Medieval literature contains copious reference to a custom on New Year's Day, in obedience to which men disguised in deerskins or as old women took part in riotous dances and processions. Though the performers were Christians, the rite was clearly borrowed from heathendom.... It was called cervulos facere, and incurred the bitterest hostility from official quarters in the Early Church. From the fourth to the eleventh century bishops and saints in Gaul, Germany, Spain, and Italy denounced it in monotonous unison from cathedral and pulpit ; it was even definitively banned by the Council of Auxerre at the end of the sixth century, though without effect. In England its observation was less general, or else ecclesiastical tutelage was more indulgent, for the fulminations are much scarcer. Yet it existed, and was proscribed anew under the Christian kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons by the Liber Poenitentialis of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury from 669-670 and a celebrated disciplinarian. The book, which may be in part later than Theodore, yet exercised a great influence from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, prescribed three years' penance for the sin:-
" Si quis in Calendis Januariis in cervulo aut vetula vadit, id est, in ferarum habitus se tommutant et vestiuntur pellibus pecudum et assurnit capita bestiarum ; qui vero taliter in ferinas species se transformat, III annos poeniteat, quia hoc demoniacum est." Lib. Poen, Thorpe, xxvii, 25.
The original significance of the custom it is hardly the purpose of the present note to examine. De Gubernatis (Zoology and Mythology, p. 88) explains the old woman, the second form of disguise, as representing a sort of winter-witch. It is worth observing that St. Augustine also mentions a third disguise, viz., as a goat :-
"indui ferino habitu et capreac aut cervo similem fieri," (Op. Migne, vol. v, col. 2003, ad Cal. Jan.).
"The Running of the Deer"
Richard D. Barnett
Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 393-394.