Medieval sheep farming 1: The historical context

Cistercian monasteries were renowned for their sheep farming and Abbey Cwmhir, with its extensive upland land holdings, would have been no exception. Unfortunately, there are no extant records of the Abbey’s sheep farming activities so evidence must come indirectly from a general understanding of the historical context and an interpretation of the archaeological features in the landscape. This post is a report of work in progress and stems from a Zoom talk given to the Abbey Cwmhir Heritage Trust and the response by its members (See Comments below).

In this post I want to focus on the general context of sheep farming while recognising that other stock such as horses, cattle, pigs, and arable farming also contributed significantly to the medieval agricultural economy in a complex interplay which would have been dictated, in part, by topography. Sheep provided meat, skins, milk, manure and, economically most importantly, wool.

Sheep farming has a long history before the Cistercians founded Abbey Cwmhir. However, they were in the forefront in the development of organisation and sheep management methods. In this the Cistercians of Abbey Cwmhir benefitted from being part of the much wider network of the Cistercian Order by which knowledge and good practice could be disseminated. As a result, the Cistercians became famous for the quality of their wool and were able to sell it at premium prices.

For many monasteries the possession of holy relicts attracted large numbers of pilgrims who provided an income stream. Abbey Cwmhir had only one known relic, a now lost painting of Jesus, which attracted few. Its primary income would have come from exploiting its extensive land holding, both by directly farming the land or, increasingly over the period of its ownership, by rent from independent tenant farmers, themselves involved in sheep farming.

During the 350 or so years of its activity, the wool trade evolved. Wool was a valuable and easily transported commodity attracting continental buyers. These traders valued the association with monasteries as centres where they could bulk-buy wool washed and graded. The monasteries were exempt from many toll charges so the buyers could also benefit from the sellers delivering the wool to the ports.

The dependence on the traders could cause problems for the Abbeys. Major Italian traders would offer deals of down payments with further annual payments for the wool produced. Abbots, not all of whom were financially acute, found the allure of ready money and reliable future payments, for as many as 20 years, irresistible. However, wool production fluctuated and was subject to disease. Non-compliance with the contracts could lead to heavy fines and, effectively, to the bankruptcy of some monasteries. By contrast the Italian houses grew rich and became the first recognisable international banks, lending to kings and financing wars.

Within this broad context, sheep husbandry was widely practiced on the land holdings of Abbey Cwmhir. The individual farms, with few exceptions, consisted of upland sheepwalks and adjacent enclosed field below. This made it logistically simple to move sheep between upland pasture and enclosed field or folds. This contrasts with sheep being seasonably moved large distances, often hundreds of miles, with their owners – a process known as transhumance.

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Angela Swindell
2 years ago

Sheep farming was an incredibly profitable activity not only here in Wales or Cistercian Monastic areas but also in East Anglia and the Cotswolds. In East Anglia the ‘wool ‘churches are testament to the wealth generated, eg at Long Melford or Lavenham. In the Cotswolds notable examples include Northleach and Winchcombe. The Textile Museum in Newtown traces the wool industry in Mid Wales from cottage to International before it’s final collapse in the twentieth century. Would that wool were such an important commodity today.

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