In addition to my chair duties, I am teaching one course this semester, a survey of English history from the Roman era through the Tudors. This is a long period, and in order to add more depth to a course that is more characterized by breadth I’m going to bring quite a few illuminated manuscripts (digitally) into the classroom for my students to view and analyze. While I was reacquainting myself with some of my favorites this past weekend (via the extraordinary resource that is the British Library’s digital catalog of illuminated manuscripts), I seemed to be seeing lots of deer in the margins, and stags in particular: stags alone, stags as prey, stags with satyrs, stags with serpents (which they can apparently drive out of the ground) and stags parading with other animals. Stags appear not only in medieval bestiaries (encyclopedias of animals) but also in herbals (encyclopedias of plants) because the hardened cartilage of their hearts–os de cor de cervi–was used in medical preparations.
A selection of stags from the British Library Department of Manuscripts: Arundel, Egerton, and Royal Mss., circa 1280-1490.
The image of the stag persists into the modern era in visual and material culture more as a symbol of majesty and the (receding) forest than a feature of everyday life. There is the statuesque, noble stag, the leaping stag, and of course, the stag head–a hunting motif that has gained a more general popularity in the last decade or so. I prefer my deer with their bodies attached, so here are a few favorite images from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum: leaping deer on a Meissen plate from the late 18th century, and Foxton furnishing fabric and a Susie Cooper figurine, both from the 1930s. Cooper (1902-1995), the dominant ceramics designer of the twentieth century, loved the leaping deer motif so much that she used it as her company logo and trademark.
I use a lot of deer for my Christmas decorating, and as I’ve had neither the time or the inclination to do my typical January purge, there’s still quite a few stags around the house. And I’ve had my eye on the Nico Masemula stag at Anthropologie for the last couple of months, now fortunately (for my wallet) sold out.