Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Participants or Possessions

          There was a small paragraph in David Stone’s essay on sheep flocks that I meant to bring up in discussion. It was only a small aside in which he quotes an experienced shepherd explaining that sheep can become homesick on unfamiliar pasture. If they are unaccustomed to a new arrangement, they can become morose and unproductive. Stone replies by writing, “Historians sometimes refer to the psychological impact of the Black Death; perhaps sheep should be included in such an interpretation.”[1] The point being that sheep may have become just as depressed in the trauma of the Black Death as humans, to the point of affecting their wool yield.
            It seemed like a strange addition to Stone’s essay about the various methods medieval people were using to affect their flocks. Before and following this mention of animal psychology, Stone writes only of the human efforts to cause higher or lower wool yields or the conscious, he argues, management techniques used to affect wool production. Throughout his essay, and the other articles we read for Tuesday’s discussion, Stone implies that animals were possessions or tools, but in the passing moment when he acknowledges their feelings the animals were seen as participants.
            We grappled with this same distinction when we debated horsemeat yesterday. Langdon’s article dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of owning horse and oxen, and he concluded the poorer folk would opt for a horse for its versatility, easier upkeep, and low price.[2] The wealthier demesne preferred the ox because its value didn’t depreciate as quickly, and in the end the ox could always be fattened and sold for its meat.[3] Some of us argued the same could be said for a horse while others argued that a peasant’s connection with a horse used for its full range of purposes, especially transportation, would prevent it from being killed for eating. In fact, this is a debate similar to the sheep’s experience after the Black Death: is the horse a possession that is used as a tool in labor, or is it a participant in the life of its owner in a number of ways ranging from plough animal to companion? As a possession, the animal is only weighed for its utility, in which case the horse would have certainly been fattened and slaughtered when it maxed out its productivity, but this was a purpose reserved for the ox. The horse was a participant and thus spared a strictly consumptive purpose because of, I argue, its wide range of applications (cart pulling, being ridden, as a pack-animal, etc.).[4]
            So, let’s return to the sheep. Wool was the number one industry in medieval England, and sheep numbered twelve million in the early fourteenth century, according to Biddick.[5] Organizing sheep had become a complex network of movement and transfer, and types of sheep were carefully directed to specific locations to serve their purposes. Sheep, like horses, were highly versatile, capable of a variety of secondary products of meat, skins, milk, and manure. In fact, the reason for moving the sheep around so much was to evenly disperse their manure on a range of pasture. Sheep were efficient animals; it seems that every part of the sheep could have been put to good use. However, this does not help me understand whether sheep were possessions or participants because they do not follow the horse’s example as a participant – they were still eaten, and their byproducts provided more ways to consume.
            This would lead me to think of sheep as possessions, strictly for consumption, to fulfill a wool yield. On the larger manorial estates, like abbeys, sheep were used for their wool in the same way oxen were used for ploughing and pigs for meat; in other words, estates ran on single-product herd economies that would limit an animal’s produce to a single purpose instead of using it for several products at once.[6] These were complex economies that could afford to specialize, and the animals were organized and managed according to the demands of the abbey or market.
            Yet, I am drawn back to the concern for the sheep’s feelings. While Stone’s observation was from his perspective as a historian, Sir Walter of Henley has his own opinion on the wellbeing of sheep: “See that your shepherd be not hasty, for by an angry man some may be badly overdriven, from which they may perish there where your sheep are pasturing and the shepherd comes among them.”[7] Henley, claiming to have been a bailiff once, encouraged a shepherd who was kind to the sheep in order to avoid trauma. Although Henley would not have referred to his opinion in this way, he was concerned with the psychology of the sheep and urged his reader to be equally concerned and attentive in order to prevent premature deaths. In the same way Stone speculated that sheep after the Black Death may have suffered from depression that caused weaker wool yields, Henley was suggesting that a happy sheep would make a richer flock. So, if this medieval bailiff was advising against harsh treatment, did this make sheep participants in their own production since they were being valued emotionally? At the least, I believe this kind of consideration shows the animals were valued above their basic functionality. While it was helpful that sheep could provide so many different products from wool to meat, their process of production was managed to be comfortable and kind. Yet, Henley also suggests that the reason for being kind to the sheep is to prevent shepherds from overdriving them and causing unnecessary deaths and diminishing the flock. Stone seems to make a similar claim that the depressed sheep were less productive and grew poorer wool. 
             Perhaps sheep were emotional participants to an extent, but I doubt they had agency beyond their regulated movements from one pasture to another. Industry-minded humans were their caretakers, and for all their occupation for a sheep's wellbeing, they were driven by the need to produce and sell the wool. 

