Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part I: High Fiber

This week we are starting the first of a four (I, II, III, IVa, IVb) part look at pre-modern textile production. As with our series on farming and iron, we are going to follow the sequence of production from the growing of fibers all the way to the finished object, with a focus not merely on the methods of production but also on the people doing the producing at each stage of production. Now while I have titled this series, “Clothing, How Did They Make It?” it is worth noting that textiles were used for a lot more than just clothing. All sorts of household goods were produced this way. In addition, of course, clothing was sometimes made out of non-textile materials (although, as we’ve discussed, far less often than is portrayed in popular culture; in Eurasia, by and large, clothing meant textiles). But what we are going to focus on here is really textiles and (of course) the people that make them. Leather working will have to wait for another day.

That said, even within textiles, to try to keep the scope manageable I am going to narrow things down further, by focusing on just two major fibers: wool and flax (which makes linen) and thus mostly focus on how this worked in the Mediterranean, broadly construed (so the Near East, North Africa and Europe). I am choosing these two fibers because they dominate in locally produced textiles in the Near East and Europe for much of the pre-modern period. Cotton, another important fiber, only seems to have been cultivated in Egypt in the Roman period (though, as far as I can tell, at some point Egyptian cotton cultivation seems to have largely dropped off, only to boom again in the Early Modern though this is a point about which I can express little confidence in my knowledge) and for much of Europe remained an expensive import fiber through the Middle Ages, transported from South Asia. Likewise, silk remained in the pre-modern period almost entirely an expensive import good from far to the East of the Mediterranean. Of course any import good must be local somewhere, but my expertise in pre-modern textile production does not extend so far into South or East Asia, so the task of laying that out must fall to someone else. We will talk a bit about these fibers as they arrive in the Mediterranean as trade goods, but mostly stay focused on wool and flax.

The very rarity of these goods in the Near East and Europe confined them to the upper-classes, while wool and linen often remained the everyday fibers (though even the very wealthy used textiles of high quality wool and linen as well) and so saw a lot more use. More importantly to our investigation here, for the ancient Mediterranean (where my knowledge is best) wool and linen were by far the fibers most involved in the household textile production. Of course other fibers were used locally in the Mediterranean as well – hemp, nettle and even tree-bast, but the vast majority of textiles being produced in the broader Mediterranean world were wool and linen and so we are going to focus on that.

From the British Museum, a fourth century bell krater depicting the Judgement of Paris (which in turn leads to the Trojan War). Paris, at the time, was living in exile as a shepherd – the occupation notable because of its lowly status. Here he is seen seated with his shepherd’s crook (the standing male figure is Hermes); the animal below Paris is a sheep (you can see the twisted horns; to the right is a dog, presumably assisting in the herding.

Worry not, we will have more than enough to talk about with just those two fibers. This week, we’re going to focus just on producing the raw fibers – how flax is farmed and how wool is produced from sheep. Next week, we’ll look at the work that goes into getting those raw fibers ready to be spun into thread. The week after that, we’ll look at the process of turning those processed fibers first into thread (by spinning) and then into cloth (by weaving). Then finally in the last week, we’ll look at color treatments (dying and bleaching) as well as the role of markets and trade. As always, we’ll try to direct attention not only to the processes, but also to the workers who performed those processes and their place in the broader society.

And that brings us to the second reason to discuss textile production, which is that in the broader pre-modern Mediterranean much of the textile production was done within the household and nearly all of that household production was done by women. Now as we’ll see, household spinning, weaving and sewing is by no means the only jobs involved in the production of the clothes that say an Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman or early Medieval European family would wear and some important stages of production here were also generally done by men. As I have mentioned before, the literary sources for the pre-modern world generally prefer to talk about individuals who are rich, male, and free, but as we will see, the workers involved in each stage of textile production are almost never rich, frequently not male and sometimes not free. Nevertheless investigating textile production gives us a chance to peer into parts of the lives of some historical subjects that we very rarely hear about: women (rich and poor, slave and free), along with enslaved or poor men doing work that left them well outside of the ‘polite society’ of our literary sources.

