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

This post is also available in audio form, thanks to the efforts of our volunteer narrator.

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.

135 thoughts on “Collections: Clothing, How Did They Make It? Part I: High Fiber

    1. More typos:

      “we’ll look at weaving as well as dying, bleaching and other color treatments treatments.” – Dyeing and only one “treatments”

      “Linen fabrics are produced from the fibers of the flat plant, Linum usitatissimum.” – flax plant,

      “closer to key markets at the appropriate timeski” – time, unless that is some joke I don’t get.

      “Ed, Shearing” – Huh?

      1. actually tending sheep was mostly a low-status job and not generally well renumerated

        Remunerated, I presume.

        Renumerated is a word, but not the one that makes sense.

  1. If someone is interested in pittoresque modern images of transhumance you could google “Almabtrieb”, maybe add “Schafe”. Safe arrival of mostly cattle from the summer pastures is still a reason for local festivals and tourist attractions in Germany today. Persistence of the low social status of sheperds as wage laborers well into modern times is demonstrated in preserved sheperd’s housing, e.g. That building, originally from 1744, consists of two tiny (even for the time) flats for the hired sheperds (larger windows) and a large and relatively comfortable stable for the village sheep. At least in that context (southern Germany, some distance away from the Alps, pre-industrial modern times), areas unsuitable for agriculture e.g. limestone cliffs and steep hillsides, were quite close to the fields. In fall, winter and early spring, when they were moving their flocks, they were invited in the villages they passed to erect folds for their animals overnight on fallow or already harvested fields to collect the manure as fertilizer, here a link for a modern version of this in Spain:

  2. > 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 the Austrian Alps near where I live vertical transhumance is still a big deal. It’s mostly cows rather than sheep these days, and the herdsmen don’t all live permanently up the mountain in summer like they did a generation or two ago, although some still do. But bringing the cows down in Autumn is still a big festival event. (And very much does not involve rail or trucks, although there’s often a tractor driving in front of the herd)

    These days tourists are often the other seasonal crop – herder in summer, ski instructor or lift attendant in winter.

    1. Up here in northern Sweden transhumance of cows seems to have largely died out but was definitely still a thing only one or two generations ago) but sami people still herd reindeers and having grazing rights. (closer to the coasts during winter, up in the mountains during summer)

  3. Here you can see the symbolic payment of 100 maravedís for the right for the passage of the Mesta (the root word for mustang) trough the capital of Spain, Madrid. Now is mostly a tradition but there are still tons of properly marked secondary roads that are used for this even today.

  4. Reminds me of the public fields next to my village in Northamptonshire where cattle or sheep will often be grazed during the summer and allowed to grow long in the winter, although it’s rented out by the village so sometimes it won’t be used at all.

  5. Wonder if shepard with sling is as common as media considers it, or if since many shepards where slaves and wage labourers they wouldn’t necessarily be given weapons.

    1. Slings are easy enough to make, so even a slave Shepard can obtain one (assuming they see one – they might not be creative enough to think it up on their own, but once one does it will spread). They are rather useful so I’d expect them to be used unless active measures are taken to prevent it. A Shepard has plenty of time to practice so even though using a sling is a skilled task, they can easily learn that skill. A Sling is also portable, taking little weight or space. (compare to a bow which can be awkward to carry)

      A sling means you can eat one of the birds or rabbits that happen along for lunch. Discussions on armies here at ACOUP point out that armies have to forage most of the food they eat along the march because it isn’t possible for a human to carry more than about a month of food with them. Shepherds may have some ability to go back to a village for more (depending on how far they travel to the highlands), but that food needs to be paid for somehow. A Shepard who can forage his own lunch eats better than one who has to depend on food from home.

      A sling is a tool to use to protect the flocks. Wolves, bears, and cats are all a danger to the flock. A sling from a distance is an easy way to take care of the threat without getting close enough to be in danger yourself. Since shepherds tends to be alone nobody knows if you killed the danger with your bare and or with a sling, so there is no real glory in the much more dangerous way to do that (what you say in back in the village may be different from the truth!).

      Then there is banditry. As the article itself pointed out, Shepherds both encountered bandits, and may have been the bandits. Either way a weapon is a useful tool. A sling isn’t the best for this, but bandits use the tools they can get not the best ones for the job. A bandit with a sword looks more dangerous than one with a sling, which when the Shepard/bandit wants to appear as not dangerous is an important factor. (I’d expect the Shepard less dangerous with a sword because of lack of training, but the sword looks worse)

      Free vs non-free enters in a bit, but I’d expect that a weapon like a sling is important enough that even non-free Shepard are encouraged to have a sling to take care of the above. It means the owner needs to have the ability control a slave who is potentially dangerous, but there are other ways for a slave to be dangerous, and the advantages of an armed Shepard must be considered. If you don’t let your slave have a sling that means you have someone else who does have a weapon to take care of those tasks – a tough trade off.

      None of the above means that they are universal though, as with anything there are other things to do with time, and other ways to accomplish the same goals as you would with a sling. I will defer to real experts as to how common they are. My argument is only that the trope seems plausible.

      1. Long distance transhumanta required tooltip which were also weapons: knife, axe, some staf or heavy club. The mountains or steep hills are ideal for ambush and close range combat so the sheperds were usually tough individuals who could survive a few brawls. The flock had high value so they also had to avid conflict or they will pay The miting sheeps. The sheperds operațiuni on smalț distances could hale been low status individuale. The ones for long range were rutier on the mediul social Lehel. They ate meat and drank milk daily which was quite a tine before modern age. They could easily start their own flock. They move through several frontiers and had working relations with all kind of officials and elites. Their informal status was quite above their oficial one.

    2. My question is always “how can you stop a shepherd from making and keeping a sling, and learning how to use it? The materials are universal, as is the ammunition, and they can be easily concealed.

      1. It’s even worse, the most important thing you need for a sling is rope made from some sort of fiber. You can’t realisticly seperate shepereds from the ability to make slings, if they think they need them.
        The people best well known for their slinger were also sheep herders, except for the Inca who used Lamas instead. This is not an coincidence.

      2. Also, if they’re young boys, you -definitely- cannot stop them from making a sling.

        I work on a farm and the lads who come and go are nuts about air rifles. But more than one of them can actually use a sling despite there being those far easier, usually better, options for hunting rats or birds or whatever the flavour of the day is.

