Category Archives: History

Green goddesses (and some wool)

I’ve been sorting out my stash. I know, I know, I said I had lots of work on and I do – I haven’t yet been reduced to cleaning out the freezers as a displacement activity, but their time will doubtless come. Once the stash is dealt with. I have two, essentially: one of wool for pop-up shops, craft fairs, etc., and one for me. The latter was surprising, when I spread it out. It’s full of green.

There are olive greens, lime greens, greens with blues,

yarn

yellows, even purples; there are the greens of pine trees, greens of ivy, greens of the bright new birch leaves in spring. There are greens in cotton (bit flat, that, it might have to move into the pop-up stash), alpaca, all sorts of wools. There’s green fluff for spinning and there’s even some green acrylic (shh, don’t tell anyone).

All this greenery got me thinking. I know where it comes from: the old thing about red hair and green, so guess what I was always put in as a child, when I couldn’t persuade my mother that black would look good too? Fair play to her, she didn’t do baby pale greens; she did emerald, and I did love my party dress which was bright emerald shot with a darker bottle green, and with long sleeves – most odd, in retrospect, in a sea of small girls in pink powder puffs. When I asked her about this many years later she just shrugged and said pink would have looked ridiculous with my red plait and she hated pastels anyway. I wasn’t brave enough to ask if any of the other mothers ever said anything about it.

I began to think about the symbolism of green, about its ambivalent nature. It’s the ‘fairy colour’ (of the dangerous Sidh and not, originally, of Leprechauns), the colour of Bridget and of course the colour of the Green Knight. But in Islam it’s been called ‘the colour of safety and permission’, representing a verdant paradise, and it’s the colour of environmental movements worldwide (Incidentally, the first recorded green party was a political faction in sixth-century Byzantium who took their name from a chariot team). It’s also the colour of the snake in the Garden of Eden and the associated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, because lots of greenery was taken into homes. And in the first illustrations to Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Christmas Present wears green robes.

i-am-the-ghost-of-christmas-present

Greens began to leap out at me. I had a lovely time over the Christmas break, binge-watching films and eating chocolate, and there was green everywhere. I’m ignoring here the green of Eowyn’s dress in Fellowship of the Ring, or of Shrek (and of Fiona), or of the Incredible Hulk or of Loki’s costumes in the Thor films (though I might come back to the use of greens in the MCU at some point, as it’s interestingly more complex than you’d think), because I did watch some classics as well, honest I did.

In classic movies, green is often shorthand for self-confidence, and a certain disconcerting boldness. Take Gone with the Wind and Scarlett O’Hara – please take Scarlett O’Hara, I can’t stand the woman – OK, she’s of Irish origin and we all know that means red hair and green eyes and a difficult temperament: yeah right, and all clichés emphasised through the use of green. There’s the dress made out of curtains, which is ‘symbolic of her will to survive’ (Walter Plunkett). Boy, is that green:

curtain dress

and then there’s the dressing gown (like no dressing gown I’ve ever owned, mind) which she wears when she, essentially, tells Rhett to piss off:

dressing gown

It’s not just Scarlett O’Hara, either, green-clad and temperamental. There’s Cyd Charisse in ‘a tasselled green number’ seducing Gene Kelly in a dream sequence in Singing in the Rain; there’s Tippi Hedren wearing a green suit in The Birds (Hitchcock felt the artificial green colour would enhance the viewers’ sense of discomfort); Kim Novak as Judy in Vertigo. The latter is particularly interesting when it comes to symbolism: it’s ostensibly sweet, but it’s also very tight and therefore, er, ’emphasises her earthiness’, especially as Novak was quite clearly not wearing a bra (which she has spoken about).

Vertigo

But it’s not just the classics. Perhaps the most famous green costume in recent years has been Keira Knightly’s dress in Atonement.

It was actually voted the best film costume of all time (gods, I hate these things, they put so much stress on the recent and the blockbuster) in a poll commissioned by Sky Movies. The whole film has a green tone: the countryside, the kitchen and bathroom of the villa, even the flooded tube station. One commentator said ‘Its colour becomes the symbol of the night that affects the lives of all the main characters’.

I love it. In fact, I’m knitting in just this colour at the moment. I may be looking at my stash in a new light…

(and a heads up for the Clothes on Film website – a great resource and fantastic time-waster when you’re supposedly working.)

 

Fulling cloth: stamping and stocks in Wales

We have a lot of water in Wales. I know it’s a cliché, but we do. Everywhere in the west of a northern continent does, whether it’s Seattle or Bangor; rainfall is a given. Mostly. It certainly is round here, and that means that there are lots of useful streams or small rivers:

IMG_1660

roaring down from the hills, just begging to be used.

It’s not surprising that fulling cloth was done away from the house while other textile processes stayed at home, given one of the easiest and cheapest raw materials to obtain for fulling was stale urine, but it’s the sheer number of fulling mills that leaps out at you in Wales, once you know what you’re looking for.

I’d not realised it, but my house almost equidistant between two fulling mills, and that’s two even in my small area, two within three miles of my home. Well, they were fulling mills once; one is now a private house, and the other is a pub. The river in the shot above, the Ysgethin, is the one which flows (or roars, rather worryingly) close by the latter, and which provided power for the fulling stocks which were once there. The other was part of a smaller operation but was again situated next to a mountain stream – where cloth would once have been ‘walked’ – though there was evidence of two pits, possibly used for treading cloth, before the house was developed. The giveaway can be an element in a name: a pandy is a fulling mill (pl. pandai) – as in Tonypandy, for instance – but watch out for the mutation which changes the initial letter in some circumstances to a b, so you get ‘bandy‘ instead. In the case of the pub, the giveaway was some large information boards. I managed to walk past them several times without taking them in…

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There were hundreds of small fulling mills; every district had one, and many had several. In his magisterial book, The History of Wales / Hanes Cymru, John Davies notes that 111 were established in the country during the fourteenth century. They spread north and east from the south and, despite the upheaval of the rising of Owain Glyn Dwr, a further 62 were built before 1500. (Flemish weavers settling in Pembrokeshire have been credited with spearheading their development, but it’s not certain how significant their role actually was; moving fulling out of the house would have been a logical process.)