I should note at the beginning that while I am going to try to keep this discussion general and at points cover technological or regional variations in how textiles in wool and linen were made, in practice a lot of what I am going to write here is going to reflect in particular practice during the Roman period (especially the period of the Republic) and even more specifically than that in Roman Italy, simply because that is where my own specialist knowledge is best. Consult your friendly neighborhood primary sources when looking to apply these systems on a wider basis either geographically or chronologically!

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(Bibliography Note: For the sake of keeping these posts readable, especially since I don’t have a footnote function here, I am not going to laboriously cite everything at each point of reference, but instead I’m going to include a short selected bibliography here up front for the whole series. For the beginner looking to get their feet under themselves when it comes to pre-modern textile production, E.W. Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times (1994) is the standard starting point. Also note E.W. Barber, Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean (1991). More specific to the Romans, M. Gleba, Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy (2008) is an indispensable book which gathers together a lot of the quite technical investigation – often done by archaeologists rather than historians because the literary record on textile production can be quite disappointing – in a fairly easy to read location. Several of the essays in M. Gleba and J. Pásztókai-Szeöke Making Textiles in Pre-Roman Times and Roman Times: People, Places, Identities (2013), while more technical in nature, were also useful here, especially on the question of who did this sort of thing. Also on this point, L. L. Lovén, The Imagery of Textile Making: Gender and Status in the Funerary Iconography of Textile Manufacture in Roman Italy and Gaul (2002). On textile production for soldiers, note in the Greek context G.S. Aldrete, S. Bartel and A. Aldrete, Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery(2013) which also has some very useful time-labor study data; for Roman soldiers note the essays in M.L. Nosch ed., Wearing the Cloak: Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times (2012) and G. Sumner, Roman Military Dress (2009). On the cloth trade in medieval Europe, I’ve relied heavily on J.S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier (2018) and T.H. Lloyd, The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages (1977). On fulling in the Roman context, note especially M. Flohr, The World of the Fullo: Work, Economy and Society in Roman Italy (2013).

If it sounds like pre-modern textile production is one of those fields that is only now, somewhat belatedly receiving the attention it has long deserved, that is by and large correct! As you can see, compared to the discussion of farming or iron-working, the key references here are often decades younger (one is left to assume that it is something to do with the fact that this work was largely done by women that led to it being so late to receive its due study). Fortunately, archaeology is giving us a lot of the evidence that our literary sources don’t, especially for the ancient world, which has enabled a lot of this work. May it continue!)

Meet the Fibers! Flax and Linen

Linen fabrics are produced from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. This common flax plant is the domesticated version of the wild Linum bienne, domesticated in the northern part of the fertile crescent no later than 7,000 BC, although wild flax fibers were being used to produce textiles even earlier than that. Consequently the use of linen fibers goes way back. In fact, the oldest known textiles are made from flax, including finds of fibers at Nahal Hemar (7th millennium BC), Çayönü (c. 7000 BC), and Çatalhöyük (c. 6000 BC). Evidence for the cultivation of flax goes back even further, with linseed from Tell Asward in Syria dating to the 8th millennium BC. Flax was being cultivated in Central Europe no later than the second half of the 7th millennium BC.

Via Wikipedia, the flax plant, showing the seeds and – more importantly for our purpose – the stalk which, when fully grown contains the bast fibers used to make linen.

Flax is a productive little plant that produces two main products: flaxseeds, which are used to produce linseed oil, and the bast of the flax plant which is used to make linen. The latter is our focus here so I am not going to go into linseed oil’s uses, but it should be noted that there is an alternative product. That said, my impression is that flax grown for its seeds is generally grown differently (spaced out, rather than packed together) and generally different varieties are used. That said, flax cultivated for one purpose might produce some of the other product (Pliny notes this, NH 19.16-17)