    3. If you can trust a slave or labourer with a large number of valuable, mobile animals, you can surely trust him with a sling.

      IIRC, Thomas Thistlewood sold one of his slaves a musket, shortly before Tacky’s Revolt on 18th century Jamaica.

    4. I seem to recall that tribes and areas with many shepherds were considered prime sources of good skirmishers in the Classical period, Shepherding teaches self reliance, use of light weapons and good foraging skills, all very useful for light troops

  6. I don’t know if this is interesting to anybody here but in New Zealand we have a tremendous amount of cattle and sheep raised in the way described here and it’s a regular political issue, especially on the grounds of agricultural water pollution.

  7. I did work sometime ago in a personal project about the history of cotton and I would be quite interested in any source about the mentioned roman-egyptian cotton. Most sources I could find then talked its use in Arabia/India/Persia during the period. Strabo and Plinius did mention cotton as something exotic imported from the East and I think there was something in the Periplus. There was a vague mention of it being used by Egyptian priests in the Upper Egypt but I couldn’t locate any information about its local use (let alone its local production). So even if it is not the topic of the article, I’d be grateful if Bret can share that bibliography.

  8. Just as many fabrics stretch, goals may stretch (a.k.a. scope creep): wool -> felt, plant fibers -> paper. Avoid the long work of spinning and weaving; go directly from fibers to sheets.

    1. You can’t go directly from fiber to sheets (with the non-relevant exception of tapa [which is something like papyrus, only different]). Felting 1: requires more fiber per unit of area, 2: Has very little flexibility; and won’t drape. 3: Is much heaver per unit of area (see 1). 4: Can’t be made as an interstitial labor, but must be done all at once.

      It’s great for thinks like boots, hats, tent walls (e.g. Yurts) and insulation, It makes pretty good armor. it’s not good as “fabric”.

      I say this as a spinner, a weaver, and one who prepares fiber. I’ve got a few bags of horsehair I’ve not gotten around to felting up, which is why it’s not yet a hat.

  9. Hey there, big fan of your work. I just wanted to question your use of the term ‘Near East’. I bumped on this because – and a bit of cursory Googling seems to confirm this – it seems rather Eurocentric. Wiki suggests it has a use, though declining, in academic history, which I suppose is why you use it, i.e. it has a well understood meaning in your field.

    I wonder, have you considered ‘West Asia’ instead? This term avoids Eurocentrism, is congruent with other language you use (South Asia), and refers to the same area.

    If you prefer to stick with Near East, how come?

    1. “Europe” is traditionally considered to extend to the Urals, which to me would put “West Asia” on their other side, in the middle of what is now Russia. Using “West Asia” to mean the Near East sounds like a fine way of causing confusion, without making life better for one single human being.

      Anyway, Europe shares its longitude with Europe, so you could just as easily call the term Afrocentric…

      1. At danger of stating the obvious, that last sentence should have read: “Anyway, Europe shares its longitude with Africa, so you could just as easily call the term Afrocentric…”

        One day I will learn to read what I write.

  10. Were shepherds more likely to be of the herd-owning family in more marginal and less stratified areas? I’m thinking specifically of Hebrew Bible literature, where herding sheep is portrayed as being done by the children or in-laws of wealthy patriarchs. What would e.g. a 6th-century BCE Judean audience have thought about Moses tending Jethro’s sheep?

  11. “Domestication of course will have taken place quite a bit earlier (selective breeding is slow to produce such changes)”.

    Not sure about domestication being slow; witness the domestication of the fox (which from what I remember used to be considered impossible).

    Of course this depends on what you mean by “domestication”. There are degrees.

    1. Ancient domestication is rather different than modern domestication, not in the least because ancient domestication was generally (as far as I know) applied to species that people were already using.

      Let’s look at the domestication of the fox. It started in 1884 or 1887 (depending on what you mean by “started”) on Prince Edward Island, and it was selling foxes within fifty years…for the equivalent of over half a million modern dollars each. Dmitry Belyayev (and grad student/project manager Lyudmila Trut) took the tamest foxes from a by then nearly 70-year-old program and tried to domesticate them further in the experiment I assume you’re referring to; results were published 26 years later (1978)…and there were still foxes who were hostile or indifferent towards humans, after more than a century of domestication-for-domestication’s-sake. And there’s a more recent study which questions the findings of that experiment. So no, foxes weren’t domesticated the way e.g. sheep were.

      1. I had been thinking about the fox thing myself when that was mentioned in the post and it’s good to hear some perspective.

  12. Given the name of this post, I was expecting the Scythians to be mentioned. (though I assume it’s more or less the same as linen production, but with a more interesting alternative to lineseed as the secondary product)

  13. “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).”

    Provided, of course, that this person does not have an unreasonable tendency for crying wolf at the wrong time.

    Also, as folklore attests, as a solitary outdoors occupation for a ne’er-do-well young’un this is also one of the best professions for accidentally stumbling upon forgotten dungeons and secret caves full of treasures and magical sleeping beauties.

    I’d also add that there’s a lot of unique lore concerning shepherding, not only because it is halfway removed from standard sedentary farming. In Eastern Europe, for example, many of the traditionally shepherding regions were at some point settled by the Vlachs, the remnants of whose traditions can be found in the local folkways long after they disappeared from the region as a separate identity.

    1. Flax was definitely cultivated all over europe, though in the north it seems to have been more mariginal (IE: used for underwear or other specific pieces of clothing9

      1. Linen is less warm than wool, which at least during the Little Ice Age of post-1200 CE militates against using a lot of it North of the Alps. Conversely, period-accurate wardrobes of multiple layers of wool tends to be a little too warm for our current climate.
        OTOH, linen feels better on the skin, at least in my opinion, so it makes sense to have a linen undergarment and layer al sorts of wool over it.

        1. Linen is also washable, wool isn’t or at least is less so. Linen next to the skin was frequently washed and protected the wool garments from sweat.

          1. In fact, in Tudor times, you cleanse yourself by rubbing yourself with dry linen, which was then washed and sundried. Safer in days when pure water was not reliable.

          2. There is a report from Ruth Goodman that she tried wearing Tudor underclothes for a few months, washing them frequently but not bathing, and no one noticed. A friend who tried the reverse experiment, bathing frequently, but not washing the Tudor underclothes, stank to high heaven.

