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Source: British Library - Collect Britain Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 14v



Latin name: Cervus

Other names: Cerf, Chers, Deer, Hart, Serf

A drink made from the tears and the heart bones of a stag is a cure for troubles of the heart


General Attributes

The stag is the enemy of the snake. When the stag discovers a snake, it spits water into the hole where the snake hides, draws the snake out with its breath, and tramples it to death. If the stag is ill or old, it draws the snake out of hiding and swallows it. The stag then finds water and drinks large amounts of it to overcome the poison, and is renewed. When the stag is renewed it sheds its horns. Some say that the stag cures its ills by eating crabs it finds in the water.

Stags live for a long time; their teeth reveal their age. When Alexander the Great wanted to see how long stags lived, he captured many and had them marked. The marked deer were captured one hundred years later and were still healthy.

When stags must cross a river to find food, they swim in line with one stag's head resting on the rear of the one in front; when the front stag tires, it moves to the end of the line to rest. When stags are struck by arrows, they can shake them off by eating dittany. Stags hear well when their ears are erect, but not when their ears are lowered. They marvel at the sound of a reed pipe, and can be caught by a hunter playing one.

Stags are lustful, but the female deer can only conceive at the rising of the star Arcturus. The deer gives birth in dense woods, and teaches her young to flee over high places. When they hear hunting dogs bark, they change direction to the other wind to keep the dogs from scenting them.

People who eat venison are protected from fever because stags are never feverish. The smoke from burning stag antlers is deadly to snakes. A drink made from the tears and the heart bones of a stag is a cure for troubles of the heart.

One source (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 1951, the Bestiaire d'amour) says the stag lies down on ants to renew its skin ("Le cerf qui se couche en la fourmiere pour renouveler sa viele pel"). This is found only in the rubric below an image, not in the text.


The stag is a symbol for Christ, who tramples and destroys the devil. As the stags crossing a river help each other, so should the Christian crossing from the worldly life to the spiritual life help others who grow weak or tired. As the stag is renewed and sheds its horns after drinking from the spring, so those who drink from the spring of the spirit are renewed and shed their sins.

Sources (chronological order)

Lucretius [1st century BCE] (De natura rerum, book 6): Lucretius notes that "stags are commonly supposed to draw serpents from their lairs by the breath of their nostrils", but considers the idea to be fanciful.

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 6, verse 794-797): "Then copious poisons from the moon distils / Mixed with all monstrous things which Nature's pangs / Bring to untimely birth ... flesh of stags / Fed upon serpents...". (book 9, verse 1078-1081): "...they burn / Larch, southern-wood and antlers of a deer / Which lived afar. From these in densest fumes, / Deadly to snakes, a pungent smoke arose...".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 41): A stag, when wounded by an arrow, can eject the arrow from the wound by grazing on the herb dittany. If bitten by a poisonous spider, the stag will eat crabs to cure itself. (Book 8, 50): The stag is a gentle animal. Stags are very lustful; the mating season begins after the rising of the star Arcturus. When deer hear hounds, they run down wind to avoid giving themselves away with their scent. Deer are simple animals, surprised at everything; they can be charmed by song and by a shepherd's pipe. To cross seas they swim in a line with each deer's head on the back of the one in front of it, and they take turns moving to the back of the line. A stag's age can be told by its horns or its teeth. Stags lose their horns every year, and retire to secret places to do so; their right horn, which is never found, is said to contain a healing drug. The smell of stag horns burning stops an attack of epilepsy and drives away snakes. Stags are at war with snakes, drawing them out of their holes with the breath of their nostrils. Stags live a long time; the ones that Alexander the Great had put gold necklaces on were caught a hundred years later, and the necklaces were found to be covered with folds of fat. Stags are not subject to feverish diseases, and eating venison is said to prevent fevers in people. (Book 10, 5): Stags fight with eagles: the eagles cover themselves with dust, perch on the stag's horns to shake the dust in its eyes, and beat the stag's head with their wings until it falls. (Book 11, 115): The breath of stags scorches snakes.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 1:18-22): Deer are the enemy of snakes. When deer are ill or weak they draw snakes out of their holes with the breath of their nostrils and eat them, overcoming their poison and thus renewing themselves. They also use the herb dittany as a medicine; eating it causes arrows that have struck them to fall out. When their ears are erect their hear is sharp, but when their ears are down they cannot hear at all. They enjoy the whistling of the pipes. If they must cross a wide river or the sea, they swim in a line with the head of one resting on the rump of the one in front. The doe (dammula) has this name because it escapes from the hand (de manu). It is a timid and unagressive animal.