Flax was a cultivated plant (which is to say, it was farmed); fortunately we have discussed quite a bit about farming in general already and so we can really focus in on the peculiarities of the flax plant itself; if you are interested in the activities and social status of farmers, well, we have a post for that. Flax farming by and large seems to have involved mostly the same sorts of farmers as cereal farming; I get no sense in the Greco-Roman agronomists, for instance, that this was done by different folks. Flax farming changed relatively little prior to mechanization; my impression reading on it is that flax was farmed and gathered much the same in 1900 BC as it was in 1900 AD. In terms of soil, flax requires quite a lot of moisture and so grows best in either deep loam or (more commonly used in the ancient world, it seems) alluvial soils; in both cases, it should be loose, unconsolidated ‘sandy’ (that is, small particle-sized) soil. Alluvium is loose, often sandy soil that is the product of erosion (that is to say, it is soil composed of the bits that have been eroded off of larger rocks by the action of water); the most common place to see lots of alluvial soil are in the flood-plains of rivers where it is deposited as the river floods forming what is called an alluvial plain.

Thus Pliny (NH 19.7ff) when listing the best flax-growing regions names places like Tarragona, Spain (with the seasonally flooding Francoli river) or the Po River Basin in Italy (with its large alluvial plain) and of course Egypt (with the regular flooding of the Nile). Pliny notes that linen from Sætabis in Spain was the best in Europe, followed by linens produced in the Po River Valley, though it seems clear that the rider here “made in Europe” in his text is meant to exclude Egypt, which would have otherwise dominated the list – Pliny openly admits that Egyptian flax, while making the least durable kind of linen (see below on harvesting times) was the most valuable (though he also treats Egyptian cotton which, by his time, was being cultivated in limited amounts in the Nile delta, as a form of flax, which obviously it isn’t). Flax is fairly resistant to short bursts of mild freezing temperatures, but prolonged freezes will kill the plants; it seems little accident that most flax production seems to have happened in fairly warm or at least temperate climes.

Flax is (as Pliny notes) a very fast growing plant – indeed, the fastest growing crop he knew of. Modern flax grown for fibers is generally ready for harvesting in roughly 100 days and this accords broadly with what the ancient agronomists suggest; Pliny says that flax is sown in spring and harvested in summer, while the other agronomists, likely reflecting practice further south suggest sowing in late fall and early winter and likewise harvesting relatively quickly. Flax that is going to be harvested for fibers tended to be planed in dense bunches or rows (Columella notes this method but does not endorse it, De Rust. 2.10.17). The reason for this is that when placed close together, the plants compete for sunlight by growing taller and thinner and with fewer flowers, which maximizes the amount of stalk per plant. By contrast, flax planted for linseed oil is more spaced out to maximize the number of flowers (and thus the amount of seed) per plant.

Via Wikipedia, De vlasoogt (“the flax harvest), a 1904 painting by Emile Claus (1849-1924). The harvesting method here is immediately recognizable to someone who has read Pliny’s (23/4 – 79) description of how flax is harvested; it seems fairly little changes over the intervening 1800 years.

Once the flax was considered ready for harvest, it was pulled up out of the ground (including the root system) in bunches in handfuls rather than as individual plants (as you can see in the image) and then hung to dry. Both Pliny and Columella (De Rust. 2.10.17) note that this pulling method tended to tear up the soil and regarded this as very damaging; they are on to something, since none of the flax plant is left to be plowed under, flax cultivation does seem to be fairly tough on the soil (for this reason Columella advises only growing flax in regions with ideal soil for it and where it brings a good profit). The exact time of harvest varies based on the use intended for the flax fibers; harvesting the flax later results in stronger, but rougher, fibers. Late-pulled flax is called “yellow” flax (for the same reason that blond hair is called ‘flaxen’ – it’s yellow!) and was used for more work-a-day fabrics and ropes.

Now we’re going to leave aside our flax there for now – hanging in bundles to dry in order to be ready for further processing. Instead, we’re going to move over to our other fiber, wool.

