The Forest Law and the Deer’s Lively Carcass

Laurent Millet, "L'herbier"
Laurent Millet, “L’herbier”

This week I’ll be participating in the International Medieval Society – Paris’s annual symposium, whose topic is animals. On Saturday, I’ll be presenting a paper on forest law about which I wrote here long ago. In that post, most of which my dissertation swallowed up, I thought of the forest law only in terms of human interests and human anxieties, though I thought I was doing a lot to unsettle human pretensions to natural superiority. What Levi Bryant wrote in Democracy of Objects certainly applied to me: “while anti-humanisms rescue philosophy from its focus on individual minds, allowing us to discern the sway of far more impersonal and anonymous patterns and structures at work in the heart of thought and social relations, it by no means follows that anti-humanism has escaped anthropocentrism” (39).

This Saturday, and in what I know will be a thoroughly revised version in July at the New Chaucer Society, I’m going to think of the systems of the human and of the royal forest as nonhuman assemblages in which humans act and are acted upon, compelled to do irrational things, so far as they’re concerned, to uphold the reason of the larger assemblage; and I’m going to remark on how irrational inconvenience some elements in an assemblage experience alerts us to the “withdrawn core” of the assemblage’s constituent elements, in this case, people with leprosy and the deer. I could expand this insight to look at the forester and the sovereign as well.

Or I could if I had time. Because I have only 20 minutes, I don’t really have space to do all I should do. So for that excuse, among others, what I’m sharing with you isn’t anywhere near as accomplished as Jeffrey’s extraordinary grey ecology paper. But it’s good to share, and good for you, if you have time or interest, to share your comments with me. I might not have time to respond to them by Saturday, but I certainly will by July. Thanks for what insight you provide.


An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, concerns the problem of deer whose death violates the smooth operations of the forest. It runs as follows:

If any dead or wounded wild animal should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges; the flesh however should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.

Today I’m primarily concerned with the apparently charitable distribution of the deer’s carcass. The law mandates that the carcass be confiscated or, more accurately, that it be returned to the king’s control. The skin and head go to the nearest freemen, and ultimately from there, as G.J. Turner suggested long ago, to the crown, while the meat go to people with leprosy or, failing that, to the sick and the poor. In other words, the meat must be used; the law offers no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. Regardless of their condition, they cannot just be discarded.

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. It doesn’t make obvious sense, however, to return the meat to the king’s control, and then to take the trouble to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. While the law makes certain concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—it still requires that forester inconvenience himself with an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in at least two senses: first, thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries, and, I’m told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. A carcass left in thirteenth-century English woods wouldn’t have taken long to putrefy. Second, the law required that the king’s agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In sum, there’s something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law is compelling the king and his agents to do.

I’m deliberately ascribing agency to the legal space of the forest. Towards the end of my paper, I will discuss the more obvious agencies of people with leprosy of the deer themselves, but mostly today I’ll be presenting the legal system of the forest as itself possessing an agency in excess of human efforts and desires. Throughout my paper, implicitly and explicitly, I will be understanding all of these human, animal, and systemic efforts, obligations, and resistances through a posthuman understanding of agency inspired by the new materialisms, a body of work encompassing, more or less harmoniously, actor-network theory, vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and so on. Thinking with this body of work helps me understand how humans are not the only significant actors in this situation of the deer’s carcass; and it helps me be aware, as well, of the independent existence of the deer and forest law and, as well, people with leprosy. In a larger sense, I’m using this body of work to complicate and enrich our understandings of both responsibility and ethics.

What the king and his representative, the forester, must do is as inconvenient and possibly repulsive and dangerous as it is necessary. That necessity doesn’t derive in any direct way from the king’s own choices, but rather from the logic of royal authority itself, which encompasses the operations of the king, forester, poachers, freemen, and people with leprosy, deer and less-valued beasts, the forest as place and the forest as a legal space. Thus when I call the law’s requirements “seemingly irrational,” I mean that they look irrational when judged from an exclusively anthropocentric perspective; from other perspectives,ones not necessarily human, the law makes perfect sense. In other words, we don’t need to declare the law simply irrational, nor need we turn up a rational human benefit—say, in hygiene—for this food law, as scholars have done with so many others. Instead, we can work out how there’s another, nonhuman reason at work, which puts humans to work for it.

The first of these is the system of the human itself, which operations we can discover by looking at analogous food requirements in the penitentials. The penitential’s carrion laws proscribed humans from eating the meat of any animal they did not intend to kill. Moreover, some penitentials, particularly the earlier ones, demanded that the meat be distributed to pigs, dogs or, significantly, to homines bestiales, bestial men, humans in what Rob Meens identified as the outer circle of the human community.

To be sure, the penitentials may be irrelevant for an early thirteenth-century law: by this point, penitentials were a moribund genre, already being supplanted by more elaborate tools of spiritual guidance. Certainly, some evidence survives for the continued practice of the carrion laws in later medieval England, for example, in William of Canterbury’s late-twelfth-century Life and Miracles of Thomas Becket, where a sheep injures itself, and its owner stabs it in the threat to kill it himself “lest it become carrion.”

But I don’t think I need to demonstrate the continuing vitality of earlier carrion laws to read the penitentials with this forest law. Rather, I’m pointing out these earlier handbooks only to call attention to a similar logic at work in both. The confiscation of the carcass and its redistribution to dogs, or, in
later periods, people with leprosy or the poor, repairs what the law
demands be understood as an assault, depending on the law, on human or
royal control over life and death in the forest.

