“I thanke God and ever shall — it is the sheep hath paid for all” — chiseled on the grave of John Barton, wealthy 15th-century wool merchant, who rebuilt the Church of St. Giles in Holme-by-Newark, Nottinghamshire.
Yesterday afternoon Paul Ahrens arrived to shear our sheep. Ahrens, a Lamar, Arkansas, native who has sheared sheep in New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma for the past 30 years, is one of a rapidly vanishing breed. Shearing is hot, backbreaking work — as we well know, because we did it ourselves for several years. We (if not our sheep) were glad beyond measure when his truck turned up our driveway.
One by one our sheep morphed from animated fuzzballs to sleek, short-clipped beauties. Watching from the skirting area, where I removed unwanted parts of each shorn fleece, my mind drifted to other times and other places, when the wool we take for granted meant life.
Originally, sheep had hair instead of fleece, though they also grew a short, woolly undercoat each winter to stay warm. In late spring early humans would pluck shed undercoat from bushes and similar surfaces where wild sheep rubbed to shed their hair. Domestication followed.
Sheep were domesticated in Asia Minor as early as 11,000 BC. Selection for shorter-legged, smaller, nonshedding, and woollier sheep soon followed. A figurine depicting a woolly sheep was recovered at a dig in Sarab, Iran, and carbon dated to 4000 BC, proving that the ancients’ selection efforts were successful.
Initially, workers processed wool by hand, rolling tufts of fleece along their thighs while adding more fiber as needed to create a length of yarn. Later the drop spindle was invented. Stone and clay whorls (weights) from ancient drop spindles have been recovered at Middle Eastern sites dating to 5000 BC.
Naturally preserved, 2,400- to 4,000-year-old Chinese mummies excavated in the early 20th century were clothed in beautifully woven purple, blue, and red woolen robes; tartan-weave wool trousers; and woolen leggings. A baby boy was swaddled in a coarse wool blanket. Wool felt caps adorned their heads, and strung through the ears of some were thick loops of dark red wool. Russian archaeologists working sites in the Altay Mountains of Siberia discovered ice mummies clothed in woolens dating to 400 BC. And a high percentage of the 700 or so well-preserved bodies excavated from peat bogs in Northern Europe and Great Britain were dressed in or buried with coarse woolen garments. Most date to the Pre-Roman Iron Age, though some are much older.
Authorities believe sheep came to Britain somewhere between 4000 and 3000 BC, as Neolithic farmers from Europe immigrated across the English Channel. The weaving of woolen fabric was already well established in Britain at the time of the Roman conquest in 43 AD. And according to the Doomsday Survey conducted in 1066, there were more sheep in England than all other livestock species combined. By 1300, there were an estimated 15 million sheep in the British Isles.
When, in 1192, King Leopold V of Austria captured King Richard the Lionhearted on his way home from the Crusades, he handed him over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, who demanded 150,000 marks for his ransom. To raise this astronomical amount (about five times the annual income of the British Crown), Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, taxed the church and secular land owners one-quarter of the value of their properties. They paid them through the sale of British wool.
Well-to-do British citizens so preferred the fine woolen goods produced in Flanders that in 1326 Edward III (“the royal wool merchant”) ruled that only “kings, queens, earls, barons, knights, ladies, and others who spend £40 a year of their rents” could purchase cloth manufactured outside the British Isles.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ordered everyone over the age of six to wear “a cap of wool, knit and dressed in England” to Sunday church services (Elizabeth, however, wore silk).
The Burying in Wool Act set forth by Parliament in 1666 read in part, “. . . from and after the first Day of August one thousand six hundred and seventy-eight, no Corps of any Person or Persons shall be buried in any Shirt, Shift, Sheet or Shroud, or any thing whatsoever made or mingled with Flax, Hemp, Silk, Hair, Gold or Silver, or in any Stuff or Thing, other than what is made of Sheeps Wool only, or be put in any Coffin lined or faced with any sort of Cloth or Stuff, or any other Thing whatsoever, that is made of any Material but Sheeps Wool.”
Wool was medieval England’s major export. Medieval abbeys produced on a staggering scale and grew rich through the sale of wool. Gloucester Abbey kept a flock of 10,000 Cotswold sheep and Winchcombe Abbey, 8,000. However, when Henry VIII issued the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the baton passed to wool merchants, who organized the delivery of raw fleece to workers and collected the finished pieces, which they delivered to wool-marketing centers such as London and Southampton.
By 1660 two-thirds of England's foreign commerce involved textiles and wool. As wool merchants in the Cotswolds and East Anglia grew rich, they built lavish estates and donated funds that raised the great “wool churches” of England. Brasses in England's Northleach Parish Church, for instance, depict the wool merchants buried beneath them with their feet on woolsacks and surrounded by shorn sheep. (To be continued)
Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and Get Your Goat! to be published in 2010. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.