Deer and Their Journey Through English Literature


The history of deer, how they have appeared in English literature, and been used to make books, takes the attentive learner down a consistently changing pathway of new opinions and perspectives. The most story worthy changes occur throughout the 14-20th century in the way deer are portrayed and interpreted by readers and authors. Although the changes the authors and interpreters of deer provide a more clear narrative, the accompanying use of deer as parts of making books provide an important parallel tale.


Not only to deer have a unique history in the ways they are presented, they also have a history in the way that they are used to physical produce books. Melioria Curci, an authority on paper making and its history gives a detailed report on the process of paper making before the introduction of even semi-modern technology. Melioria notes the process of paper making as early as the 8th century up to the 15th and 16th century. Deer were among the skins used in a multi-step paper making system. Curci goes in depth into seven steps of processing the animal skin into parchment. These steps include, choice of skin, soaking the skin, the liquor bath, removing the hair, resealing and rewashing, stretching, and drying.


After the basic use of deer skin as an alternative to other more popular skins, deer were not the most common choice for paper making or binding. Other animals were more easily accessible or reproduced so they dominated the paper making and binding industry as technology advanced. Deer used in the making of books had all but been erased until modern times. Certain shops and websites will make custom orders for bindings that will incorporate deer hide and bindings at the customers request. Leonard’s book restoration is one of those such businesses. Only through seemingly less frequent requests will Leonard’s bind a book in deer hide. The pattern of deer hides being used as less frequent or viable options seems to be consistent


Another facet of deer that is important to explore is the way they were portrayed in early English literature and how that portrayal changed and, in some ways, remained constant over time. The earliest reference of deer that appeared consistently in a piece of literature were primarily informative pieces. One of the earliest examples of this style of deer in English literature is Topsell’s History of Four Footed Beasts.

Topsell paid remarkably close attention to detail exemplified in his drawings and descriptions


Topsell compiles a remarkably impressive database that covers a multitude of different animals, their behaviors, anatomy, and patterns. Topsell had many in-depth descriptions of multiple types of deer and their species-specific behaviors. What was impressive about Topsell was his ability to distinguish between different types of deer species when the differences were perhaps not that prevalent to the naked eye. What perhaps distinguishes Topsell’s description of these animals is a sometimes mythical parallel he uses in describing deer and other animals. Over a hundred years later in the beginning of the 18th century Buffon published many volumes of A Natural History General and Particular.

Buffon provided mannerisms and behaviors of various species of deer


Buffon’s volumes of natural history are comparable to the entirety of the work of Topsell. Key differences in how deer are represented and explained are noticeable between these two pieces. A perhaps clarifying way to think about these two authors and their explanations of deer is very similar to that of Galen and Vesalius. Galen was the foremost authority on the human body but Vesalius used new technology and more time and data to improve upon his findings. One can think of Buffon acting in the same way. He improves extensively on the behavior and the clarifying marks that distinguish different species of deer and provides accurate drawings to help further clarify this to the reader. He also adds information on hunting and eating the deer which was a pivotal dynamic for many people who relied on the land to feed themselves. Just like Topsell, the referencing of deer in older English texts is typically informative and educational.


As briefly touched on in Topsell’s work, deer, perhaps more than other animals are associated more mythically and idealism. This is pictured perfectly in The Trail of the Sandhill Stag. The story follows a hunter who travels down a physical and mental journey trying to hunt a legendary deer.


A twist of the tale sees the hunter growing closer to the Sandhill Stag


The deer eventually reminds him of his humanity and he decides that he can’t kill this deal once he finds him.


The final contexts deer were most popularized in; were hunting and instruction manuals and magazines. Clearly, deer were a pivotal food source for early and developing civilizations. Thus, hunting became a very popular lens for people to evaluate deer in English literature. White-Tailed Deer by William Newson does a great job of describing various practices he has perfected in his own study and adds recommendable policy towards other hunters. Sporting magazines and even paintings depicted the popularity of hunting in some European countries.


Deer's journey through various mediums of expression throughout the last 700 years is fascinating but does not encapsulate the entire relationship between deer and literature. As described earlier deer certainly played an, albeit limited, role in the physical production of books and other literature. This multi-layered relationship between deer and literature is capture very well in this 19th-century rebinding of a 16th century manual on hunting.


Deer Skin is still visible after a rebind.


This English piece described the noble way to go about hunting and killing deer and strategies to alleviate difficulty. Fascinatingly, this work was rebound in the 19th century covered in deerskin that had not had hair removed. It is exciting to find a work that so well tells this two pronged narrative of the deer's three primary portrayals and their role in the very process and production of the book.

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