`The Mystery of Husbandry': Medieval Animals and the Problem of Integrating Historical and Archaeological Evidence

Article excerpt


In 1697 one Leonard Meagre published a general farming treatise entitled The Mystery of Husbandry: or Arable, Pasture and Woodland improved (Fussell 1947). This title is still relevant today as medieval and early modern husbandry are for us in many respects as mysterious as they were in the 17th century. It also suits the subject of this paper well as there is nothing better to highlight the uncertainty of our knowledge than two sources of evidence which often provide conflicting results.

In this paper I will discuss the problem of comparing and integrating archaeological -- more specifically `zooarchaeological' -- and historical evidence for medieval and early modern husbandry. I will mainly rely on examples drawn from the research I have carried out, with colleagues, in the last six years in England. However, I hope that some of the methodological aspects of this discussion may be relevant to other geographic areas too.

A few case-studies are presented. We will see that in some cases our data stress the existence of biases, gaps and inconsistencies in either of the two disciplines. In others it will be clear that only through the combined effort of historians and archaeologists will it be possible to solve specific problems. It is also stressed that not all is problematic or incongruous and that cases in which historical and archaeological sources fit well together and provide consistent information do exist. Finally, I briefly discuss what lessons we can learn from the problems and where and how possible solutions are likely to be found.

This paper is written from the point of view of the zooarchaeologist; thus I have no claim to tackle these problems in a completely objective way. Criticisms from historians, other archaeologists and fellow zooarchaeologists are welcome. My ultimate aim and hope is to stimulate some debate and to encourage an exchange of information and ideas.

Counting sheep

One of the basic tasks of zooarchaeological analysis is to calculate the frequency of different animal species present in an archaeological assemblage. Despite methodological problems in carrying out these quantifications we are able to provide some clues about the relative importance of different animals. Medieval bone assemblages are almost invariably dominated by the bones of cattle, sheep and pig, namely the domestic mammals -- with the horse -- of greatest economic importance. Much more variable -- and difficult to assess -- is the relative importance of each of these three species.

Although much variation occurs between early and late medieval sites, between urban and rural sites and between sites of different social status (Grant 1988; Albarella & Davis 1996), cattle and sheep bones tend to be more common than pig bones. The relative distribution of the two most common species is highly variable, but it is probably not totally incorrect to state that, on average, bones of cattle and sheep tend to be equally numerous. However, sheep are generally more frequent on rural sites and cattle in towns (FIGURE 1) and sheep increased in number in the later Middle Ages -- a change possibly connected to the expansion of land devolved to pasture (Campbell et al. 1996) and to the increasingly flourishing wool market. Regional variation also occurs. Methodological problems can also create much variation in the frequency of the two species; sheep bones are much smaller than cattle bones and on sites where the recovery has been poor sheep tend to be much under-represented. However, despite all these differences it is clear that cases in which either one of these two species is far more common than the other are rare.


During most of the Middle Ages the main concern in cattle and sheep husbandry was unlikely to have been their meat. However, there is also little doubt that almost all animals at the end of their life were eaten and the implications of the archaeological findings are therefore clear. …