.
Þe heuen watz vphalt, bot vgly þer-vnder;
Mist muged on þe mor, malt on þe mountez,
Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge.
Brokez byled and breke bi bonkkez aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schorez, þer þay doun schowued.
Wela wylle watz þe way þer þay bi wod schulden (2078-84)
Here’s Tolkien’s translation of these lines:
They go by banks and by braes where branches are bare,
they climb along cliffs where clingeth the cold;
the heavens are lifted high, but under them evilly
mist hangs moist on the moor, melts on the mountains;
every hill has a hat, a mist-mantle huge.
Brooks break and boil on braes all about,
bright bubbling on their banks where they bustle downwards.
Very wild through the wood is the way they must take . . .
Again, there’s a lot of emphasis on the sounds as well as the visual imagery. When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, it is nothing like what he expected:
And þenne he wayted hym aboute, and wylde hit hym þo3t,
And se3e no syngne of resette bisydez nowhere,
Bot hy3e bonkkez and brent vpon boþe halue,
And ru3e knokled knarrez with knorned stonez;
Þe skwez of þe scowtes skayned hym þo3t.
Þenne he houed, and wythhylde his hors at þat tyde,
And ofte chaunged his cher þe chapel to seche:
He se3 non suche in no syde, and selly hym þo3t,
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A bal3 ber3 bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a for3 of a flode þat ferked þare;
Þe borne blubred þerinne as hit boyled hade. (2163-2174)

Tolkien’s translation:

And then he gazed all about; a grim place he thought it,
and saw no sign of shelter on any side at all,
only high hillsides sheer upon either hand,
and notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders;
the very skies by the peaks were scraped, it appeared.
Then he halted and held in his horse for the time,
and changed oft his front the Chapel to find.
Such on no side he saw, as seemed to him strange,
save a mound as it might be near the marge of a green,
a worn barrow on a brae by the brink of a water,
beside falls in a flood that was flowing down;
the burn bubbled therein, as if boiling it were.

There’s a lot of scholarship on this grassy mound as the Green Chapel, so I won’t go into that, but consider this harsh landscape. Just as cathedrals sought to raise their walls to the heavens, so too do the hillsides here. This chapel even has its own baptismal font. But like the other two passages I’ve offered above, while there is much to take in aurally, from the onomatopoeia in Awntyrs to the explicit presence of birdsong in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” there’s no indication of smell. That sense which evokes distant memories for me of my time in Vermont is absent in these medieval accounts. Why?

I’ve been reading through Paul Freedman’s book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2009) this summer, and one of the many things that I’m taking away from it is the emphasis on smell. Freedman writes, “Medieval people were impressed by wonderful smells rather than the absence of any scent . . . . a panoply of unpleasant smells was no doubt unavoidable in everyday life . . . [such as] excrement, animals, sickness, sweat, dirt, the effects of such noxious enterprises as tanneries or smelters. It is precisely because of this inevitable familiarity with awful odors that people in premodern societies were entranced with beautiful smells” (81). As a result, spices were in great demand in part due to their aromas, and one of the markers of sainthood was a pleasant smell emanating from the corpse after death. If you travel to the city of York, you can partake in the Jorvik experience in which a Viking town is recreated–down to the very smell! Several Old English poems–The Panther, The Whale, The Phoenix–describe fantastical creatures with strong smells.

But why don’t the forests of Middle English literature smell? Why is there no commentary on the crispness of the air? The earthy aroma wafting up when the leaves are disturbed underfoot? Did medieval people ever experience the forest as a cathedral? Earlier religions–especially those practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples–worshiped trees, but with the arrival of Christianity, many, if not all, of the sacred groves would have been destroyed. Perhaps, given the prevalence of incense used in medieval church services, they were so accustomed to associating the aroma of incense with a religious experience, and so they would have no call to link the forests with such. But since medieval people appreciated pleasant smells, was it just that the forest odor did not appeal to them? I know one thing for sure–I’m going to keep an eye out for any olfactory details in the next Middle English romance that I read.