101 Uses for a Dead Deer

deerI’ve been driven to write about carrion for the past few months because of an early thirteenth-century English forest law that goes like this:

If any dead or wounded beast 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 [i.e., the finder needs people to attest for him or her]; 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 freeman 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.

There are a number of ways to approach this law’s peculiar (but, as I’ve discovered, widely enforced) approach to poaching. I’ve been at it through the ideological utility of hunting to England’s thirteenth-century elites, but there’s also an approach that jives with discussions we’ve had repeatedly at this blog, namely, the power that the dead have over the living. When can a corpse finally be put to rest? Because of its illicit death, the carcass has become an uncanny, all too incarnate mockery of elite pretensions to inviolate mastery of violence. The illicit violence that the carcass suffered requires that it be ritually humiliated — or so I argue — by being fed to lepers. It is only then that the carcass becomes truly dead to the living. Here’s what I have to say in the chapter itself:

Through this dual activity of rejection and distribution, the elites reestablish their control over violence in hunting preserves, perhaps the most privileged space for elites to practice, demonstrate, and uphold their exclusive right to violence. Through these two actions, the carrion laws protect the community—of humans or elites, depending on the law—from contamination. The double action also reforms the disrupted power over life and death by substituting the right of distribution and the right of denying consumption for the temporarily lost control over human space and its killings. While the meat itself is lost to dogs, pigs, bestial men, the poor, or lepers, the combined refusal and distribution returns what really matters, the control of meat and, in a broader sense, of death, to the realm of lawgivers and their agents.

Forest animals that suffer proper deaths live on uncannily too. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Tristan explains how a deer’s carcass should be treated after its dismemberment:


Ride two and two together and keep close beside one another, preserving the shape of a hart. Let the horns go ahead, the breast follow in their track, the ribs come after the fore-quarters. Then arrange for the hind-parts to follow on the ribs. After that, you should see to it that the quarry and fourchie bring up the rear–such is true huntsmanship. And do not be in too great a hurry–ride in due order, one behind another.

In field butchery, human elites grant dogs and ravens little dainties, so emptying the flesh and body of the deer of its valueless portions. With this elimination, the deer becomes perfected, for nothing remains but what elites want for themselves. The deer has been made ready for a procession in which the very ritual that broke its body into pieces now grants it a return to a bodily integrity that is also a perfect materialization of elite power and its meaningful, absolute, creative violence. The reassembling of the dismembered carcass reminds me of the Japanese puppet theater of Bunraku, but perhaps still more strongly, because of the simultaneous fragility and completeness of the animal form, of those collapsible toy ponies of my childhood (when I depressed part of the statuette’s platform, the elastic holding it upright would go slack, and its knees would buckle). I might not have been able to control my own bodily integrity, but at least I could take it away from others and grant it once more (under my terms).

I’m inspired to this little post by an astonishing case of necrobestiality (sfw) that our friend JKW sent to me:

Prosecution of a Douglas County case involving alleged sexual contact with a dead deer may hinge on the legal definition of the word “animal.”Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.

A motion filed last week by his attorney, public defender Fredric Anderson, argued that because the deer was dead, it was not considered an animal and the charge should be dismissed. …

A judge should decide what the Legislature intended “animal” to mean in the statute, he said. “And the only clear point to draw the line in that definition, I believe, is the point of death.”

Assistant District Attorney James Boughner said the court can use a dictionary to determine the meaning of the word, but it doesn’t have to.

“The common and ordinary meaning of a word can be found in how people actually use the word,” Boughner wrote in his response to the motion.

When a person’s pet dog dies, he told [Judge Michael] Lucci, the person still refers to the dog as his or her dog, not a carcass.

“It stays a dog for some time,” Boughner said.

He referred to the criminal complaint, in which Hathaway told police he saw the dead deer in the ditch and moved it into the woods. Hathaway called it a dead deer, Boughner said, not a carcass.

“It did not lose its essence as a deer, an animal, when it died,” he said.

Anderson argued that the statute, which falls under the heading “crimes against sexual morality,” was meant to protect animals. That would be unnecessary in the case of a dead animal.

JJC has told us about fancy lawyers borrowing his professional expertise to map the history of one-eyed monsters. If only this case in Duluth were a bit, uh, fancier, I’m sure I could offer my services. I work cheap, even if it means going to Duluth (I’ve been a few times, and it would take a case like this to get me back). I might talk about what kinds of intimacy we are allowed with animals: why killing an animal to eat it is acceptable, even encouraged, while necrobestiality (or indeed any kind of necrophilia) is anathema. I might cite Cora Diamond, who observed in “Eating Meat and Eating People,” that the prevention of distress may have little to do with our dietary decisions, since, after all, “We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class….We also do not eat our amputated limbs…It is not a direct consequence of our unwillingness to cause distress to people. Of course, it would cause distress to people to think that they might be eaten when they were dead, but it causes distress because of what it is to eat a dead person.” With the weekend approaching, if you’re willing, I open the conversation up to you: about the undead demands of carcasses (and corpses) on the living, of bestiality, of the common medieval puns on the games of Venus and the venerial games of the Hunt, and of the justness of the prosecutor’s claim that allowing Hathaway to get away with his pleasure would encourage others to kill animals for sex.


Assizes of the Forest, in The Statutes at Large from the Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third to the End of the Last session of Parliament. … With a Copious Index. And an Appendix, Consisting of Obsolete and Curious acts, … Volume the Ninth. London: Printed for Mark Basket and by the Assigns of Robert Basket; and by Henry Woodfall and William Strahan, 1765, 25-6.
Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People.” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79, at 467 (original emphasis).
Gottfried von Strassburg,
Tristan, with the surviving fragments of the Tristan of Thomas. Arthur Thomas Hatto, trans. New York: Penguin, 1960, 83.


