In the Pursuit of Venison
Part One

ImageDeer, once an important cultural symbol of Western Civilization, have slowly lost the meaning and importance they once so proudly held. In early 21st century America the usefulness of this noble animal has been more or less degraded to an annual licensed season where, temporarily, they regain their status of old as beasts of the hunt. The rest of the year, however, they are considered destructive and a nuisance - many a farmer and gardener have crops ruined by foraging deer, and their errant wanderings across busy highways and roads lead to automobile accidents which cause injury and even death to both deer and motorist. Thanks to Walt Disney and Bambi there is a sort of fuzzy affection for the beast, but for modern man, deer are mostly bothersome creatures one sees tied to the top of pick-up trucks every Autumn, or lying dead next to the highway in various decaying pieces.

To medieval man, however, deer were more than just an annoying nuisance and occasional object of the hunt; they were a primary source of food, resources, and inspiration. In addition to providing an important source of diet and protein for much of the medieval population, their hides made excellent leather suitable for clothing and other necessary items, and their bones and antlers were carved into useful and decorative objects. Artists lavishly used the deer for both imagery and symbolism in paintings, tapestries, manuscripts, and even embroidery. They were the subjects of stories and myths, and in their pursuit man found great entertainment and sport.

Kings and the upper classes prized the deer and called it a noble beast, and hunting them for game became an honor that was usually reserved for "gentlemen." Peasants were forbidden by law to hunt any large animals, and many of the deer used for food purposes usually came from reserved stocks and deer parks. Hunting & killing a deer on restricted land could often mean death or long imprisonment for an unlucky commoner. Today for illegally killing a deer the State Police will simply haul the offender off to court and lavish a fine. Unpleasant, but far less severe.

Medieval man, not blessed with gun or car, killed his deer with bow and arrow, an often dangerous pursuit for both hunter & beast. (A famous example is King William II, who was accidentally killed in the New Forest while hunting a stag.) To bring the animal down quickly some form of poison was often used. The 14th c. Goodman of Paris recommended the following procedure:

"Poison for killing a stag or wild boar: Take the root of wolfsbane, pound it in a mortar, put it in a sack or small cloth, and squeeze it to get the juice. Put this juice in a dish in the sun, and at night keep it under cover and dry so that no water or moisture can touch it. Move it in and out of the heat until it is glutinous and formed like thickened wax, and then put it in a tightly closed box. When you want to shoot an arrow, put some of it between the barbs and the iron socket, so that the beast will be struck down when it hits and makes contact with the flesh. If the iron is not smeared in this way, when it enters the skin of the beast, the ointment stays there and the strike will be worth nothing."

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In the Pursuit of Venison © 1997-2005 by James L. Matterer
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