How quickly does a deer go off?

by KARL STEEL

To ensure the blog stays as eclectic as possible, I’m here to talk, again, about deer carcasses, so you may want to read Jeffrey first and never come back. I’m also here to avoid grading my first set of papers (incidentally, on Žižek’s “Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket,” for English 2, “The Research Paper,” with a theme of “Nature,” and a set on Marie’s Lais, and a small set of Chaucer translations). Enough of that!

The fourteenth-century Diuersa Servicia comprises 92 recipes, for “blomanger,” “egerduse” (i.e., aigredouce, “sweet and sour”), and so on, and two guides for dealing with rancid venison.

57. For to kepe venisoun from restyng, tak venisoun wan yt is newe & cuuer it hastely wyþ fern þat no wynd may come þereto and wan þou hast ycuuer yt wel led yt hom & do yt in a soler þat sonne ne wynd may come þerto. & dimembre it, & do yt in a clene water & lef yt þere half a day, and after do yt vpon herdeles for to dre; & wan yt ys drye tak salt, & do after þy venisoun axit, & do yt boyle in water þat be so salt als water of þe see and moche more. & after lat þe water be cold, þat it be þynne, & þanne de do þy venisoun in þe water & lat yt be þerein þre daies & þre ny3t; & after tak yt owt of þe water & salt it wyþ dre salt ry3t wel in a barel, & wan þy barel ys ful cuuer it hastely þat sunne ne wynd come þereto.

58. For to do awey restyng of venisoun, tak þe venisoun þat ys rest & do yt in cold water & after mak an hole in þe herþe & lat yt be þereyn þre dayes & þre ny3t; & after tak yt vp & frot yt wel wyþ gret salt of poite þere were þe restyng ys. & after lat yt hange in reyn water al ny3t or more. (73)

 

57. To keep venison from going rancid, take venison when it is new and cover it quickly with ferns so that no wind can reach it and when you have covered it well take it home and put it in a cellar so that no sun or wind can reach it. and dismember it and put it in clean water and leave it there half a day, and afterwards put it on hurdles to dry it; and when it is dry, take salt and salt your venison as much as it needs, and then boil it in water as salty as sea water and even much more. and afterwards, let the water cool so that it thins [i.e., so that the sediment settles to the bottom], and then put your venison in the water and leave it there for three days and three nights; and afterwards, take it out of the water and salt it with dry salt very thoroughly in a barrel, and when your barrel is full, cover it hastily so that neither sun nor wind can touch it.

58. To salvage rancid venison, take the venison that is rotten and put it in cold water and afterwawrds make a hole in the earth and leave it there for three days and three nights; and afterwards take it up and rub it well with saltpeter [potassium nitrate] where it is rotting. and afterwards hang it in rain water all night or longer.

The two guides appear only in Bodleian Douce 257, dated to 1381, which includes “various mathematical and calendrical treatises, riddling verses, and practical jokes” (Hieatt and Butler 18), mostly in Latin. If the manuscript’s available online, or even just a full list of its contents, please let me know in the comments.

EDIT: grading procrastination update, several hours after first posting. Douce 257 was formally Douce 21831. Some of the Middle English appears in the DIMEV here; and contents summarized briefly here (A Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford 569-70); and summarized at more length here (Catalogue of the printed books and manuscripts bequeathed by Francis Douce, to the Bodleian Library 40-1).

It’s no great surprise that Diuersa Servicia items 57 and 58 appear only in this manuscript, as the other extant versions are missing many or most of the other recipes. It’s more surprising that none of the other cook books in EETS ss. 8 have guides for preventing or correcting putrefaction, and that neither do any of the (few) others I’ve examined (eg, these two Anglo-Norman cookbooks; or this first foray into Taillevent). I’ve vainly looked for bits about rotten meat in the cynegetic manuals of William Twiti and Edward of York, but if my search is to be anything but preliminary, ARLIMA’s list tells me I have much more hunting to do.

Turning from what we can loosely call practical advice to what we can just as loosely call textual advice, Hildegard’s Physica doesn’t help me, while Albert the Great’s De Animalibus and the very similar material in Thomas of Cantimpré tantalize with “The innards of a deer are very malodorous, a condition Pliny ascribed to the bile diffused through them” (97; in Thomas, “Intestina cervi fetida valde sunt, et hoc opinatur Plinius proptera, quia fel in intestinis habet, quod abhominantur canes” [which dogs hate]; see also Vincent of Beauvais, “intestina cerni [sic, for cervi] valde foetida sunt, vnde non comeduntur a canibus, nisi sint valde famelici” [hence they won’t be eaten by dogs unless the dogs are very hungry]). Also, says Albert, and Thomas, and Vincent,  “twenty worms reside in the deer’s cervical spine.”

To me, that seems like a lot of worms.

For the time being, I’m at bay, with no clear way out. I do know that medieval cooks are a passionate lot, and hunters just as much so. If you’re one of these–or even if you’re just an interested passer-by–weigh in. You think I can take “venison” in the Diuersa Servicia as meaning just or primarily “cervids”? Is this concern about rancid venison unusual? Just practical advice any hunter would know? Where else should I look? I haven’t yet looked at Walter of Bibbesworth, but a helpful spirit on Facebook tells me I’ll come up empty. Walter of Henley‘s on his way to me. Where else?

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