            I suppose this shows why people used to put so much emphasis on laundries, and so little on bathing.

          3. Bathing was understandably unpopular in Europe during the Little Ice Age because getting naked and wet was an invitation to pneumonia.
            Baths were taken, they were considered a luxury by the rich and bathing in herb seeped water was supposed to be good for the health. The whole elaborate process included an hour or two snug in a warm bed after bathing. Exposure to the open air immediately afterwards was believed to be dangerous.
            Henry VIII apparently loved bathing and built elaborate bathrooms in ever palace. His daughter Elizabeth took after him in that but even for them bathing was not a daily chore but a special occasion.

    2. “Provided, of course, that this person does not have an unreasonable tendency for crying wolf at the wrong time.”–Or, like some teenagers I know (or have been) have a tendency to stay up late and then fall asleep under the haystack.

      1. Herding requires a lot of apare time. The animale are brought to the camp at sunset so they can eat and drink as much as possible. They are then milked , the milk is stored, the sheperd and the dog eat. During the night there are alerts due to wild animale. At sunrise you wake up to est and take the animale to the water source. This happens în summer where darkness is about 7-8 hours. A sheperd will have some 6 hours of sleep duminica the night and 1-2 powernaps of half hour during the day

  14. Regarding the map of Spain, most of the purple lines are indeed horizontal transhumance. They go from mountains in the north to the cities on the south and cross several mountain ranges. I suspect they linked market cities in the north with market cities in the south. North-south patterns like that are usual in Spain due to the medieval kingdoms area with patterns like that. 1-4 will cover the former kingdom of Leon to the leonese Extremadura whilst 5-7 and 9 cover from Old Castile to the new Castilian areas to the south. 8 crosses between both areas (but Leon and Castille were in a personal union from XIII century, so I suspect it will be a more recent route). I would suspect a pattern in which a shepherd who is part of the Mesta guild starts the year in Burgos (main castilian market in the north, with many important wool traders), moves to the south reaching annual market fair in cities like Toledo etc and ends in the markets of the southern cities in Seville or Cordoba before going back. Leon and Castile had a common guild in the Mesta but the routes are more likely to be regional following the relationship between certain areas.

    The green, red and black ones, as well as purple number 10, are different. Not only they are shorter but they are all withing the same geographic area. Most of them are in the Ebro valley, from the rest the black ones are some coastal-mountain areas in Catalonia and the purple ones are between the city of Valencia and the mountain area in its frontier with Cuenca. They were the area of action of other guilds (Casa de Ganaderos de Zaragoza, etc) but the patterns seem more vertical. The routes are not only shorter but typically are linking a main city in the valley (Tudela for the navarrese green routes, Zaragoza for the aragonese red ones, Lleida/Tarragona/Girona for the catalonian blacks, Valencia for #10) with a mountain area in its hinterland (Pyrenees/Iberian system)

    1. It looks like only one of those routes crosses the border into Portugal. Is there a natural barrier there?

      1. No, it is a political frontier. That’s why I said the image shows typical historical patterns in Spain (and Iberia). Most central and Western Iberia is geographically oriented in an East-West direction, with river basins more or less in parallel (Duero-Tajo-Guadiana-Guadalquivir, going from north to south). In ancient times in which river navigation was logistically key, the expected pattern would thus be East-West. Oporto would be the natural port for a big part of northern Spain whilst Lisbon/Setubal would be the same for Central Spain (for Toledo/Madrid).

        However, after the Muslim conquest in the 8th century, many independent entities survived in the northern mountain areas. Their expansion was usually in a north to south direction, pushing back the Muslims after they fragmented. The petty kingdoms coalesced dynastically, but there are many signs of that north-south process. For example (I don’t know how to link or add an image): > this comes from a genetic study > this is a linguistic map
        I think not even one route crossed to Portugal. If you were thinking about #1, it ends very close to the southern limit for the leonese area (check it with the last green part of the second image I link).

        That’s why I said that the purple like seemed to be horizontal trashumance. Herds would spend winter months in the south where the weather is not cold, but the routes cross only the political area of influence of an administrative division whilst more or less going perpendicular to the natural ways. It would allow the herds to go between cities with commercial links and back along the year. I guess Brett will mention it in future posts of this series, but market fairs were usually held on fixed dates and were important social and economic events. For example, Burgos, in northern Spain, was a key link to merchants who exported the wool by sea to Europe. I would expect it to be a destination during summer since Burgos is way colder than Andalusia and it makes sense not to be there in winter. I googled it and, indeed, it seems may-june was the moment to close wool deals in Burgos. Complementary, it makes sense to have a market fair in winter in Seville so you can keep moving the herd. This way you avoid both exhausting the pastures and the market. The route was under the same king, which meant the privileges the king gave to the Mesta (the wool guild in the kingdom) applied during the whole route. That would ensure protection from exactions by local lords, security from bandits, gracing privileges versus farmers, etc It will also means the markets are expected to be arranged in a complementary way so you can go from market A to B to C along the yearly route passing by several of them. However, cities usually competed for the privilege of those market.

        The other routes were different since they were in Eastern Spain. That area drains in the Mediterranean, an has shorter rivers (with the exception of the Ebro). There were also north-south patterns, but squeezed due to the Iberian system doing a wedge to their West. Also, the political entities were smaller. Routes there went from mountain to valley, and can be done in shorter times. The capital/market cities tended to be on the valley, so the routes were likely going down in winter to the more temperate city in the valley, selling the wool/meat, and going back in summer to the mountains to graze. The idea is similar, but in this part the height difference is more relevant.

  15. Great article. I’m really looking forward to the next ones in the set. I’m a bit surprised to learn that cotton was around in Egypt during antiquity. I had just assumed it was introduced in the Early Modern Period. I wonder how it got there, and when cultivation started in the region.

  16. Linen fabrics are produced from the fibers of the flat plant, Linum usitatissimum.

    My plan was to make a joke about how this was probably a typo, but still accurate. Unfortunately, a quick Google search failed to turn up any evidence that flax plants are flat in any sense of the word (with the exception of pressed flowers, of course). I guess the leaves and petals are each individually flat, but that’s true of most plants.

    Late-pulled flax is called “yellow” flax (for the same reason that blond hair is called ‘flaxen’ – it’s yellow!)

    It’s always a pleasant surprise when things are named for straightforward, sensible reasons!

