By Lucie Laumonier
A non-vegan-friendly article where humans shear and eat sheep.
“The shepherd should be of good morals, avoid the tavern, bawdy houses and all dishonest places,” wrote Jean de Brie, a fourteenth-century French shepherd turned university graduate and author. Born in a peasant family near Paris, young Jean grew up herding geese and goslings. After trying his hands with pigs – which he disliked – he was injured when working with cows and horses. Jean ended up herding sheep with great talent. At the age of 11, he single-handedly shepherded a herd of 80 lambs. Three years later, he was hired to watch 200 breeding ewes and did not lose a single one. Jean was soon asked to help manage a royal domain. Then, a royal advisor took Jean under his wing and decided to finance the shepherd’s education in Paris. Jean had become so famous that, in 1379, the king of France commissioned him to write a treatise about “the state, science and practice of the art of shepherding”. The treatise Le bon berger (The Good Shepherd) was born, subtitled “the true regimen and government of shepherds and shepherdesses, by the rustic Jean de Brie, the good shepherd.”
Shepherding is a multi-millennial activity still broadly practiced today. It has changed with the rise of new technologies but its essence has remained the same: taking care of a herd of sheep. In medieval Europe, like today, sheep were raised for two main reasons: their wool, and their meat. Not much was lost on a sheep’s carcass; as we shall see, a large number of products had some sheep inside, from musical instruments to candles. Sources on shepherds and their flocks increase from the eleventh century, at a time of better archival preservation and of economic expansion. The High Middle Ages are indeed typified by a great demographic boom in Western Europe that came hand in hand with intensive land clearing, leading to the development of new pastures and arable lands. New trade routes opened and the wool trade took off, providing another impetus to increase sheep-rearing. Centred on medieval France, this article investigates the way in which medieval farmers practiced sheep-rearing and looks at the profits they made with their herds.
Intensive animal husbandry and transhumance
In late medieval France, two types of sheep-rearing coexisted. In the North, large sheep farms prevailed. In these large estates, sheeps dwelled in different “bergeries” or sheep-pens where animals slept based on their sex and age. Sheep (neutered or castrated animals); breeding ewes; lambs; and young ewes, each had their own pen. Each group of animals was watched by different shepherds and required different care. Jean himself had first worked with lambs, then watched sheep, then breeding ewes. In these large estates, the herds were brought to the pastures daily. They usually went back to their pens when night fell to be protected from wolves and other predators. Jean de Brie recommended a rotation between pastures, following a precise calendar. In June, shepherds should bring their herd at higher elevations for them to feed on thistle. In August, sheep would graze in fields, once the bulk of the straw had been harvested. In September, Jean recommended either wheat fields where crops had been recently planted, or oat fields, if the oat had already been cut.
Jean’s advice about the rotation between pastures followed the rhythm of the agrarian calendar in a manner that was beneficial to the crops and lands. When feeding on different lands, sheep removed thistle; they ate what remained of the straw in harvested wheat fields; with their manure, they fertilized newly sown fields where they also devoured the weeds. In sum, on these estates, sheep served as weed-control agents and as natural fertilizers. Jean’s shepherding philosophy was rooted in reciprocity. In his treatise, he explained that God had created ovines for the profit of humankind – ovines provide meat, wool and many other products useful to humans. But, Jean added, humans were also profitable to sheep: they protect them from wolves, they feed them, they care for them. As sheep are beneficial to humans, humans are beneficial to sheep.
Contrary to the northern model of large estates maintaining a year-long sheep-rearing activity at the same location, with a rotation between near-by pastures, southern sheep owners usually had herds travelling twice a year for the transhumance. Transhumance is the name given to the practice of moving livestock from summer pastures to winter pastures and the other way around. This seasonal movement of herds is coupled to pastoralism, the release of livestock onto large pastures for grazing. Usually associated with alpine regions, transhumance sometimes occurs between regions situated at the same elevation. The idea behind the transhumance is to raise the herd’s production by ensuring the animals’ sustenance is rich enough throughout the year.
In the south of France, in Italy, in the Balkans, or in Spain, sheep spend the summer at high altitudes, in mountains, where the grass is greener and richer than in the dry plains. In winter, the animals graze in the plains, where the grass is more abundant and nourishing than in the now cold mountains. In medieval Languedoc, summering in the mountains was called “la montada” (la montée, the ascension), and wintering in the plains was nicknamed “la devalada” (la descente, the descent). While sheep and ewes were by far the most common species to travel seasonally for grazing, caprines and bovines were sometimes included. Strictly speaking, anytime one moved their herd from one pasture to another, they were practicing transhumance. In fact, the scope of transhumances varied greatly. Some only walked a few miles when the season changed, but others had a long road to travel.
Logistics of the Transhumance
In the diocese of Maguelone, southern France, the bishops’ sheep summered in the mountain plateaux of the diocese of Mende, nearly 160 kilometres away. In the south of France, transhumance concerned thousands and thousands of animals. Taxes levied on transhuming herds of the region of Draguignan, in Provence, show that, in 1346, right before the Black Death, some 60,000 sheep and ewes had traveled from the mountains to the plains. In 1374, still in the Draguignan area, only 23,000 animals had made the trip for the winter, a result of the dramatic crises of the late Middle Ages. That same year, the smallest herd to have traveled to the plains only counted 18 heads. The largest one exceeded 1,000 animals. Half of the herds were smaller than 150 ovines; one-forth between 151 and 300 animals; and one-fourth counted more than 300 heads. Transhumance, in sum, concerned all sorts of southern herds.
