Sunday, February 7, 2010

The hidden meaning of deer

As I drove through the University of Victoria campus bright and early on Saturday, a stag with an unusually large rack of antlers trotted along the side of the road toward me for a hundred feet or so before turning aside and disappearing into the woods. It was an auspicious – or at least exciting – start to my morning.

I was on my way to the annual day-long Medieval Studies workshop and looking back, I’m reminded of the play (and movie) The History Boys, in which one of the main characters is a high-school teacher who believes that education is much more – and more important – than passing exams. He encourages his students to memorize poems from the First World War, to sing old songs, to perform risqué skits in order to practice the subjunctive mood in French.

That spirit, the passion for learning and sharing (although without the risqué skits), also drives the Medieval Studies event. Each year, I read the list of presentations and have no idea what I’m going to see.

Dr Marcus Milwright’s opening remarks yesterday, for example, rolled straight from “Hello, nice to see you,” into an illustrated description of why, across North Africa and the Middle East to the borders of China and India, the wheel as a method of transportation disappeared for centuries after the Roman Empire faded. Camels can carry surprisingly heavy loads and don’t need paved roads, you see, so they could move goods and people long distances without a lot of infrastructure.

The printed program contained, along with the bios of the speakers, a fourteenth-century recipe for venison broth. You never know when that might come in handy.

From art historian Dr Catherine Harding’s talk about menageries, I learned that Pope Leo X was so enamoured with the white elephant given to him by Portugal’s King Manuel that he wrote poetry to the beast.

Philosophy professor Margaret Cameron described the Aristotelian view of rational language (not simply communicative sounds) as the characteristic that separates human beings from animals.

And Dr Iain Higgins delivered one of the more shocking statements of the day: Aesop, he of generations, centuries and millennia of animal-based fables, might not have been a real person!

And I learned something else.

In French professor Hélène Cazes’s presentation on serpents, basilisks and dragons, she also let drop the tidbit that in the medieval world, a stag with antlers symbolized Christian regeneration. Now I wonder whether the presence of the deer on Ring Road that morning means that my soul is safe, or whether the deer’s turning aside means it isn’t.

Or was my seeing the buck and the recipe on the same day simply convenient?

Just because I acquire knowledge doesn’t mean I no longer have to think.


  1. When the stag starts eating your roses, you may wish for venison stew:)

  2. LOL.

    Prof Erik Kwakkel also gave a talk on how to prepare parchment from skins, so I might get a real book out of it, too!