    Kemp fibers are fairly weak and brittle and won’t accept die…

    I know there should be a joke I can make about this—comparing them to a fictional character who’s too flimsy to accomplish anything in a fight scene yet who still keeps enduring regardless—but nothing’s coming to mind.
    I guess this comment is going to be filled with me trying to think of funny ways to point out typos and giving up halfway through.

    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.

    I dunno how common this is among readers of the blog, but I am always at least as interested in the sociological mechanics of ancient industry as how the actual labor works. The fact that there’s always a separation between the people who do the work and the people who reap the profit, without the mechanisms of modern capitalism facilitating this relationship, is at once a constant fact of history and never quite the same from example to example. It’s a bit like war—it always changes, but despite our best efforts, it never goes away.

    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.

    Another unfortunate constant of human society is how the upper class “respect” the labor of the working class in a way that doesn’t require respecting the actual people comprising the working class. Look at how essential workers were treated during the pandemic—constantly praised for putting their lives on the line to keep the economy functioning, usually without much effort to reduce the extent to which their lives were on the line.

    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).

    Circling back to the Bible, a shepherd fighting a mighty warrior and winning is literally the original David and Goliath story.

    1. I just wanted to point out that in the David and Goliath narrative, David is usually referred to as a “נַעַר”: a “youth” or a “lad”, definitely not a full adult.

      1. What is a full adult though? This different in different cultures over time. I know over history/cultures the age of adulthood ranted from 10-12 all the way up to over 40. (the later wasn’t an age so much as when dad decided you were an adult)

        The narrative seems to support the idea that he was in his late teens: not an adult (by modern thinking), but already at full size and strength. (His adult brothers fighting would have been in their 30s). Given that David was given Souls armor in the story (he refused because he wasn’t used it them not because they didn’t fit), and then was able to use the giant’s sword to kill the giant (the stone seems to have knocked him unconscious), David can’t have been too young.

        While I know what is in the bible fairly well, that doesn’t extend to the language or the cultures of the people it describes and so I’m not entirely sure what lad or youth really meant. If anyone actually has expertise in this I’d be interested.

        1. I agree with you David’s age. I disagree that Goliath was merely knocked unconscious.

          “The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.”

          1. The translation that I read most recently says killed with the sword. Other translations are as you say: cut his head off after he was dead. I don’t know which it was.

        2. נַעַר is kind of a vague term in and of itself. It usually (but not always, there are definite exceptions, like Samuel’s novitiate in the temple) seems to refer to people in the sort of 13-20 age bracket. But Naarim tend to be considered old enough for ritual obligations, but still part of someone else’s household and deferential to the household head in a way that even other subordinate males are not. The only time I can think of offhand with an explicit connection to an age is from Genesis 37:2. Joseph is also described as a נַעַר and is stated to be 17 years old.

          I did not mean to imply that David was like a little kid. I meant my original comment in the sense that the task of shepherding his father’s sheep went to the youngest and the brother who wasn’t socially (if not necessarily physically) considered fully into manhood yet.

    2. “Another unfortunate constant of human society is how the upper class “respect” the labor of the working class in a way that doesn’t require respecting the actual people comprising the working class.”

      Not so sure about that: lots of people at the top of the totem pole disrespect those lower down.

      But generally, people engage in discussions with other members of their own social class. Members of other social classes are objects of discussion, not part of the discussion. So they can easily be brought up to serve some rhetorical purpose, and then forgotten about. Just because a moderately important person, trying to win an argument with a more important person, claims to be acting on behalf of French peasants, the Russian working class or African-Americans, doesn’t mean they have any idea what any of those people want. For that matter, when any of those people described something as “noble”, they would almost never be thinking about the behaviour of actual noblemen.

      I’m sure important people talking about the behaviour of shepherds were trying to criticise each other, or get each other to do something. Any actual shepherd’s would be shepherding sheep, miles away.

  17. “That thought may seem strange to many Americans (for whom transhumance tends to seem very odd) ”

    According to Wikipedia at least: “Transhumance, in most cases relying on use of public land, continues to be an important ranching practice in the western United States.”

    It certainly seems strange that something would be found around the world but not the United States. After all, the grass grows in much the same way everywhere.

  18. “Meet the fibers?”


    “Meet the Rets” was RIGHT THERE.

    Meet the Rets.
    Meet the Rets!
    Step right up and greet the Rets!
    Bring your kiddies,
    Bring your wife.
    Guaranteed to have the time of your life!

  19. Doesnt the name of the Alps come from the Latin “albus” meaning white, owing to their snowy caps? Plus the sentence talking about it coming from old German seems to have accidentally a word.

    1. Wiktionary says Alps comes from the Latin Alpes, which means the same thing, and the origin of Alpes is unknown. It might be related to albus, or it might come from a word that meant to grow or rise, or it might come from a Celtic or non-Indo-European name for the Alps.

  20. 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 once visited the open-air-museum in Lüche-Dannenberg, Germany. They claimed that the flax-farmers there were rather better of than their cereal farming contemporaries. They gave two reasons: a) turning flax into fine linnen is a skilled job, that has to be done locally were the flax is produced, linnen as a commodity is more valuable and can be more easily distance traded than grain. b) Fine linnen cloth given as part of the dowery and inherited down the female line gave the families something of value that could be traded in in times of need.

    All of that obviously ended with the advent of industiral fabrics.

  21. Also notice that Bouguereau’s shepherdess has clean feet on a dirt path. That doesn’t last long!

    1. And I only noticed after I hit ‘post’ that I suspect long curly hair kept down rather than up would probably also be rather in the way. When I was sorting through my pictures of actual shepherds, I noticed that long hair was always kept up, presumably for the obvious practical benefits.

      1. That, too. Though long hair was likely because it can be tied up. Hair short enough that it will stay out of the way on its own has a horrible tendency to become long enough that it gets in the way some time before it becomes long enough to tie back.

        1. Not always true… My hair is long enough to grab and tie back. (With bangs & bits in front of the ears. )
          Takes less than than a minute to do. Lean forwards brush all your hair over the top of your head, gather it in One hand.cut the Ponytail where you can see it, at the bridge of the nose( slip the k if behind it, cut Out.)
          Shake you head . Dispose of the cut ends.
          It is long enough to tie on the back of your neck. Will not get in your eyes or mouth.