I also think that what we have with the 13th-century carrion law is a case of inexclusion: the exception has been folded into the law. Does the escape from power, now marked as a violation, bring the lacuna into the law with it? Inevitably, yes, because “managing the panic” of the illicitly killed high-status animal at the same time marks the death as an occasion for panic. In other words, having to manage the carcass creates the carcass as crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that poaching was thought a species of insurrection, both by the elites and by hoi polloi (at least in later medieval and post-medieval England).* I think of potty-mouthed children whose parents overreact, and the children, masochistically anxious for attention or just sadistic, return to cursing just to get their parents’ goat(s).

*Here’s a bit from my notes to I. M. W. Harvey “Poaching and Sedition in Fifteenth-Century England,” in Ralph Evans, ed. Lordship and Learning: studies in memory of Trevor Aston. 2004. 169-82:

Notes the way that poaching and protest assumed similar forms in SE England (175). False names: “during the second decade of the fifteenth century a Sussex chaplain under the assumed name of Friar Tuck led a poaching gang which made itself notorious for taking venison and burning foresters’ houses in Surrey and Sussex” (175). Eastern Kent Thomas Cheyne went by name of Hermit Bluebeard, and his captains named King of the Fairies, Queen of the Fairies (!), and Robin Hood (175). –

what fascinates me so much about the necrobestiality is that Hathaway’s act becomes a way to recognize the way carcasses are not quite dead. Necrobestiality, because it is a crime, necessitates a taxonomic effort that unravels certainties about the distinction between the living and the dead, about the ontologic (or at least symbolic) status of a carcass, about what counts as an animal, and so forth. If I wanted to condemn myself to the career path of the dirty minded, the Hathaway case could be folded into a discussion of the weird attention to “skull fucking” in pop culture over, say, the past 10-15 years. But no way am I going there. All I want to say, following you EJ, is to point out the perhaps unique, shocking force of sexuality to clarify or muddle things.

If I had to decide, right now, on my third book project (first: animals; second: meat?), I do something with corpses, beginning with Augustine’s On the Care for the Dead, going into the undead stories found in, say, Geoffrey of Auxerre’s On the Apocalypse,* going into the Cosmas and Damien story, and, of course, dead animals. –

* from my notes on the Joseph Gibbons trans.:

In Tripoli, a child dies who had been ordained as a cleric, and his uncle, consumed with grief, gives the boy over to an old woman: “No one knows what she said or did, but subsequent events proved that she cut the skin of his arm, and in the little opening she inserted certain written marks.” (163). Boy enters the choir, but after a while, another clergyman hears the boy singing and says, ” ‘I hear the voice not of a living man but of one already dead'” (164). He decides to prove that this is a soulless body: “…he set the naked boy on a rug and carefully felt his body in their presence. Under the skin of the arm he felt the little piece of paper which the wicked old woman had inserted. Without delay he opened the skin and took out the paper. Skin and flesh turned immediately to powder, and the bones fell apart from one another in a heap. Thus he showed that this was only a fantasy life that fooled onlookers, and that the boy was dead while he seemed to be alive” (164). –

I’ll start with my hesitance about generation, if generation is understood as reproduction: thinking sex reproductively is heteronormative (I’m thinking of Carolyn Dinshaw’s reading of Chaucer’s General Prologue in Getting Medieval, 117-21).

That said, the corpse is, as you point out, generative. What I think it “generates” is its own constitutive parts, heretofore held together and kept hidden by an imaginative force of desire for a self-same identity. The corpse, then, might be thought the truth of the body. In other words, I locate the problems of the corpse, not in the rotten body, but in the living body itself and what it must disavow in order to be produced as the site of a self.

In my perverse or playful or whatever attention to the living body as “really” a corpse (one of my tattoos simply says “dead flesh”), I’m thinking, too, of these points:

“So the word “fetish” fetishizes itself, in the same manner as do other words that speak of the false, the phony, the tawdry, the lustrous, the artful, and of course the simulacrum of art” (6).

“Behind the unveiled secret, another more convoluted secret cloaks itself—-one that perhaps will never be revealed absolutely: it is that of presence in general, which might never be exempt of fetishism.” (6).

“The fetish is better named than it appears. It is an artifice, a fact, something made: it is produced. It is the production of desire according to the double genitive: produced by desire and producing desire, namely, the desire of presence.” (7)

Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Two Secrets of the Fetish,” Diactritics 31 (2001): 3-8 (trans. T. C. Platt).

That said, once we start thinking of the sacred dismembered corpse–whether of saints or secular magnates–we have to go at these problems, probably, in a different way, since these bodies seem to acquire more power, more presence, the more widely they are scattered. One might even think of exemplary punishments, too, of bodies quartered and displayed through the realm–a particularly early modern punishment?–and the way this display is a spectacle, not so much of the dismembered body, or the body paradoxically made more potent through being scattered, but of power of Law to remake bodies into whatever form it likes. And this brings me back to the ritual in Tristan, in which the dismembered deer is a better deer than the living deer. The upshot of all this musing is to observe (not point out, since I’m sure you’re aware of all this), the multiple ways to understand corpses, dissolution, and dismemberment. – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2006/11/101-uses-for-dead-deer.html#sthash.jV6JINNq.dpuf