How to be a Shepherd in the Middle Ages

What was it like to work on a farm in the Middle Ages? A fourteenth-century shepherd named Jean de Brie offers some insights into his daily life and tips to help you do a good job.

Jean de Brie dictated his advice around the year 1379 in a text known as Le Bon Berger, which has been translated in The Medieval Shepherd, by Carleton W. Carroll and Lois Hawley Wilson. It stands as one of the earliest examples of a ‘how-to’ book, where Jean intricately describes his work as a shepherd and the care of his sheep. He takes pride in his career, drawing parallels to Biblical figures like Moses and David who were also shepherds, and notes how “numberless people take their living, food, and support, for the most part, from the profit and gain of sheep.”

Bib. Ste. Genevieve MS.777 fol. 140r

This Middle-French work is organized into thirty-nine chapters, providing advice on tending to sheep in various weather conditions, a month-by-month guide on managing the flock, and strategies for dealing with common diseases affecting the animals. Here are a few examples:

How to treat your flock

First of all, the lambs, young and tender, should be treated kindly and without violence and 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.


Your social life

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.

The importance of mittens

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 the 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.

Springtime work

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 than at any other time, as much for the season’s moderate heat as for ease in pasturing.

Calendar page for April. Initial, text and at the bottom, shepherds with a flock of sheep. – British Library MS Add. 24098 f.22

Sheep that have sore throats

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 and 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.


Tips for training your dog

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.

Le Bon Berger also tells us about the career 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 on to pigs, a job he found “to be most hard, annoying and intolerable.” Jean also took care of horses and cows – he even notes that he got injured when a horse stepped on his foot, and again when he was gored and thrown by a bull’s horns.

Jean 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.”

Calendar miniature for June showing two men shearing sheep, with a cottage in the background. British Library MS Add. 18855, f.109

The Medieval Shepherd: Jean de Brie’s Le Bon Berger (1379) is published by the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. It is a is collaborative effort between Carroll, emeritus professor at Oregon State University, and Wilson, a retired sheep farmer. You can get the book on