          Yes it grows. But it is so fast to fix!
          Just Repeat
          You don’t
          even Need a mirror.

          1. But you have long enough hair to tie back. Hair that stays out of the way on its own is a LOT shorter.

  22. Tangent for one of my favorite factoids: The silkworm is the only fully domesticated insect. It’s been under intense cultivation for so long the wild type is extinct.

    1. That’s odd. It existed in the wild in Greece — they made silk from it.

      Inferior silk, since they didn’t control its diet and they gathered the cocoons after the silkworms broke out.

      1. Did they exist in Greece tho? The byzantine silk industry is proverbial based on stolen Chinese silkworms

    2. At least according to wikipedia (and The Fabric of Civilization), that factoid may be slightly misleading. The wild silk moth, Bombyx mandarina, certainly exists in the wild. The domestic silk moth, Bombyx mori, is flightless, uncamouflaged, and cannot survive in the wild.

      In that sense, the domestic silk moth is much more domesticated than, for example, dogs, horses, or sheep, which certainly can survive in the wild.

    3. It occurs to me that, given the shortness of insect lifespans, silk moths may have had many more generations of domestication than vertebrate domesticates. A quick Google search suggests silk moths live less than three months from hatching to death. So yes, silk moths have experienced more generations of domestication than horses, cows, sheep, dogs, etc. (dogs are the oldest domesticate in time and dogs have been domesticated for about 3000 dog lifespans as a high-end estimate, 3000 silk moth lifespans is 750 years). I wonder if this has something to do with why they’ve been more radically changed by domestication.

  23. Yay, finally textiles. Though I already read the Barber. 🙂

    Sharp tangent: Re the Black Death shift to pasturage as more labor efficient… If I wanted to justify some fantasy population like Tolkien’s elves, who seem well-fed, dense enough to hold their own, and relatively egalitarian without tons of hard labor, would keeping lots of livestock on what could be good (rainy) farmland be a reasonable approach?

    1. I think with the Elves there’s the strong possibility that they don’t have the same nutritional requirements as humans – see a large group of people, including children, crossing the pack-ice of the Helkaraxe, which took them several years (how long exactly is questionable, as it involves whatever a Year of the Trees is). They seem to have an ability to at least temporarily sustain their bodies with the strengths of their spirits so it’s entirely possible that eating the number of calories that humans require isn’t necessary needed to sustain life over a temporary period. They also have magic, and it can be very strong (Galadriel controls the climate of Lothlorien, though she’s using the Ring Nenya, but I don’t see why some much weaker climate control, or control over agricultural plants or animals isn’t possible).

      The Noldor and Doriathrim both have a culture of hunting, and though we do have an example of a vegetarian (or possibly vegan) elven culture in the Laiquendi of Ossiriand it’s noted as being unusual, so most Elven cultures are almost certainly omnivorous (for the coastal dwelling ones, seafood would be a source of food as well). Given that there are major civilizations in forests it’s also possible that gathering as well as hunting was a big source of food. Turin and Gwindor pass through orchards on their way to Nargothrond, but it’s post-Nirnaeth and iirc they don’t see anyone so the orchards might have been abandoned due to safety reasons. Gondolin, otoh, seems to grow mostly flowers.

      All Eldar were taught the art of making lembas from Orome and all of the Elven cultures we see are Eldarin, so they would all have access to it; if you’re writing about an Avarin society, they presumably would not have lembas bread.

      For the Valinorean ones, it’s notable that pre-Tree death (and possibly post as well?), the lands of Aman seem to be entropy-free in some ways and that foodstuffs don’t rot (what exactly this means with regards to general ecology is completely up in the air and I think you could do whatever you want with it. But Tirion was at an equatorial latitude and Alqualonde subtropical, so whatever crops the Exiles brought to Beleriand likely wouldn’t be able to grow without modification or magic due to the different climate.

      There are words associated with agriculture in the early versions of Tolkien’s conlangs (cheese, for example), but I don’t think they’re valid in LotR Quenya (plenty of Qenya vocabulary is disallowed in mature Quenya’s phonotactics), so up in the air if you want to use them.

      So I think it’s entirely possible that you don’t need to rely on what’s humanly possible for feeding Tolkien Elves.

      1. I didn’t want to go full Tolkien again, that was just my inspiration. I’m just curious about the real feasibility of a settled livestock-oriented culture in places that get enough rainfall for farming. We don’t seem to have seen it on Earth.

        1. Have you considered really rich fishing grounds? They could even be in a mangrove forest.

        2. I’d be interested to know if that ever existed even briefly, but I should think the overwhelming population weight benefits of sedentary farmers inevitably push less efficient land use societies off arable land.

  24. “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” by Christopher Marlowe (1599) takes the romantic view of the life; Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd “(1600) is more realistic:

    Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
    When rivers rage and rocks grow cold;
    And Philomel becometh dumb;
    The rest complain of cares to come.

    The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
    To wayward winter reckoning yields;
    A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
    Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

  25. Amateurs are still working flax. A group in Victoria, BC (Canada) have a You Tube video out showing their project:

    Some members of the Ottawa Valley Weavers and Spinners Guild (Ontario, Canada, much shorter growing season) also had a flax to linen project last year. Other members are involved in turning stinging nettles (“the silk of Northern Europe”) into fibre for weaving.

    Many members of spinning/weaving guilds are involved in various aspects of wool production, from keeping sheep to prepping fleeces, including skirting, washing, carding, combing, dyeing, spinning, felting, weaving and knitting. So many techniques have been lost as processing flax and wool became commercial enterprises. It will be interesting to see how the old techniques have changed, or remained the same.

  26. ” Of course other fibers were used locally in the Mediterranean as well – hemp, nettle and even tree-bast”
    I was looking for hemp because it used to be a major textile fiber source here in Hungary so I expected that; but… nettles? I thought it was a fairy tale extreme in that tale (Brother Grimms, I think) of the girl making shirts out of nettle for her brothers turned into swans. I had no idea it was really possible to use nettle as a fiber source.
    Very interesting article. I find it a bit surprising that they used to pull up flax by the hand without any instrument since a large amount of flax had to be harvested – I wonder why they did not use scythes? Was it so important to use the root part of the plant as well?

  27. “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 ”

    I have to wonder about this process of leaving mistreated slaves in charge of a lot of valuable, mobile property for months on end. I wonder how the owners kept the slaves trustworthy, given they had such little reason for loyalty.

