Humans have hunted deer since prehistoric times. What began as an activity necessary for survival has become more of a sport in recent history. Although most people today are able to get their food from a grocery store and get almost anything they need delivered to their door from Amazon, many continue to hunt deer. When people think about hunting deer, they think about how big of a buck they can get or about all of the delicious venison that they’ll have in their freezer for the next few months. During the huge adrenaline rush received after shooting a deer, the last thing people are likely thinking about is how they could make a book. Perhaps surprisingly to most, deer are much more than just their meat and how big their antlers are. Deer appear in books throughout history not only in text but also in the materials used in the making of some of these books.
Deer appear as early as 1477 in English print in Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Of the four times deer were mentioned in this collection of stories, three of them were in relation to hunting. A particularly visual example of deer in early print is Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts from 1658. Topsell goes into great depth of the different kinds of deer and treats deer as a mystical animal with many implications for medicine. Although a lot of Topsell’s information seems misguided such as the idea that deer dung mixed with myrtle oil will prevent hair loss, he provides detailed drawings of different deer and even a few uses for deerskin. He mentions that deerskin can be used in the making of various garments and cushions. Although Topsell doesn't explicitly mention any uses relating to books, the leather used for clothing or cushions could also be used in the binding of books. A slightly more recent and accurate account of deer comes from Georges Buffon’s Natural History, General and Particular [vol. 4]. This book is from 1785 and goes into great detail on how to track and hunt deer stating that hunting is natural to all men. Buffon also states, “The skin and the horns are the most useful parts of this animal” citing uses for leather, cutlery, and medicine.
Leather made from deerskin is the main way deer can be used in the making of books. Leather is made through a process called tanning where the protein structure of the skin is altered, making it more durable. Other than deer, more common types of leather used for bookbinding are calfskin, various goat skins, and pigskin. These leathers are generally more durable and more available than deerskin leather. However, bookbinders use whatever is readily available to them while making books and since deer were so common in England, there are books made with deerskin bindings. One of these books is a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Luke from around 1120. This book was studied by a group of biologists to find out what animals were used in the making of it. These biologists tested proteins from the book by isolating them and analyzing them with a mass spectrometer that analyzed the amino acids. Through this process, they found that the book’s cover was made of leather from a roe deer and the strap was made from either a fallow deer or a red deer. Roe deer and red deer were common deer species in the United Kingdom while fallow deer had just recently been introduced after the invasion of the Normans in 1066.
Even less common than the use of deerskin for the leather in the binding of books is the use of deerskin as vellum or parchment. In the book Bookbinding & Conservation by Hand : a Working Guide Laura Young defines vellum as “animal hides that are preserved by liming and prepared for use by dehairing, scraping, buffing, and washing”. Young does not limit this to certain kinds of animal hide, but we know that vellum was and is generally made from calf, sheep, or goatskin because of the higher quality of vellum and quantity of these animals.
Tanning: Skin to Leather
There are three layers of skin: the epidermis, the corium, and the adipose tissue. The epidermis contains hard surface cells, hair follicles, and pores. The corium is made of a bunch of interwoven collagen fibers. These fibers are what gives the leather its flexibility and strength. The adipose tissue is connective and contains fatty cells. In order to make leather, the butcher removes the skin from the animal, and the tanner removes the epidermis and the adipose layers of the skin leaving the central corium layer. The corium is what is then transformed into leather.
The skin of deer is not the only part of the animal that can be used in bookmaking. The antlers or leg bones of deer can also be used in this process if made into bone folders. Bone folders are tools made for folding either paper or parchment when bookbinding. They can also be used to spread glue, flatten out pages, and to score pages. Bone folders used to be handcrafted from animal bones and while they still can be today, they are more often produced using plastic material.
These images show how an antler can be transformed into bone folders
Next time you are driving and you see a deer crossing the road, think about the ways you now know it can be used in the making of a book. If you are a hunter, don’t just think about the size of the deer and the venison you will get out of it, but also think of the ways you can put the deer hide to use. Try to put yourself in the position of a 12th-century bookbinder and visualize the deer as a vessel of resources needed for making a book.
Topsell, Edward, 1572-1625? The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents : Illustrated with
Divers Hieroglyphicks and Emblems, &c. Both Pleasant and Profitable for Students in All Faculties and Professions. London :Printed by E. Cotes, for G. Sawbridge ... T. Williams ... and T. Johnson ..., 1658.
Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de, 1707-1788. Natural History, General and Particular [vol.4].
London :Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1785.
GibbonsJul, Ann, et al. “Goats, Bookworms, a Monk's Kiss: Biologists Reveal the Hidden
History of Ancient Gospels.” Science, 8 Dec. 2017,
Young, Laura S. Bookbinding & Conservation by Hand : a Working Guide. New York :R.R.
Smith, Philip, 1928-. New Directions in Bookbinding. [New York] :Van Nostrand Reinhold,
Glover, Bronwen. “Making Bone Folders from an Antler” West Dean, West Dean College, 16
McCafferty, Keith. “The Easiest Way to Tan a Deer Hide.” Field & Stream,