“He would have preferred, I dare to say, to have all his sheep turn black if
she could have had a ship to herself.” The Miller’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer c. 1386
From the Viking era onwards, sheep, and more notably their wool became ever more significant in the economy of the British Isles, and by the middle ages so fundamental was the revenue from wool alone propped up the British economy while Edward III waged the Hundred Year War on France. The war in part was to help protect the British wool trade with Flanders against competition from the Burgundians.
In earlier times sheep breeds of brown, grey, black and white fleeces were common, but by the beginning of the 13th Century it was white sheep which were deemed most valuable. As noted in the quote from The Canterbury Tales black sheep were considered inferior.
Sheep breeds common of the medieval period are all considered rare breeds today due to the gains in popularity of the ‘more superior’ Merino sheep breeds that emerged from Spain during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.
Medieval sheep were what we consider dual purpose sheep today (produced for both wool and meat), they were bigger than their Viking predecessors and were good for both wool and meat production. One of the oldest of these breeds is the Ryeland, which got their name from being grazed on rye pastures by the monks of Leominster int he 14th century. The fine wool of Ryeland sheep was revered even in Elizabethan times when Queen Elizabeth I would only wear stockings of ‘Lemster’ wool.
Other breeds of sheep such as the Badger-Faced Welsh Mountain breeds including the Torddu and Torwen were specifically developed in the middle ages in response to the cloth trade calling for flock masters to select whiter fleeces. However while sheep breeds with white fleeces were becoming more prevalent, there were exceptions such as the Black Welsh Mountain sheep. According to contemporary Welsh written sources black-fleeced sheep were established in the 13th Century. Perhaps the Black Welsh Mountain were bred for their self-reliance and hardiness in the Welsh mountain climate and to supply cheaper wool for the local populations.
During the medieval period the characteristics of sheep were driven by commercial factors. It was all about the quantity and quality of the wool. Although generally considered hardy like their predecessors of the Viking Era, sheep of the middle ages were larger in size and much stockier in build (similar to modern breeds).
With the exception of breeds such as the Wiltshire Horn, who self-moult, the majority of sheep during the middle ages were actively sheared and would start producing wool from the age of 6-8 months. The annual yields for each animal varied from up to 2-3kg for Ryeland and up to 10kg for Cotswold and Lincoln. The length of staple and fineness of the wool were also important factors in the value of the wool, for example in 1337 the wool of Hereford was priced at 10 marks, and in Shropshire 9.5 marks. In 1343 in Lincolnshire it was 14 marks, and that from Kent, Essex and Sussex at just 6 Marks.
Staple lengths varied significantly between breeds, with Lincoln having amongst the longest of all sheep at between 8-18 inches, and Ryeland the shortest at around 3 inches. In terms of fineness of wool a micron count of 1-20 is considered fine, 22-29 medium, 31-34 coarse and 36-40 very coarse by todays standards. The table below shows a comparison between breeds of the Viking Era, those of the middle ages, and the revered Merino, which would later mark the decline of British wool superiority. The results show seem to indicate sheep breed selection during the medieval period was mainly driven by wool yield rather than any other factor as wool exports from England increased from 25,000 sacks in 1280 to 45,000 sacks by 1310.
|Breed||Staple Length (inches)||Wool Fineness (microns)||Annual Yield (kg/animal)|
|Merino||2.5 – 3.5||17 – 24||5.4 – 9.0|
|Cheviot||6 -12||28 – 31||3.0 – 3.5|
|Cotswold||7 -13||32 – 40||5.5 – 10.0|
|Lincoln||8 -18||36 – 38||9.0|
|Ryeland||2.5 – 3.5||26 – 32||2.0 – 3.0|
|Black Welsh Mountain||2 – 4||28 – 31||1.4 – 1.8|
|Welsh Badger-Faced||2.5 – 3.5||26 – 34||1.5 – 2.0|
|Spælsau||–||37 – 40 (tog)|
19 – 22 (thel)
|Icelandic||–||28 – 31 (tog)|
19 – 22 (thel)
|1.8 – 3.0|
|Gutefår||10 – 14||28 – 32||–|
|Manx Laghtan||2 – 5||28 – 32||1.0 – 1.5|
|Soay||2 – 6||29 – 36||1.5 – 2.25|
|Hebredian||2 -6||29 – 36||1.5 2.25|
Chaucer, G., c.1389, The Canterbury Tales
Mem. Fountains Abbey, 1272-1279, Calendar Close Rolls, p.387
Rotuli Parliamentorum II (1343) & IV -V
Power, E., 1941, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, University of London
Whitwell, R.J., 1904, English Monastries and the Wool Trade in the Thirteenth Century, Vierteljahrschrift Fur Sozial Und Wirtschaftsgeschichte II, p.33
International Fleeces, 2010, Fibre fineness: Bradford Count and Micron Count