    1. Well, in the event it triggered two massive revolts, large enough to require sending a consular army, so clearly it didn’t work so well.

      But then, short of revolt, what options would enslaved shepherds have? At the end of their route of transhumance was, no doubt, the villa, with an overseer perfectly capable of counting sheep. They could run off with the sheep, but to where? Sicily is an island, albeit a big one and Diodorus tells us that enslaved workers there were branded.. The only choice would be to run off into banditry in the hill country, which was a life every bit as harsh, but which carried to added danger of retaliation by the authorities.

      Unfortunately, escaping to freedom in slave societies is extremely hard, because the entire society is set up to prevent it.

      1. I don’t doubt it, and IIRC from The Fatal Shore sheep raising in early Australia relied heavily on forced (convict) labour. Still, it would seem easier to control people kept under your eye – or your overseers – than people sent to wander across the interior with a valuable flock. (I tend to assume the flock would sell for a lot more than the shepherd.)

        I imagine the owners would rely a lot on the branding, and have to accept they had a lot more control over the easy-to-measure number of sheep they got back than the harder-to-measure condition of said sheep.

      2. What prevented people from just getting themselves lost? Show up in a new community where you are unknown and introduce yourself as a free person. How could anyone tell otherwise?

        1. The fact that these societies are frequently very insular and jealously guard the privileges of residence and citizenship and so are likely to ask serious questions about who you are and where you are from, combined with the existence of paid slave hunters.

          Also things like branding, making enslaved people wear collars or other identifying restraints and dress and in this case the fact that the entire island was ruled by a single state (Rome).

          1. I suppose that ties in with the historic use of relegation and other forms of banishment as a response to crime.

        2. And then what? They don’t know you, they have no reason to trust you, they know it’s perfectly possible that you are a criminal of some kind. . .

    2. It’s easy to imagine that a cause of the mistreatment was _because_ of the unsupervised work – from the slave (and sheep) owner’s perspective, it might make sense to punish the slaves for any loss of sheep, in order to keep them attentive while at “work”.

      1. Roman slavery had its carrots: you could acumulate property, buy your freedom or be released by your master, go up the hierarchy of slaves, etc. Rome was similar to Arab Khaliffate în absorbing a large percent of slaves into the free population and even elite ranks. A roman citizen was always în need of some clients who could vote for him or help him în legal, economic or securitate master. A Fred slave had the smallest costa în the patronage network.

  28. While bronze is still my favorite for a “how did they make it”, the discussion on flax made me think that oil would also be good.

  29. It is odd that the two main textiles are ones I am only vaguely familiar with, I don’t think I actually own anything made of wool or linen

    1. They are pretty expensive, so that makes sense. (I do have a bunch of wool/linen things, but only because I specifically went out to buy a bunch of new household stuff, including clothes, towels, sheets, etc., and was willing to pay for what are hopefully better materials for certain roles. Also meant doing lots of reading on the materials, including a bit of history and how they get made, because I’m curious, as you can tell by my reading this blog)

      Big reasons seem that they aren’t as easy to industrially process. Oil based fibers and Rayon didn’t exist yet (so no polyester or Nylon which you probably do have). Cotton I’ve read is more pliable/easier to feed through machinery, so ended up as an industrial fabric of choice over the others. (I read an article from a few years ago about someone trying to remove the stiff/scratchy stuff from linen and hemp to make them easier to process, otherwise they are much easier plants to grow, though like a lot of technical startups I haven’t heard much since.) I’m not as sure about wool, possibly isn’t as strong of a fabric for processing

      In ancient times, with no machinery, this isn’t an issue, so linen and wool can be the go to textiles just fine.

      1. Post was kind of jumbled, so summary is:

        Agrarian/pre-modern times: no artificial fibers, fibers processed manually, linen and wool competitive with cotton

        Industrial times: Lots of artificial fibers, they and cotton are easier to process, linen and wool become rarer.

    2. Wool, at least, is very, very popular among outdoor hobbyists and workers. It cannot be beaten by artificial materials for warmth, durability, and antimicrobial properties. Best of all, it keeps you warm even when it is wet. And with increasing concern about sustainability and micro-plastics among the hobbyist set (hikers etc), it’s the best option there, too. It’s becoming more affordable and better quality – all my favorite clothes at the moment are 100% wool, and not all of them are too warm to wear in summer!

      Linen needs to be blended with another fiber to wear well, since it’s otherwise brittle and creases terribly. I have a few vintage linen items that look beautiful but are a pain to maintain. It’s still the gold standard for table linens (hah), but you’re more likely to find it as a linen/cotton blend for clothes, and it’s definitely pricey.

  30. Formerly main textiles. First slavery drove King Cotton into the lead, and now various synthetics are the majority, though cotton is still 25%.

    “In 1960 American mills used 6.5 billion pounds of fibre, of which 64 per cent was cotton and 29 per cent synthetics. A decade later, the situation was reversed. While the overall amount of fibre used had increased by a third, 58 per cent of what was being used was synthetics and cotton made up just 39 per cent… Synthetics make up well over 60 per cent of a global fibre market that is steadily growing… In 2010, for example, it was estimated that 150 billion garments were stitched together, enough to provide each person alive with twenty new articles of clothing.” — The Golden Thread

    Which is weird for me because my wardrobe is mostly majority cotton, with wool socks. Though on checking labels, a bunch of my cotton clothes are minority polyester, and my winter coat is all nylon and polyester — though lightweight winter fabrics is something synthetics are good at, I think.

    Book says that the fast-fashion industry is enabled by synthetics:

    “Today’s large, mass-market fashion brands rely on synthetic fabrics. Without them fast fashion probably wouldn’t exist. Synthetics are cheap, quick to produce and can be readily made to order in exact quantities, colours and prints in time for the fortnightly, weekly or even daily drops of new clothes that the largest and most successful brands, such as Zara, H&M and Topshop, demand.”

    But for me the cheap 100% cotton T-shirt is king.

    1. The cotton gin drove cotton to the lead. Otherwise it would have been in the lead from pre-history, seeing as slavery existed since before written records.

    1. There seems to be some kind of purity idea about mixing going on – all kinds of things can’t get mixed, and not for any clear reasons.You can’t mix fibres in clothing, you can’t mix seeds on a field, you can’t mix animals under a yoke (something I imagine wouldn’t be very practical anyway).

