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A Medieval How-to Book for Shepherds

The Medieval ShepherdA recently published book is offering insights into fourteenth-century farming practices and the life of a shepherd named Jean de Brie.

In their book The Medieval Shepherd, Carleton W. Carroll and Lois Hawley Wilson offer an edition and translation of Le Bon Berger, which seems to have been dictated by Jean de Brie around the year 1379. It is one of the earliest examples of a ‘how-to’ book, where Jean details how he works as a shepherd and takes care of a flock of sheep. It is a career that Jean took pride in, noting how Biblical characters such as Moses and David were also shepherds, and that “numberless people take their living, food, and support, for the most part, from the profit and gain of sheep.”


This Middle-French work is divided into thirty-nine chapters that offers an advice on how take care of the sheep during various weather conditions, a month-by-month guide to what to do with the flock, and how to deal with various diseases that struck the animals.

Some of his statements include:

  • “First of all, the lambs, young and tender, should be treated kindly and without violence ad should not be struck or corrected with switches, sticks or whips nor any other kind of beating that could hurt or bruise them, for they would fall off and become thin and weak. Rather one should lead them gently and kindly by leadership and correction.”
  • “The shepherd should be of good morals, should avoid the tavern, bawdy houses and all dishonest places, and should also shun all games except the game of merelles and of staffs, and should not play at dice. However, he should play his game of merelles to draw craftily against his partner.”
  • “In the winter the shepherd should have mittens to keep his hands from the cold. He shouldn’t buy these mittens but should skillfully make them, whether with a needle knitting a thread spun by hand of a shepherdess as amices are made, or he should make them of several pieces of cloth, of many colors, which the shepherd seeks out to his advantage. When they are checkered, they are even prettier. When it is not too cold or the shepherd needs to use his hands, his mittens should hang from a small peg on his belt.”
  • “In May the weather is fair and calm and not yet too hot. Everything on earth is in full flower, for then she has put on her beautiful gown, adorned with many lovely little flowers of diverse colors, in woods and meadows – it is then that the pastures are filled with beautiful, tender plants. In May it is the custom to shear the wool from rams, ewes, yearlings, and lambs, since the wool is ready then. It is also more appropriate and greatly profitable to shear the sheep the than at any other time, as much for the season’s moderate heat as for ease in pasturing.”
  • “For swollen throat, as was mentioned in the month of March: just as soon as the ewes have tasted gorse, it is necessary for the shepherd to help them immediately and put salt in their throats to make them drink an swallow the bitterness of the evil plant. It is also good to throw dirt and pebbles or water on the animal’s back to make it shake and move about, for when it shakes itself after having tasted this evil plant, health follows.”
  • “With the shepherd’s dog, at the beginning it is necessary to instruct it to go stop the ewes. The shepherd should cut open the ear of one ewe and make the blood run from it to let his dog smell it two or three times and then it will never grab a ewe except by the ear. So that the dog will willingly follow the shepherd, he should oil and rub his jaws and forefeet with bacon rind and handle it often until it may become well trained. When the dog lies down in the field, the shepherd should cross his feet for him. If he has not learned to do it himself when it has been done two or three times for him, then he should be sent on his way, for he is not worthy of being with the shepherd and his sheep.”

The text also relates some of the events from the life of Jean de Brie, who lived in and around Paris in the fourteenth-century. As a child his first job was herding geese and goslings, then moving onto pigs, a job he found “to be most hard, annoying and intolerable.” He also took care of horses and cows, and was injured when a horse stepped on his foot, and again when he was gored and thrown by a bull’s horns. He found taking care of sheep much more to his liking, and was given larger and larger herds of these animals to watch over. “From experience,” the text relates, “which is the greatest teacher, he learned through great application the theory, practice, science, and manner of feeding, tending and managing woolbearing animals, and the natural law shown and taught to all animals, not only those who reason, but to all other beasts that are born and live, in the air, on earth, and in the sea.”


The text and translation is collaborative effort between Carroll, emeritus professor at Oregon State University , and Wilson, a retired sheep farmer. Wilson told the Mail Tribune that with this book “the interesting thing, except for antibiotics, you could raise sheep by it today.”

The Medieval Shepherd is published by the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. Click here to visit the publisher’s website.

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