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.” 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. 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. 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.).
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. 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. 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.” 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.