      These kinds of religious and cultural laws don’t need to serve any practical purpose.

  31. One fiber I thought played a bigger role in antiquity but do not see mentioned is jute. I know this is focused on wool and linen, but was jute relatively important, unimportant. Where does it fit in the big picture?

    1. Relatively unimportant, I’d say, for the simple reason that clothing is likely to dwarf all other applications of textiles even in an industrialized society, more so in a pre-industrial one – and jute just isn’t really suited for that purpose (religious practices of sackcloth-wearing notwithstanding).

  32. Bret, since I’ve fallen behind in reading your posts, I am *not* trying to read all the other comments (and possible typo corrections) before I post for you those I found:

    productive little plant that produces two main products > (really? Should we assume you repeated all these forms of the word produce deliberately and intentionally just for the fun of it?)
    planed in dense bunches or rows -> planted
    the appropriate timeski ). -> times). (or am I missing a joke?)
    Caption for transhumance routes in Spain: roads are arrange north-south -> arranged
    Caption for blade shears: slight change int he design -> in the
    rent out the pasture-land -> pastureland

  33. Bret said: Late-pulled flax is called “yellow” flax (for the same reason that blond hair is called ‘flaxen’ – it’s yellow!)

    This explanation does not quite fit. It is not all blonde hair that is called “flaxen,” only the “whitest” of blonde hair, just as the highest quality flax is a creamy white rather than “yellow”/?

  34. “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”
    I think this is wrong.
    Modern commercial shearers use machine shears that are powered by electricity. There have been reports of animal abuse due to going very fast (throwing sheep around and deep cuts to their very fragile skin).
    There is NO WAY one person can shear 100 sheep a day with hand-powered tools.
    I shear my own sheep with the tools you talk about, by hand, no machines. I am slow and take my time, so I’m not the best example, but I’m happy if I get one done in an hour, with help. People I know who are faster and less concerned about the quality of the wool (it is mostly thrown away nowadays) can perhaps do two per hour by hand. 100 a day with those old shears is impossible.

    1. Anecdotes are not data, your personal experience is not generalizable.

      If we take the example of the 2017 *blade* shearing championships here 200 does seem high, but these folks could certainly do 100 sheep in a long day (6 in one hour under the pressure of competition and constraints of special rules!) and the sheep are very clearly not being harmed. The record for machine shearing is something like 20 seconds per sheep (and per those contest videos, entirely possible to do that at speed without harm), and there’s economic incentive not to harm the sheep in the process.

      A half million sheep are blade shorn each year in New Zealand, and reports there are that individuals there average about 140 sheep per 8 hour work day, with some particularly adept individuals perhaps reaching 200.

      1. For humans, the haircutting world record is 526 in 24 hours, meaning one in less than three minutes. Is this the figure one would use when calculating hair-cutting times in history? Is that even what one would expect when going to a barber’s today?
        As for the abuse, of course not all sheep are cut when shorn, but injuries of various degrees of severity do happen regularly to both sheep and workers, there’s info online for those who are interested. Going fast does increase the chances of accidents the same way driving fast does, even though not every time and everyone.
        The economic incentive won’t mean much: there’s documented animal abuse in all sectors and pretty much all countries, and unfortunately when you have extremely large numbers of animals (as they do in major sheep-rearing countries) it becomes more economical to do things fast and cheaply and leave a few animals behind, than it does to take great care of every single one of them, which is very time-consuming. Sheep probably have the best life of all farmed animals, but still, I’ve done some research on sheep husbandry in Australia and New Zealand especially, and I was shocked at the profit-making, industrial logic and at the losses that were considered acceptable in big operations or in the live trade.

        1. I’m not interested in debating animal welfare here, since it’s really besides the main point, and you’re clearly unwilling to bring a single citation to the table.

          “There is NO WAY one person can shear 100 sheep a day with hand-powered tools.”
          “100 a day with those old shears is impossible.”
          You said that it was quite impossible for anyone to blade sheer 100 sheep in a day. I have cited actual working averages as well as champions to indicate it is entirely possible, and in some regions, quite routine. You’ve now moved that goal post to the 24 hour record, for no reason at all except to attempt a strawman against my actual arguments.

          I believe I have supported the argument that 100 sheep per individual is quite well possible, and that your anecdote that you are capable of a mere 8 or so per day is not reflective of either the historic written records nor of current real world experiences in actual wool production. You have not presented a single citation or argument that actually addresses that.

          1. Fine: I’ll admit that there are people in the world today who are extremely fast and can actually shear 100 sheep a day with blades, and more (with the bellies already taken off though, apparently). I will not deny it since it seems to be proven. This doesn’t mean it’s “routine”, though, as you say, since most people use machine shearers now (it would be uneconomical to do otherwise, where electricity is cheap and labour expensive). Even the article you link it says that it’s not routine. Blade shearing that many sheep is more a sport than what most people actually do when they work.
            I still believe this is not representative of actual historical practice, for a few reasons. One is that these individuals are exceptional, not the norm. They are the very best in the world and many modern shearers get a lot of practice from traveling around the world spending months every year shearing. So I would guess they are better trained and faster that people who had many other things to do during the year. Also, many injuries and strains happen every year to the workers who are shearing enormous numbers of sheep (look up work injuries in Australia in agriculture). I have no data about the past, I’ll admit, but I do wonder whether people who could not afford to take time off to recover would not take it more slowly to protect their own health – people who are self-employed or can cheat their employers somehow might be reluctant to overwork themselves. Shearing is hard on your back, arms and legs. Even if you could sustain such averages, would you, if nobody then paid you if you couldn’t work anymore for a while?
            Secondly, I’ve had a look at the video you posted and it doesn’t seem like going so fast would be the best option when labour was cheap. You can clearly see at least one sheep get cut; it also looks like, if you prioritise speed at the expense of everything else, which you would only do either when competing or when labour is expensive, you might cut the wool at an irregular length and not get the best out of it. Personally, that’s why I go so slow (also because, working independently and artisanally, which many people did before industrialisation, you value quality over quantity and don’t have extreme time pressure).
            I won’t provide citations because I’ve spent years reading about sheep here and there and I’ve gathered my own impressions based on what I’ve read. I haven’t kept the references. I agree this wouldn’t be acceptable if I had written a book on it, but since I’m just commenting here based on personal experience and on what I know, if people are interested they can do the research themselves. It’s all very readily available online.
            You can look up things like “shearing damage to tits” yourself, and see that this does happen often. If you go slowly, and take great care, it won’t happen. But there’s an economic incentive to do that only if you have fewer sheep or they are worth more individually.
            One of the reasons I am doing this whole sheep rearing and wool processing thing myself is to get an idea about what goes into producing wool garments, through experience. You can choose not to believe me, but doing things yourself teaches you a lot, even if you don’t become the best of the best. It also teaches you that what is doable in theory or on paper doesn’t always work in real life, and that conditions vary.