K. Beach

[1] Stone 11
[2] Langdon 40
[3] Langdon 32
[4] Langdon 40
[5] Biddick 100
[6] Biddick 125
[7] Sir Walter of Henley 29


  1. I find your discussion of Stone’s passage interesting from an animal studies and multispecies ethnography point of view. I'm glad you brought this to our attention, since I entirely missed it when reading, and I think it’s something we should likely take note of more often. We have been speaking a great deal about the uses of animals, the interpretations of animals, but very little about the experiences of the animals themselves, and it’s encouraging to see an author in here give that some sort of consideration, even if only in a line about how the Black Death may have affected them as well. However, I also think you may be right to question whether this sort of attention that we (and Stone) might be inclined to give to the experiences of animals is something that would have shown up in the medieval world. I think you may be right that we should be careful in subscribing a great deal of what we might call "anthropomorphizing" tendencies to medieval shepherds, but on the other hand, as we saw in our discussion of animal cruelty last week, medieval relationships with animals were obviously complicated and potentially counterintuitive from a modern perspective. You mentioned already in your post our conversation about why medieval people may not have eaten horses; I am not sure, though, whether I entirely agree with your distinction between participants and utility animals (though I have the advantage of another day’s readings here). As we saw in the next class, horses often were eaten, at least in Scotland, and they were also regularly skinned. Dogs and cats were eaten and skinned as well. Cats were both loved as pets and tortured for fun. We may be tempted to force some sort of logical distinction between the types of animals that were there for pure utility and those who had some greater participation and emotional clout, but I’m not entirely sure that one is really there. I also think it may be questionable to assign participant agency to horses, though I think I see what you are getting at with the emotional ties and companion aspect- but then you are simultaneously removing the possibility of that emotional companionship role from sheep, which I’m not sure that we can do with any certainty (without asking a medieval shepherd), if that makes sense.
    I am really glad that you brought up Walter of Henley- as I was reading your post, he was pretty much all that I was thinking about. In class discussion that day, I actually meant to bring up (and maybe did- memory is fleeting) how startled I was by how thoughtful and, to risk a wildly anachronistic term, sustainable his agricultural advice was. I cannot say that his advice is modern, however, given that our policies since the industrial age at least have been very much the opposite, as seen in the factory farming industry. I suppose Sir Walter’s advice to actually invest in the well-being of one’s land and animals is a bit of a depressing alert that it has been our instinct to go for the short-term profit rather than the long-term gain since medieval times- but also that people have been advising against it since then, so that’s something!

  2. Very nice reflection on how much we can tell from our records about how much medieval shepherds thought about the feelings of their sheep! The difficulty here, as with all our sources, is that we cannot assume that medieval shepherds or estate managers did not worry about their sheep getting homesick or being affected by bad shepherding simply because they did not write about it. Stephanie is right to worry about imputing modern concerns onto medieval practices, but there is also the possibility to consider that we have the concerns that we do as heirs of these practices--i.e. might it not be the case that we (in the Anglophone world) worry about the feelings of sheep is because estate managers like Walter did, too? Very good use of our readings to puzzle over a tricky question! RLFB

  3. While it is temping to approach this topic—what were sheep in relation to people in the Middle Ages?—by imposing guidelines on types of relationships between sheep and people, it may also be instructive to approach the topic from a different, less categorical point of view. That is to say, imposing two categories on these types of relationships—participants or possessions—can leave out the nuanced ways in which sheep and people interacted. Taking the relationships out of these strict categories can allow the relationships brought up both by the previous commenter and by Professor Fulton Brown to be considered. It is perhaps better to consider us and animals, and those relationships that come when species meet, on a continuum. Some medieval philosophers thought this way. As we have seen, both in medieval times and today, all of the boundaries that exist between humans and animals are not natural—they are constructed by the humans themselves. What sort of human/animal understanding could we come to if we did not categorize animals as so strictly different from ourselves, or in relationship to ourselves, e.g. participants or possessions? It seems like, if this were to be done, a significant impact would be felt by human beings. But to return to the question of sheep’s psychology. Does the assignment of psychological value or qualities—companionship, loyalty, depression—influence how we categorize animals? To conceptualize the animal outside of the category that we have assigned to it is troubling or puzzling—but is it troubling in and of itself or because it forces us to change our conceptualization of the world?