Some of the largest herds may have resulted from the addition of animals belonging to different owners. But evidence also shows that noble individuals and wealthy merchants invested in livestock farming and owned herds counting thousands of heads. In Italy, those undertaking long interregional transhumances were important owners of arable lands, such as ecclesiastical institutions, who relied on herds and flocks to fertilize their estates, on top of providing meat and wool; these Italian sheep-owners were also butchers who invested heavily in cattle; and, finally, land-owning merchants involved in the wool industry. Their herds could count up to 4,000 animals. Landowning, both in plains and in the mountains, was an essential component of their ability to move their large herds around and let them graze on their lands.
Even better, landowners with the feudal prerogative to grant pascuum (that is the right to graze animals on estate lands), could levy tolls on animals moving across their lands, resting on their lands and feeding on their lands. Pascuum constituted a sustained source of income for large landowners with estates in transhumance areas. Communal lands sometimes served the same purpose, but their access was reserved to the locals, not to foreigners. When moving a herd from one point to another, it was not possible to simply stop anywhere and let the sheep devour one’s pasture. The animals moved from pastures to pastures in a complex choreography that depended on pasture rights and landowning. Shepherds hired to move the herd left with a precise itinerary in mind and a bag of cash at their belt to pay for access to pastures.
Wool, Meat, Cheese and Manure
Sheep-rearing, whether in the intensive farms of the north or in the moving herds of the south, was a lucrative business. Sheep produce wool, milk and manure, products used for food, clothes and agriculture. Once killed, they yield meat, fat, casings and much more. The consumption of mutton – the sheep’s meat – and of wool took off across Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth century, at the time when herds enlarged. A concrete proof of the new place of sheep in thirteenth-century France comes from the analysis of animal bones recovered in medieval population centres. The analysis of 48 bones assemblages from Languedoc, southern France, shows that while peasants and rural communities had always eaten mutton, urban dwellers only jumped on the bandwagon in the 1100s. By the 1200s, sheep meat had become very common in urban centres.
The reason was that larger herds signified lower prices and greater availability. In Catalonia, mutton was considered an elite meat to the thirteenth century, when cheaper prices enabled the humble’s access to the product. By the Late Middle Ages, mutton had become the medieval meat par excellence. In the town of Pamiers, southwestern France, a 1422 inquiry conducted at the local butcheries indicates that within 10 months, the butchers had processed the carcasses of 3,919 sheep, 204 pigs, 159 and a half calves, and 181 bovines. Sheep consumption had kept increasing since the thirteenth century and stayed on an ascending curve well into the early modern era.
Sheep were also reared for their wool. Demand for wool increased sharply in the High Middle Ages and participated in the expansion of European sheep rearing. In the north of France, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, wool represented between 30% and 50% of the value of a living animal. In the 1320s, near Lille, a sheep’s fleece was sold for 4 sous, but a sheep, neutered and fattened, ready to be killed, costed a minimum of 12 sous. But, if a living animal had more value than its fleece, once dead, it could no longer provide wool. Wool, in sum, was a sustained source of income, as long as its price was not offset by the cost of sheep-rearing. Jean de Brie, the good shepherd, recommended shearing in May, before the summer heat struck the herd, and after the colder months had passed. In his treatise, he offers no particular advice about shearing. From his standpoint, professional sheep-shearers would be hired to do the work. In practicality, shepherds working with smaller herd than Jean usually sheared the sheep themselves.
On top of meat and wool, ewes produce milk, which was usually turned into cheese. The cartulary of the monastery of Gellone, Languedoc, locates a number of “cheese-sheds” in the mountains, where sheep and ewes summered. Sheep cheese could be eaten fresh or preserved for later consumption. Sheeps also provided manure, used to fertilize crops. Some agronomists recommended leaving a herd grazing in a field overnight for better fertilization. And, if herders had no use for their animal excrements, they could sell it! A market for manure indeed existed in the medieval era. Moreover, the good shepherd Jean de Brie asserted that “the ewe’s poop has much value in medicine”. The list of sheep-derived products goes on: sheep gut casings were used to make musical instruments and strong ropes used in the military; sheep fat and tallow served to make candles and onguents; their skin – the lamb’s especially – could be processed to make leather. Medieval people made the most out of a sheep.
Jean de Brie’s treatise on shepherding sheds light on the knowledge a good shepherd should possess and on the various skills they should hone. Jean devoted pages and pages to weather, good and bad plants, the quality of pastures, diseases that could affect the herd, how to pick a shepherd dog, how to train it, how to care for lambs, ewes and sheep. But, even if archival documents sometimes yield hiring contracts for shepherds, besides their name, we know little about them. What is certain is that they were busy and endowed with great responsibilities. Shepherds are maybe best typified by the symbiotic ties connecting them to nature and to their environment. Jean spoke fondly of his animals, expressing repeatedly the admiration and respect he fostered towards them. Jean’s mastery of the art of shepherding was rooted in a deep knowledge of the ways of nature. The reciprocity he outlined in the relationship between animals and humans was at the heart of his profession. Shepherds depended as much on their dogs and sheep as sheep and dogs depended on the shepherds.
Carleton W. Carroll and Lois Hawley Wilson (eds.) The Medieval Shepherd: Jean de Brie’s “Le Bon Berger” (1379) (Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 2012)
Eugene Costello and Eva Svensson (eds), Historical Archaeologies of Transhumance across Europe (Routledge, 2018).
Simon J. M. Davis, The Archaeology of Animals (Routledge, 1987)
Pierre-Yves Laffont (ed.). Transhumance et estivage en Occident : Des origines aux enjeux actuels (Presses universitaires du Midi, 2006).
Alain Derville, L’Agriculture du Nord au Moyen-Âge: Artois, Cambrésis, Flandre wallonne (Septentrion, 1999)