            Finally, I have read countless examples of animal abuse in the industry, more than I could link here even if I wanted to. I’m surprised you’re having such a hard time believing me, since it’s all very well documented and it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that industrial farming of any kind is very conducive to animal abuses. The issue of welfare is relevant to the discussion to the extent that if a certain practice causes too much damage to the animals, you might want to slow it down and take better care. I don’t know in detail how it was done in the past, but Australia is not representative of, say, Middle Age Europe: the farms and herds are huge, there are industrial tools for herding, fencing, feeding and shearing sheep that were not available back then, and you can afford losses because you have so many animals.

  35. Super-interesting as always, seems like this is a typo: “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 timeski )”

    Timeski should just be times?

  36. As a great companion piece to this essay, I suggest “The Secrets of Edwardian Sheep Keeping” on youtube channel “Absolute History”. In 50 minutes, the video goes over raising sheep, shearing them, sorting wool by quality, spinning, weaving, fulling (with a water mill machine), and hanging on the hooks to stretch it out. And quite a bit more. They went through the trouble of recreating the process, for you to see. The channel is a goldmine in general, but it focuses on victorian and edwardian times in England.

  37. Shearer’s son (and also shearer’s grandson) here, who spent several years working in the sheds before getting the heck out and joining those office professionals my dad was so desperate not to be. For those interested in shearing, I’d say the wikipedia page on sheep shearing is pretty good.

    I’ll back up the claim up thread that most work these days is done with mechanical shears – whether the handpiece is directly electrified or running mechanically from an electric plant. A typical shearer with a couple of years experience will get between 120-200 shorn in an 8 hour day (done across four ‘runs’, starting at 7:30am, break at 9:30am, next run goes from 10am-12pm, next from 1pm-3pm, last to 3:30pm-5:30pm). With mechanical shears it is INCREDIBLY rare that the sheep are washed first, the most important thing is that they are dry.

    It may be different with blade shears (the scissor like shears pictured in the essay), where the washing may be more important given you don’t have the same mechanical power to get through tougher unclean parts. In my experience the tougher parts are mostly weeds that have gotten tangled in the wool, sweaty parts than have knotted together or parts covered in dung that have also knotted. I know blade shears are still sometimes used for special breeds, especially in New Zealand, where the amount shorn per day is more like 90-120 (although yeah, outliers exist – getting up to 200 doesn’t sound impossible to me, but definitely extreme).

    For the claims of animal cruelty above, if you’re sensitive to that stuff, then sure, stay away from wool. Typically in a shed with four shearers I’d see a cut on a sheep that requires stitches maybe once a day, and many cuts that don’t require any treatment. That said, sheep are incredibly hardy and frankly don’t even seem to notice the small cuts (even once back out in the field away from any “stressors” which you may try to claim are overriding the pain). I do wonder about the cuts requiring stitches sometimes, but the sheep tend to quickly recover pretty well. As far as intelligence goes if that matters to you, I would put sheep below just about every other farmed animal, except chickens (and even then it’s pretty close). I’d say some of the reports of cruelty are overblown, but not absurd. Seriously: if you think a sheep getting punched is too cruel you should abandon wool and eating lamb/mutton.

    Anyway, the main thing I came to say was that it is funny how Bret’s depiction of ancient herd/landowners still rings fairly true to a few of the “cockies” I worked for in my younger days (not all certainly, maybe 5-10%). Urban professionals who deploy their capital toward the ideal of rural simplicity as an escape from the perceived complexity of professional life, but actually look down upon the laborers who keep the operations functioning. Not that I blame them, there are a lot of … unsavory characters in the livestock agriculture industry. Who do you think is directly inflicting all that animal cruelty in the first place.

  38. I’m curious as to what these transhumant shepherds would’ve eaten while they were up in the mountains. If they’re spending several months a year up there, then they wouldn’t be able to bring enough food with them, and it sounds like the distances involved would be too great to have any kind of regular supply coming up from the lowlands. Other people in the comments have brought up that shepherds often carried slings that they might use for hunting, but I’m under the impression that it takes about a day’s work for one person to hunt and gather enough food for one day. They’ve obviously got a source of food with them in the sheep, but given that the meat would spoil quickly with no refrigeration it seems like you’d have to go through quite a lot of sheep to last the whole summer.

    1. Transhumant shepperds were in the field for long time and they had to have with them their foodstuff. So, in Spain there is a meal that (supposedly) has its origin in transhumant shepperding: “sopa de ajo” (garlic soup).
      Sopa de ajo is made with stale bread, grease and garlic: The garlic is deep fried in grease (tallow) and the bread is added. The mix is soaked in water and boiled until bread is softened. Protein was added as dried meat (“cecina”). Indeed, in the Basque Country, there is a special kind of bread (sopako, soup bread), highly roasted and dry, that is made for preparing sopa de ajo.
      Modern cooks make soft versions with olive oil, dry pepper, chorizo and so on.

    2. Sheep produce milk. Making cheese was part of the shepards’ duties in many societies, and it was understood that they could use all of the buttermilk themselves, and would be allowed to eat part of the cheese too. In addition, they could collect salad greens and various fruits while looking after their flock.

      1. The Swiss innovated many cheese making techniques to minimize labor and salt for that very reason. ( Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt is good)

  39. Just a little remark that the title of the painting by Emile Claus is “De vlasoogst” and not “De vlasoogt” – oogst, the Dutch word for harvest, is derived from augustus (August).

  40. >Likewise, silk remained in the pre-modern period almost entirely an expensive import good from far to the East of the Mediterranean

    The Byzantines had silk production, even if they maintained artificial scarcity to use it as luxury item (diplomatic gifts, primarily).

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