Where there’s a Wool…

Our second fiber, wool, as readers may already be aware, comes from sheep (although goat and horse-hair were used rarely for some applications; we’re going to stick to sheep’s wool here). The coat of a sheep (its fleece) has three kinds of fibers in it: wool, kemp and medullated fibers. Kemp fibers are fairly weak and brittle and won’t accept dye and so are generally undesirable, although some amount of kemp may end up in wool yarn. Likewise, medullated fibers are essentially hair (rather than wool) and lack elasticity. But the wool itself, composed mostly of the protein keratin along with some lipids, is crimped (meaning the fibers are not straight but very bendy, which is very valuable for making fine yarns) and it is also elastic. There are reasons for certain applications to want to leave some of the kemp in a wool yarn that we’ll get to later, but for the most part it is the actual wool fibers that are desirable.

Via Wikipedia, modern shepherd grazing sheep in the Făgăraș Mountains, Romania. Though I don’t discuss it much, I should note that the shepherd’s staff – not always with the iconic curved ‘crook’ top – also seems to have made it to the present mostly unchanged, much like sheep shears (see below).

Sheep themselves probably descend from the wild mouflon (Ovis orientalis) native to a belt of uplands bending over the northern edge of the fertile crescent from eastern Turkey through Armenia and Azerbaijan to Iran. The fleeces of these early sheep would have been mostly hair and kemp rather than wool, but by the 4th millennium BC (as early as c. 3700 BC), we see substantial evidence that selective breeding for more wool and thicker coats has begun to produce sheep as we know them. Domestication of course will have taken place quite a bit earlier (selective breeding is slow to produce such changes), perhaps around 10,000 BC in Mesopotamia, spreading to the Indus river valley by 7,000 BC and to southern France by 6,000 BC, while the replacement of many hair breeds of sheep with wooly sheep selectively bred for wool production in Northern Mesopotamia dates to the third century BC (on this, note E. Vila and D. Helmer, “The Expansion of Sheep Herding and the Development of Wool Production in the Ancient Near East” in Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, eds. C. Breniquet and C. Michel (2014), which has the archaeozoological data). That process of selective breeding has produced a wide variety of local breeds of sheep, which can vary based on the sort of wool they produce, but also fitness for local topography and conditions.

As we’ve already seen in our discussion on Steppe logistics, sheep are incredibly useful animals to raise as a herd of sheep can produce meat, milk, wool, hides and (in places where trees are scarce) dung for fuel. They also only require grass to survive and reproduce quickly; sheep gestate for just five months and then reach sexual maturity in just six months, allowing herds of sheep to reproduce to fill a pasture quickly, which is important especially if the intent is not merely to raise the sheep for wool but also for meat and hides. Since we’ve already been over the role that sheep fill in a nomadic, Eurasian context, I am instead going to focus on how sheep are raised in the agrarian context.

…There’s a Way

While it is possible to raise sheep via ranching (that is, by keeping them on a very large farm with enough pastureland to support them in that one expansive location) and indeed sheep are raised this way today (mostly in the Americas), this isn’t the dominant model for raising sheep in the pre-modern world or even in the modern world. Pre-modern societies generally operated under conditions where good farmland was scarce, so flat expanses of fertile land were likely to already be in use for traditional agriculture and thus unavailable for expansive ranching (though there does seem to be some exception to this in Britain in the late 1300s after the Black Death; the sudden increase in the cost of labor – due to so many of the laborers dying – seems to have incentivized turning farmland over to pasture since raising sheep was more labor efficient even if it was less land efficient and there was suddenly a shortage of labor and a surplus of land). Instead, for reasons we’ve already discussed, pastoralism tends to get pushed out of the best farmland and the areas nearest to towns by more intensive uses of the land like agriculture and horticulture, leaving most of the raising and herding of sheep to be done in the rougher more marginal lands, often in upland regions too rugged for farming but with enough grass to grow. The most common subsistence strategy for using this land is called transhumance.

Via Wikipedia, a map of Romanian and Vlachs transhumance routes on the Balkan Peninsula. Note how the routes generally involve alternating between lowland pastures and upland pastures (vertical transhumance).

