Red Deer in Early Medieval Ireland

The theory of materialism asserts that artefacts have ‘biographies’ or lives of their own. Objects become more than a set of tools for adapting to an environment. Instead, their production, exchange, use and reuse becomes integral to the construction of social realities. Artefacts become ‘networks of significant’ that enable and constrain the practices of individuals and communities. In short, people make themselves and others through objects. In his paper Soderberg (2004) explores this theory in relation to animals, specifically red deer (Cervus elaphus). As he notes, with animals there is “nothing metaphorical about the fact that the material world is alive,” (Soderberg, 2004: 168). He hypothesises, therefore, that the relationships between people and deer in medieval Ireland should give access to the social dynamics of the period, in particular those associated with monasteries.

One key aspect of those dynamics is evident in the Old Irish term for red deer: ag allaid, which is translated as wild bovine. This and classifications of animals in texts such as the Betha Comaithchesa lead to the suggestion that red deer and cattle are conceptually linked (Soderberg, 2004: 168). However, this in itself would give red deer a liminal status; they would be of the social domain as cattle, the archetypal domestic animal, and yet also outside it, being wild (Soderberg, 2004: 168).

Monasteries were also cast in liminal terms, and it has been proposed that a link between the two exists on the basis that some monastic sites have produced unusually high concentrations of red deer skeletal material and also on the basis that dietary regimens of some monasteries identify venison and other wild meats as legitimate food (Soderberg, 2004: 168).

Ireland had only a single species of cervid, red deer, between the beginning of the Holocene and c. AD 1200 when both texts and archaeology show the importation of a second species, fallow deer (Dama dama). In 1213 the archbishop of Dublin was given fallow dder from Coventry, whilst in 1244 80 fallow deer were stocked at Glencree in Co. Wicklow (Soderberg, 2004: 171). The earliest archaeological fallow deer are from thirteenth and fourteenth century contexts at Norman castles in Wexford and Meath, as well as urban contexts in Waterford (Soderberg, 2004: 171). That importation is part of the social upheaval of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and represents the most significant faunal change in Ireland since the Neolithic (Soderberg, 2004: 171).

Red deer and fallow deer have significantly different physical and social characteristics. Red deer are larger and have more complex and rigid dietary preferences than fallow deer. Their social organisation is less variable, and male red deer and considerably more territorial. In addition, red deer engage in seasonal migrations and prefer a large home range (Soderberg, 2004: 172). These differences contribute to how the two species interact with humans. The spread of fallow deer from the Continent to Britain to Ireland is linked with the spread of hunting preserves and numerous scholars have concluded that this happened because fallow deer are more suited to confinement in parks than other available cervid species (Soderberg, 2004: 172). The essential features of deer parks were ownership of land and exercising rights over resources in that land. Fallow deer is, therefore, a marker for this process and the species becomes linked to the establishment of a more highly centralised social organisation (Soderberg, 2004: 172).

Red deer are, as well as one of the only cervid species in Ireland prior to the thirteenth century, also one of the few animals that appear commonly on high crosses (Soderberg, 2004: 173). This provides support for the suggestion that the crosses map out social relationships (Soderberg, 2004: 173). The majority of crosses featuring red deer depict hunting. These fall into two types. The first depict the pursuit of deer. The second type depict a lone deer, both those marked as captured and those simply shown in isolation (Soderberg, 2004: 173).

Early medieval texts provide another source of information about deer and human society. In particular, they provide a means of considering if the conceptualisation of red deer as found on the crosses appears in a different medium (Soderberg, 2004: 177). It is noted that several stories show kings and saints gaining necessary products from deer when their domestic counterparts – cattle – are unable to plough or provide milk (Soderberg, 2004: 177-178). The Life of Ciaran, the founding saint of Clonmacnoise, shows a stag visiting the youthful Ciaran and offering his antlers as a book stand. Later in life, a stag is used to transport his books (Soderberg, 2004: 178). Such stories are part of the corpus that connects sovereignty of king or saint with power over the normally uncontrolled (Soderberg, 2004: 178). Ecclesisatical texts emphasise the opposition of the wilderness to the domestic realm at the same time as emphasising the association of deer, monasteries and the wilderness (Soderberg, 2004: 178).

The texts and iconography amplify the notion that monasteries and deer were closely associated with one another in a manner that identifies monasteries with a realm beyond royal or secular control. This contextualises archaeozoological data from excavations at sites such as Clonmacnoise and encourages us to ask questions about the shifts in skeletal frequency and how this was associated with the role of such sites as monastic settlements as opposed to monastic towns (Soderberg, 2004: 181).

Reference: Soderberg, J. 2004. Wild Cattle: Red Deer in the Religious Texts, Iconography and Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 8 (3): 167-183


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