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The deer fancied a writ or two….!

from here.

When it comes to deer and the medieval period, we always think of the poor things being hunted for their venison and everything else. But it seems that they were sometimes kept in the house! Not just a casual break-in as in the image above, but actually being there all the time.

Hard to imagine having a large hart wandering around the home as if it were the mistress’s cat or master’s dog. But it did happen, and here is an amusing anecdote to prove the point:

“….We know from a letter circa 1280….that John of Maidstone paid a visit to Gregory de Rokesle, then mayor of London. With him, he brought some writs from court, which he left on a counter in Gregory’s chamber, presumably for his review, before they were dispatched to Boston and elsewhere. This routine matter was disrupted, however, when a hart (the male red deer), which was in the house, entered the chamber and devoured the writs. The mayor was forced to write to John de Kirkby, the keeper of the chancery rolls, to ask for duplicates….”

The above paragraph was taken from this website.

I am reminded irresistibly of the (apocryphal?) story of Henry VII’s pet monkey, which was allowed such free rein that it was loathed by courtiers. Henry, as we know, kept a little (black?) book in which he jotted down things people said or he’d heard (or his accounts, depending on where you read the tale). That book was mightily feared. Then, one blessed day, the monkey destroyed the book in a fit of pique. The court changed its opinion of him…but Henry, being Henry, merely started another book….! 

The magical white hart….

white hart - daily mail

And lo! There I was, searching for information about white harts, and the Daily Mail comes up with a timely article!  The white hart was always a very mystical creature, and seeing this photograph, I can see why. I can also see why Richard II chose it as his personal emblem/badge.

 

Unicorn, Unicorn! Wherefore art thou Unicorn….?

Lady_and_the_unicorn_Sight

Unicorns do not exist. They never have. Well, that is the general consensus. They are mythical beasts, along with the dragon, centaur, phoenix and so on, but in the medieval period the unicorn was believed in. It was thought that to hunt the unicorn was perhaps the greatest hunt of all, surpassing even the white hart. How disappointing it would have been if such a wondrous creature was really only the rhinoceros. As to the numerous superstitious mentions of using unicorn horn to protect from poison and so on, it seems we can be fairly sure that the horn in question was actually that of the narwhal.

There are seven references to the unicorn in the Bible, which tell of the creature being powerful, dangerous, impossible to tame and worthy of respect, but its physical appearance is never mentioned. It is in the Physiologus, an early book of animal stories, which may have been written by a 2nd-century Christian, that a description appears:

“Unicornis the unicorn, which is also called Rhinoceros by the Greeks, is of the following nature. He is a very small animal like a kid, excessively swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead, and no hunter can catch him. But he can be trapped by the following stratagem. A virgin girl is led to where he lurks, and there she is sent off by herself into the wood. He soon leaps into her lap when he sees her, and embraces her, and hence gets caught.”

So, the Greeks called the unicorn a rhinoceros, but he certainly wasn’t a rhino as we know them now. He sounds more like a small, one-horned goat. Which is not how we imagine rhinos or unicorns. To us, the unicorn is a beautiful white horse, slender and magnificent, with that graceful all-important horn. In the medieval period, he was definitely depicted as a goatlike creature that paid dearly for trusting virgins.

The Unicorn Defends Itself - Cloisters Museum - 1495-1505

Above, in “The Unicorn Defends Itself “(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505, the unicorn is beginning to resemble a horse, albeit still with cloven hooves and a goat’s beard. He cannot be brought down by spears and arrows alone; it requires hounds to finish him off. And before he succumbs, he finishes off one of the hounds with his deadly horn.

Virgin Mary and unicorn

The story of the unicorn being irresistibly drawn to maidens was widespread, and there are countless illustrations, first with young girls, but gradually with the Virgin Mary, which became awkward for the Church, leading to the Council of Trent (1545-63) drawing up strict guidelines. The unicorn had fallen foul of the rules, and thus fell out of favour too. But it is all imagination, because the unicorn did not exist. Did it?

heraldic unicorn

To learn much more, I recommend an excellent book entitled The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers, which traces the evolution of the unicorn legend and its allegorical symbolism.

 

 

 

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