The paired action marked some animal deaths as illicit; it enshrines human agency or the agency of dominant humans as legitimate, even while constraining or channelling that agency by turning humans into tools of the human system; it returned control over the dead animal and its flesh to the humans or dominant humans, even as it required humans to go without food to defend their own pretence at agential particularity; and it showed the scorn for the flesh and for anyone who would, in effect, share a meal with those not authorized to kill animals legitimately, or, put another way, for those not constrained to follow the dictates of the human or forest system.

In both the penitentials and the forest law, humans are made to
refuse to eat certain meats, even if the meat might have been perfectly
edible and desperately needed, and they were compelled to distribute
this meat to eaters that were disdained, despised, or pitied. They’re acting in the service of a larger system.

By the same logic, the distribution of carrion to people with leprosy should not be understood only as a freely chosen act of charity. The loss of enforested deer to violence seriously damaged the crown. Again, a seeming irrationality, this one of the forest system, helps us understand what humans are being made to do. Recently, S. A. Mileson’s Parks in Medieval England has reasserted the centrality of hunting to the purpose and function of the forest, and Simon Schama, like other scholars, has observed that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The king needed the forest, as lesser nobles needed their parks and chases, and they fed that need despite their considerable expense.

Forests might generate some money, through forges and tanneries, through the extraction of turf and stone and wood, through fees for pannage rights and fines imposed for violating the forest law. But enforested land turned a much smaller profit than comparable nonforested land, and these meagre forest profits seem to have been cycled back into forest maintenance. Despite this, hunting parks were the last good that an impoverished aristocrat would give up. Instead of going without, they would dedicate themselves to these money pits, even at the cost of their own line’s well-being.

The center of this drain was the deer itself, the focus on aristocratic violence for which the forests existed. Deer were great wastes of money, inefficient at converting their food to body mass, prone to disease and theft, destructive of ground cover and crops, needing the particular and expensive skills of parkers. Furthermore, as historians of medieval English hunting often observe, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, and justice themselves, along with salvage from the sea, as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can sell none of these without undoing his own position as king. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and the things that materialized his own authority—the deer and the forest system most notably—which drove him to expend energy and wealth on the maintenance of an animal almost by design resistant to any reductively rational explanation.

I’m not saying that the king would be a free actor were it not for the constraint of the dull, unthinking drag of the forest/royal system. It’s not a matter, for example, of just taking the human as unbalanced by the inhuman and irrepressibly chaotic forces of the Real, whose energies remind us that no structure can live up to its pretences to rationality. It’s a matter of recognizing something perhaps more terrifying, namely, that there’s another reason at work in whose service the king is operating. I think we can strike a kind of compromise between these positions, however. The king’s not just the object of another’s agency. He’s an actor in this forest system; he’s choosing to engage in charity and to defend his rights; but he’s also acting for others, who are making their choices, all of them imperfectly enmeshed in a forest assemblage that has them acting for it. The king’s agency, like any agency, is shared in meshworks of agency and constraint, communication and miscommunication, in which what’s irrational or unfair to one member might make perfect sense for another.

From Jane Bennett’s “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” The deer, poachers, the king, the king’s royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, appetite itself, and perhaps, although this is hard to imagine, the thirteenth-century climate: within the forest system, all these have their own reason and own sense of the irrational, their own orders and anxieties. All are interconnected more or less harmoniously with others, all enabling and constraining or channelling the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Humans are a part of these meshworks of agency and objectification, and they shouldn’t be thought of as the center, or as the only center. The king’s at once acting to defend his royal position and being compelled to order behavior that may seem inconvenient to him and his servants. He’s making a choice, and also having a choice made for him, and so too with everything in the assemblage of this forest law.

That some elements of a system feel themselves irrationally constrained indicates that these elements have an existence in excess of the operations of the system. Here, in my paper’s final portion, I’m turning our attention to another insight from the new materialisms, specifically as developed by object-oriented ontology. The constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own motivations; that they have their own umwelt (see Democracy of Objects 63)—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality is what object-oriented ontology, as practiced, for example, by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, calls the “withdrawn core” of any object, in which, as Bryant writes, “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations.” Any object, which can be human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, whether briefly existing or seemingly perpetual, is inaccessible in its fullness to what any other unit does with it.

This insight leads us to recognitions that we wouldn’t get if we pay attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or if we paid attention only to the irrational inconveniences and anxious compensations of dominant human existence. People with leprosy, for example, have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust, as Julie Orlemanski reminds us in a recent article. The forest law treats these people as the objects of charity, as a kind of machine for turning assistance into prayers. But lepers themselves might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes, but which also, I speculate, might make them potentially independent of further charitable donations. Though hailed as objects of charity, the leprous subject might not have needed or wanted a more or less intact or edible deer carcass that the forest law demanded they take. They might not have needed or wanted to serve as a disposal system for the forest system’s failures.

Furthermore, recalling the existence of any unit’s withdrawn core means we must recall that the deer has its own particular existence, that the deer’s carcass has another, and that neither is an inert plaything for human reason. Whether alive or dead, the deer is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. If the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass’s susceptibility to putrefaction witness to a stubborn liveliness, as well, outside of the operations of the forest law, or the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

Like other hunting laws, the law aims to control human behavior, in this case, serving as yet another injunction against poaching. Records of the practice of the law, however, witness to the deer’s resistant bodies and activities, which the law can only hope to control after the fact. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of a hart that had come out the loser in mortal combat with one of its peers. Here we have death and violence that, through their indifference to the king, frustrates sovereign mastery of the forests. The deers’ own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own murderous erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. For more on this point, which will have to be my final one, I advise you to look forward to Cary Wolfe’s forthcoming Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, whose thoughts on the resistant bodies of factory-farmed livestock inspired my thinking here.