The Medieval Review 12.01.02

Fletcher, John. Gardens of Earthly Delight: The History of Deer Parks. Oxford: Windgather Press, 2011. Pp. 284. . . 25 UKP. ISBN 978-1-905119-36-3.

Reviewed by:

David Scott-Macnab
University of Johannesburg

This handsome, lavishly illustrated book offers a wealth of information on a number of topics beyond what may be expected from its title, including landscape history, the physiology, behaviour and characteristics of different deer species, and the practicalities of deer management. The author, who is by profession a deer veterinarian and author of Fletcher's Game: A Vet's Life with Scotland's Deer (2003), begins by stressing that he is not a historian, and that he has relied extensively on secondary sources for much of the information set out in this book (xii). Nevertheless, Fletcher quickly establishes the value of what his own first-hand knowledge and experience can contribute: not only does he write about deer and the natural world with palpable knowledge and enthusiasm, he also demonstrates the mistakes that historians with no direct experience of deer continue to make by repeating information from unreliable sources, such as Gervase Markham (d. 1637) (9).

The book is divided into twenty-one short chapters dealing with the origins and importance of hunting, deer and deer parks from prehistory to ancient China, medieval Europe and modern New Zealand. Typical chapter titles--which are sometimes more complex than they need be-- include "Deep History and why Hunting Matters" (chap. 2), "Xanadu and the Nomads" (chap. 7), "Noli me tangere - le cerf privé in Paradise" (chap. 11), "The Black Act: expulsion from Paradise - beyond the pale" (chap. 16), "Against the Odds - carted stags and show hunts: British and German attitudes to containing deer for sport" (chap. 18), and "Ecological Oases, Urban Lungs, and Venison Farms" (chap. 21). As Fletcher himself admits, there is not much that can be considered novel or innovative from a historical point of view in many of these chapters, since they rely to such an extent on information already published. There is also a fair amount of speculative material, such as the discussion in the early chapters of the possible influence of hunting during the Pleistocene on the development of the human brain and behaviour patterns. Fletcher here relies strongly on the work of C. B. Stanford (The Hunting Apes [1999]), without considering other sociobiologists or even using the important phrase "hunting hypothesis," popularised by Robert Ardrey in 1976. Even so, Fletcher's book makes for interesting reading by virtue of the sheer range of issues considered, including natural history, animal and landscape evolution, animal and landscape management practices, political history, art and literature. Captions are unusually long and informative, and often contain significant information that is not repeated in the text, which means that they deserve closer attention than is often the case.

The overall impression the book makes is that it is a distillation of a lifetime's reading and thinking about deer and deer management, and in this respect it is acceptably up to date. Fletcher includes new arguments and data assembled in The Medieval Park: New Perspectives (2007), and is clearly familiar with the current work of Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at Nottingham University specialising in evidence of fallow deer dispersal. In other respects, however, there is an unsatisfactory sense of disjointedness about the book, as if it has been assembled over a period of time and its information thus not fully integrated. A case in point is the treatment of fallow deer, and the issue of when this species arrived in Britain. The data is complex and contradictory, and so deserves to be considered fully in one place, rather than piecemeal, as it is, on pp. 63, 71, 88-91, and in an isolated, longish endnote on p. 258.

For medievalists, three chapters are likely to be of the greatest interest: "Flowers of the High Medieval: how fallow deer came to Britain from the paradise gardens, the Arabic origins of ornamental landscape, and flirtation" (chap. 8), "Beautiful and tame - why we chose fallow" (chap. 9), and "How the Deer were Hunted in Parks" (chap. 10). But for anyone familiar with primary texts, Fletcher's reliance on secondary literature introduces problems that he himself warns against, in that he here also repeats errors and misconceptions perpetrated by his sources. For example, Fletcher's statement that Gaston Phoebus "was killed on a bear hunt" (105) is incorrect; the Count of Foix died in 1391 of a massive heart attack brought on by the exertion of the hunt. And Fletcher is misleading in asserting that fallow deer were "almost unknown to Gaston Phoebus" (103), and that "Phoebus living in the Pyrenees may never have seen fallow deer except on his travels" (105). This mix of speculation and mistaken assertion does not do justice to Phoebus's own Livre de chasse, which contains two chapters on fallow deer, the first describing the animal's characteristics (chap. 3), and the second describing how it is hunted with running hounds (chap. 47). What Phoebus says about the buck is that "Dain est une beste diverse," meaning it is not common, but precisely what we may deduce about where or how Phoebus learned about fallow deer needs to be treated with circumspection. It may also be objected that the discussion of coursing in chapter 10 does not belong with the earlier material in that chapter on medieval hunting methods, since almost all existing evidence comes from the sixteenth century and later. As Christopher Taylor notes in an article on a possible deer course at Ravensdale Park (2004, cited by Fletcher), the subject of deer coursing "has been surprisingly little studied," and it is not defensible simply to assume that recorded practices in later centuries are identical with earlier forms of the sport.

On several occasions Fletcher's references would have had more authority if he had done a little more research on some of the authors and works he cites. For example, Richard Blome, author of The Gentleman's Recreation (1687), is simply referred to as "Blome" (112) as if his name is as familiar as Shakespeare's; The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, long attributed to George Turbervile, is now established as being the work of George Gascoigne, and should be dated 1575 rather than 1576 (112); and the SATF volume that is cited in the Bibliography as "Coke, J. Debate between the heralds of England and France" (269) should be Le débat des hérauts d'armes de France et d'Anglererre: suivi de The debate between the heralds of England and France, by John Coke. In the same vein, readers would have been better served had Fletcher supplied fuller details in his footnotes: author and date provide very incomplete references; page numbers are needed too, especially for more obscure assertions in book-length studies. Furthermore, the author's occasional ventures into the realm of linguistics--as in his references to the possible etymologies of English hedge (56) and Latin dama (101)--are too brief and speculative to be satisfactory.

Fletcher is most secure when discussing deer with a professional eye. The author is on home ground here, and the image of him observing deer patiently from a tree is evoked sufficiently often for it to become something of a motif in this book; indeed, there can be no cause for doubting that he knows these animals extremely well. This is apparent in fascinating revelations and extrapolations that would be difficult to find elsewhere, such as the illustrated discussion of the infra- or pre-orbital glands of a red deer, which Fletcher compares with prehistoric drawings of deer in the caves of Lascaux (22); or his expatiation on the characteristics of roe deer, and why this species would be a poor choice for a park (97). Equally fascinating are the author's personal anecdotes of his experiences in dealing with deer, and the analogies he draws with likely practices in the past: for example, the laying of forage as a means of attracting red deer to specific areas, either for shooting or for collecting cast antlers (28-30), and the behaviour of fallow deer when herded into a small enclosure for darting or culling (99-100).

Overall, this book provides a thoroughly approachable contribution to a number of essential areas in the study of humananimal interaction, especially for a non-specialist audience. It is also useful for drawing together diverse material from numerous cultures across time and space, and illustrating these with attractive colour reproductions. For an academic reader with a more specialised interest in hunting and deer parks, the book is most useful where it discusses the characteristics, physiology and behaviour of different deer species, particularly when such discussion is informed by the author's own observations and experiences. The interested reader will, however, have to do a fair amount of further research to follow up on the author's references, and from there to decide whether the opinions of the authors he relies on are suitably authoritative.