Transhumant pastoralists are not ‘true’ nomads; they maintain permanent dwellings. However, as the seasons change, the transhumant pastoralists will herd their flocks seasonally between different fixed pastures (typically a summer pasture and a winter pasture). Transhumance can be either vertical (going up or down hills or mountains) or horizontal (pastures at the same altitude are shifted between, to avoid exhausting the grass and sometimes to bring the herds closer to key markets at the appropriate times). In the settled, agrarian zone, vertical transhumance seems to be the most common by far, so that’s what we’re going to focus on, though much of what we’re going to talk about here is also applicable to systems of horizontal transhumance. This strategy could be practiced both over relatively short distances (often with relatively smaller flocks) and over large areas with significant transits (see the maps in this section; often very significant transits) between pastures; my impression is that the latter tends to also involve larger flocks and more workers in the operation. It generally seems to be the case that wool production tended towards the larger scale transhumance. The great advantage of this system is that it allows for disparate marginal (for agriculture) lands to be productively used to raise livestock.

This pattern of transhumant pastoralism has been dominant for a long time – long enough to leave permanent imprints on language. For instance, the Alps got that name from the Old High German alpa, alba meaning which indicated a mountain pasturage. And I should note that the success of this model of pastoralism is clearly conveyed by its durability; transhumant pastoralism is still practiced all over the world today, often in much the same way as it was centuries or millennia ago, with a dash of modern technology to make it a bit easier. That thought may seem strange to many Americans (for whom transhumance tends to seem very odd) but probably much less strange to readers almost anywhere else (including Europe) who may well have observed the continuing cycles of transhumant pastoralism (now often accomplished by moving the flocks by rail or truck rather than on the hoof) in their own countries.

Also Via Wikipedia, a map of transhumance routes in Spain, where the droving roads are arrange north-south; my understanding of transhumance in Spain is that much of this is horizontal transhumance.

For these pastoralists, home is a permanent dwelling, typically in a village in the valley or low-land area at the foot of the higher ground. That low-land will generally be where the winter pastures are. During the summer season, some of the shepherds – it does not generally require all of them as herds can be moved and watched with relatively few people – will drive the flocks of sheep up to the higher pastures, while the bulk of the population remains in the village below. This process of moving the sheep (or any livestock) over fairly long distances is called droving and such livestock is said to be moved ‘on the hoof‘ (assuming it isn’t, as in the modern world, transported by truck or rail). Sheep are fairly docile animals which herd together naturally and so a skilled drover can keep large flock of sheep together on their own, sometimes with the assistance of dogs bred and trained for the purpose, but just as frequently not. While cattle droving, especially in the United States, is often done from horseback, sheep and goats are generally moved with the drovers on foot.

Ed, Shearing

Of course you have to get the wool off of the sheep and this is a process that seems to have changed significantly with the dawn of the iron age. The earliest breeds of sheep didn’t grow their coats continuously, but rather stopped growing their fleece in the spring and thus in the late spring the fleece begins to shed and peel away from the body. This seems to be how most sheep ‘shearing’ (I use the term loosely, as no shearing is taking place) was done prior to the iron age. This technique is still used, particularly in the Shetlands, where it is called rooing, but it also occasionally known as ‘plucking.’ It has been surmised that regular knives (typically of bone) or perhaps flint scrapers sometimes found archaeologically might have assisted with this process, but such objects are multi-purpose and difficult to distinguish as being attached to a particular purpose. It has also been suggested that flint scrapers might have been used eventually in the early bronze age shearing of sheep with continuously growing coats, but Breniquet and Michel express doubts (Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean (2014)). Another quirk of this early process and sheep that shed on their own is that unlike with modern sheep shearing, one cannot wash the sheep before removing the wool – since it is already being shed, you would simply wash it away. Plucking or rooing stuck around for certain breeds of sheep in the Roman sphere at least until the first century, but in most places not much further.

Via Wikipedia, a set of cowbells and more importantly a pair of shears from Spain, the latter dating to c. 250 BC. The basic design is effectively identical to shears recovered from Italy from deposits as early as 700 BC; on those see M. Gleba, Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy (2008) which includes line-drawings various iron shears.