Gerald of Wales [12th century CE] (The Journey Through Wales, book 2, chapter 11): We saw here [Chester], what appeared novel to us, cheese made of deer's milk; for the countess [of Chester] and her mother keeping tame deer, presented to the archbishop three small cheeses made from their milk. In this same country was produced, in our time, a cow partaking of the nature of a stag, resembling its mother in the fore parts and the stag in its hips, legs, and feet, and having the skin and colour of the stag; but, partaking more of the nature of the domestic than of the wild animal, it remained with the herd of cattle. (from the The Itinerary of Archibishop Baldwin through Wales (London, 1908) Everyman edition)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 17): It is said that a hind taught first the virtue of diptannus, for she eateth this herb that she may calve easilier and sooner; and if she be hurt with an arrow, she seeketh this herb and eateth it, which putteth the iron out of the wound. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: The hert haveth kindes two / And forbisnes oc al so; / Thus it is on boke set / That man clepeth Fisiologet. / He drageth the neddre of de ston / Thurg his nese up on on, / Of the stoc er of the ston, / For it wile therunder gon, / And sweleth it wel swithe. / Therof him brinneth sithen / Of that attrie thing. / Withinnen he haveth brenning. / He lepeth thanne with mikel list, / Of swet water he haveth thrist; / He drinketh water gredilike / Til he is ful wel sikerlike. / Ne haveth that venim non migt / To deren him sithen non wigt. / Oc he werpeth er hise hornes / In wude er in thornes. / And gingid him thus this wilde der. / So ge haven nu lered her. / Alle we atter dragen off ure eldere / The broken Drigtinnes word thurg the neddre; / Ther thurg haveth mankin / Bothen nith and win, / Golsipe and giscing, / Givernesse and wissing, / Pride and overwene; / Swilc atter i mene. / Ofte we brennen in mod / And wurden so we weren wod; / Thanne we thus brennen / Bihoveth us to rennen / To Cristes quike welle, / That we ne gon to helle. / Drinken his wissing / It quenchet ilc siniging; / Forwerpen pride evrilc del, / So hert doth hise hornes; / Gingen us tus to Godeward, / And gemen us sithen forthward. / The hertes haven another kinde / That us og alle to ben minde. / Alle he arn off one mode; / For if he fer fetchen fode, / And he over water ten, / Wile non at nede other flen. / Oc on swimmeth biforn / And alle the othre folegen, / Wether so he swimmeth er he wadeth. / Is non at nede that other lateth, / Oc leigeth his skinbon / On othres lendbon. / Gef him that biforn teth / Bilimpes for to tirgen, / Alle the othre cumen mide / And helpen him for to herien. / Beren him of that water grund / Up to the lond al hell and sund, / And forthen here nede. / This wune he haven hem bitwen / Thog he an hundred togiddre ben. / The hertes costes we ogen to munen: / Ne og ur non other to sunen, / Oc evrilc luven other / Also he were his broder, / Wurthen stedefast his wine, / Ligten him of his birdene, / Helpen him at his nede. / God giveth therfore mede. / We sulen haven Hevenriche / Gef we bitwixen us ben briche. / Thus is ure Loverdes lage luvelike to fillen; / Herof have we mikel ned that we tharwith ne dillen.


The stag is most commonly illustrated eating, biting or trampling a snake. Four stags crossing a river are shown in Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 254 (f. 10r); the three behind the leader have their heads resting on the back of the one in front. Stags are often found in hunting scenes, being pursued by dogs or by men on horses.

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