The availability of iron for tools represented a fairly major change. Iron, unlike bronze or copper, is springy which makes the standard design of sheep shears (two blades, connected by a u-shaped or w-shaped metal span called a ‘bow’ (see the image)) and the spring action (the bending and springing back into place of the metal span) possible. The basic design of these blade shears has remained almost entirely unchanged since at least the 8th century BC, with the only major difference I’ve seen being that modern blade shears tend to favor a ‘w-shape’ to the hinge, while ancient shears are made with a simpler u-shape. Ancient iron shears generally varied between 10 to 15cm in length (generally closer to 15 than to 10) and modern shears…generally vary between 10cm and 18.5cm in length; roughly the same size. Sometimes – more often than you might think – the ideal form of an unpowered tool was developed fairly early and then subsequently changed very little.

Modern shearing, either bladed or mechanical, is likely to be done by a specialized sheep shearer, but the overall impression from my reading is that pre-modern sheep shearing was generally done by the shepherds themselves and so was often less of a specialized task with a pastoral community. There are interesting variations in what the evidence implies for the gender of those shearing sheep; sheers for sheep are common burial goods in Iron Age Italy, but their gender associations vary by place. In the culturally Gallic regions of North Italy, it seems that shears were assumed to belong to men (based on associated grave goods; that’s a method with some pitfalls, but the consistency of the correlation is still striking), while in Sicily, shears were found in both male and female burials and more often in the latter (but again, based on associated grave goods). Shears also show up in the excavation of settlements in wool-producing regions in Italy.

Via Wikipedia, a modern set of blade shears. Apart from the slight change int he design of the bow, little changed from their iron-age forerunners.

That said, the process of shearing sheep in the ancient world wasn’t much different from blade shearing still occasionally performed today on modern sheep. Typically before shearing, the sheep are washed to try to get the wool as clean as possible (though further post-shearing cleaning is almost always done); typically this was done using natural bodies of moving water (like a stream or shallow river). The sheep’s legs are then restrained either by hand or being tied and the fleece is cut off; I can find, in looking at depictions of blade shearing in various periods, no consistency in terms of what is sheared first or in what order (save that – as well known to anyone familiar with sheep – that a sheep’s face and rear end are often sheared more often; this is because modern breeds of sheep have been selectively bred to produce so much wool that these areas must be cleared regularly to keep the fleece clean and to keep the sheep from being ‘wigged’ – that is, having its wool block its eyes). Nevertheless, a skilled shearer can shear sheep extremely fast; individuals shearing 100-200 sheep a day is not an uncommon report for modern commercial shearers working with tools that, as noted, are not much different from ancient tools. That speed was important; sheep were generally sheared just once a year and usually in a fairly narrow time window (spring or very early summer; in medieval England this was generally in June and was often accompanied by a rural festival) so getting them all sheared and ready to go before they went up the mountain towards the summer pasture probably did need to be done in fairly short order.


When thinking about the people involved in these activities, at least in most agrarian contexts, it is often important to distinguish between two groups of people: the shepherds themselves who tend the sheep and the often far higher status individuals or organizations which might own the herd or rent out the pasture-land. At the same time there is also often a disconnect between how ancient sources sometimes discuss shepherding and shepherds in general and how ancient societies tended to value actual shepherds in practice.

One the one hand, there is a robust literature, beginning in the Greek and Roman literary corpus, which idealizes rustic life, particularly shepherding. Starting with Theocritus’ short pastoral poems (called eidullion, ‘ little poems’ from where we get the word idyll as in calling a scene ‘idyllic’) and running through Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics, which present the pure rural simplicity of the countryside and pastoralism as a welcome contrast to the often ‘sordid’ and unhealthy environment of the city (remember the way these ‘gentlemen farmers’ tend to think about merchants and markets in cities, after all). This idolization only becomes more intense in Europe with the advent of Christianity and the grand metaphorical significance that shepherding in particular – as distinct from other rural activities – takes on. It would thus be easy to assume just from reading this sort of high literature that shepherds were well thought of, especially in a Christian social context.

Via Wikipedia, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)’s painting The Shepherdess (1889), meant to portray that pastoral idyll. It is striking that the woman so painted is not, in fact, a shepardess, but in fact a model that Bouguereau uses more than once (also in his ‘The Bohemian’ (1890). It is hard not to notice that this woman clearly did not have a job that required being outdoors in the sun all day every day.
Bouguereau has a number of paintings in this mold of ‘shepherdesses’ none of which, to my knowledge, featured painting actual shepherds, but rather dressing up his models as poor peasant shepherds and painting them – an apt metaphor for the way elites idolized shepherds in general while remaining entirely indifferent to any particular shepherds if ever I’ve heard one.

But by and large just as the elite love of the idea of rural simplicity did not generally lead to a love of actual farming peasants, so too their love of the idea of pastoral simplicity did not generally lead to an actually high opinion of the folks who did that work, nor did it lead shepherds to any kind of high social status. While the exact social position of shepherds and their relation to the broader society could vary (as we’ll see), they tended to be relatively low-status and poor individuals. The ‘shepherds out tending their flocks by night’ of Luke 2:8 are not important men. Indeed, the ‘night crew’ of shepherds are some of the lowest status and poorest free individuals who could possibly see that religious sign, a point in the text that is missed by many modern readers.

We see a variety of shepherding strategies which impact what kind of shepherds might be out with flocks. Small peasant households might keep a few sheep (along with say, chickens or pigs) to provide for the household’s wool needs. In some cases, a village might pool those sheep together to make a flock which one person would tend (a job which often seems to have gone to either fairly young individuals or else the elderly – that is, someone who might not be as useful in the hard labor on the farm itself, since shepherding doesn’t necessarily require a lot of strength).

Via Wikipedia, modern shepherds driving a flock in Lesotho.

Larger operations by dedicated shepherds often involved wage-laborers or enslaved laborers tending flocks of sheep and pastured owned by other, higher status and wealthier individuals. Thus for instance, Diodorus’s description of the Sicilian slave revolts (in 135 and 104 BC; the original Diodorus, book 36, is lost but two summaries survive, those of Photios and Constantine Porphyrogennetos), we’re told that the the flocks belonging to the large estates of Roman magnates in the lowland down by the coast were tended by enslaved shepherds in significant numbers (and treated very poorly; when a Greek source like Diodorus who is entirely comfortable with slavery is nevertheless noting the poor treatment, it must be poor indeed). Likewise, there is a fair bit of evidence from ancient Mesopotamia indicating that the flocks of sheep themselves were often under state or temple control (e.g. W. Sallaberger, “The Value of Wool in Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia” or S. Zawadzki, “‘If you have sheep, you have all you need’: Sheep Husbandry and Wool in the Economy of the Neo-Babylonian Ebaddar Temple at Sippar” both in Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean eds. C. Breniquet and C. Michel, (2014)) and that it was the temple or the king that might sell or dispose of the wool; the shepherds were only laborers (free or unfree is often unclear).

Full time shepherds could – they didn’t always, but could – come under suspicion as effective outsiders to the fully sedentary rural communities they served as well. Diodorus in the aforementioned example is quick to note that banditry in Sicily was rife because the enslaved shepherds were often armed – armed to protect their flocks because banditry was rife; we are left to conclude that Diodorus at least thinks the banditry in question is being perpetrated by the shepherds, evidently sometimes rustling sheep from other enslaved shepherds. A similar disdain for the semi-nomadic herding culture of peoples like the Amorites is sometimes evident in Mesopotamian texts. And of course that the very nature of transhumance meant that shepherds often spent long periods away from home sleeping with their flocks in temporary shelters and generally ‘roughing it’ exposed to weather.

Consequently, while owning large numbers of sheep and pastures for them could be a contributor to high status (and thus merit elite remark, as with Pliny’s long discussion of sheep in book 8 of his Natural History), actually tending sheep was mostly a low-status job and not generally well renumerated (keeping on poor Pliny here, it is notable that in several long sections on sheep he never once mentions shepherds). Shepherds were thus generally towards the bottom of the social pyramid in most pre-modern societies, below the serf or freeholding farmer who might at least be entitled to the continued use of their land.

And that is where we will stop for this week – with our flax drying in bundles on racks and our wool freshly sheared off of our sheep but otherwise not yet processed. Next week, we’ll look at the steps required to take those raw fibers and turn them into something truly useful.

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