In my neck of the woods, Meirionydd, the first reference to a fulling mill is from 1545, when Maes y Pandy (note the name) near Dolgellau crops up in a legal document. Between then and 1700, there are records of a further 38 being established, and  another 30 between 1700 and 1810.

fulling mill

Many fullers, like that fuller from Pompeii in the previous post, were part-timers: in this case, they were part-time farmers, with the pandy one of the farm buildings. And sometimes fulling mills were developed with existing corn mills, and the same person looked after both processes (as at Coed Trewernau in Powys, where a fulling mill and corn mill are recorded together in the 1630s). The domestic cloth trade was particularly important in Meirionydd as, incidentally, was sock and stocking knitting: ‘Almost every little farmer makes webs, and few cottages in these parts are without a loom’ wrote Arthur Aikin in 1797.

It’s not surprising that fulling was the ‘first woollen process to be mechanised’. The introduction of fulling stocks must have been generally welcomed: fulling using the feet was time-consuming, unpleasant, exhausting and damaging to the health. But it wasn’t a process from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, oh no: this mechanisation goes back as far as 1135 in Britain, with records of water-powered mills in Cumbria. Stocks went on to be in use until the twentieth century, and there is a film of some rather basic ones in use which can be seen at the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre.

Fulling mill

They all work on the same basic principle. Cloth is put in the ‘box’ – you can just see it behind the stocks (D) in the picture above – and is pounded alternately by a pair of hammers, powered by the energy from water. The back of the hammers is shaped in such a way that the cloth is constantly turned, ensuring that it is completely fulled.

It’s not at all surprising that many fulling mills later developed into full-scale industrial enterprises. First fulling moved away from the home and into the mills, then prepping the fleece. This can be seen in the history of many. Take a mill at Cwmpengraig: carders, water-driven, were introduced into a building which had been in use as a fulling mill. In the 1820s, when it was known as Coedmor, a spinning jack of 40 spindles was added. It continued as a carding, spinning and fulling mill until 1878 when it was rebuilt as a ‘fully comprehensive mill’. It no longer exists as a mill, having been burnt down twice, most recently in 1951. (Fire was a constant threat; lots of grease from the wool and the machines; lots of timber in the buildings.) Trefriw, near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, is another example – but one which is happily thriving.

And what of fulling stocks? Well, they were gradually replaced by rotary machines in which the cloth, ends sewn together to make an endless loop, passed between weighted rollers. The ‘rotary mill’ was patented in 1833, increased production and ensured more control over the process. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all fulling was a hugely industrial operation, as illustrated by this last image, from the county archives:

Fulling

Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service

The box in the foreground is the rotary milling machine, and the man is William Edwards, who was the fuller at Pandy Gwylan in Maentwrog: another fulling mill just a hair’s breadth from where I live. And this one is recorded as also having a ‘dye house’. That’s a whole other story!

Fulling cloth: smells and stamping in Rome

I’ve had an astonishingly ‘crafty’ summer. Plus, there’s work (bechod) and, what with one thing and another, blogging has taken a bit of a back seat. But I’ve still been brooding on fulling. I realise lots of people will know all about this, but I didn’t. Well, I knew bits, but only bits. I didn’t realise, for instance, that urine had ever been taxed and, quite apart from why, how? I have to admit that I still don’t understand the fiscal process. How on earth do you tax pee?

Ahem. Fulling cloth – kneading the woven cloth until the fabric thickens as the threads felt and close together, while also cleaning it – was one of the earliest cloth-making processes to be mechanised, but that wasn’t until the early middle ages. Before that it was largely down to feet.

fullingRoman fulleries had their slaves treading away in booth-like structures, and similar processes – often called ‘walking’ (Ireland and Wales) and ‘waulking’ (particularly in the Hebrides) – have persisted as part of a commercial process almost into the present.

There can seem to have been an excess of fullers in some Roman towns, but that’s probably down to a form of sampling bias. A fuller’s workroom / shop is one of the easiest places to recognise, which may make them seem more prominent than they might have been at the time. Maybe. Probably not, though: Romans did not wash their clothes (or anything else made of cloth) at home. Fulleries are completely distinctive, with their booths, vats and large sinks.

Few trades leave clearer traces behind them:

fullery in Pompeii

Fullers (preparing cloth before it went into use) and laundries (not just cleaning cloth but often refurbishing it too) generally seem to have been the same place. Fullers, with common Roman snobbery towards the ‘working classes’, were a source of amusement to the elite, and Cicero’s detractors often teased him with being the son of a laundry owner. Fullers might also have been part-timers; one piece of Pompeiian construction graffiti states that ‘Mustius the fuller did the whitewashing’ – so he clearly had a sideline, or maybe he was moonlighting to make ends meet. Also in Pompeii is a house with an ‘oversized’ dining room which had a lot of graffiti celebrating fullers; Mary Beard has suggested (in Pompeii) that it might have been where they went for after-work drinks, and why not?

It was a smelly trade, though, which makes the fact that fulleries could be next to elegant houses rather surprising, to us. It was pongy because of the importance of pee in the cleansing process, and that is why the emperor Vespasian taxed human urine – it was a levy on the textile industry, and specifically on the fullers; nicely stale urine was a source of ammonium salts which helped to whiten the cloth. It was collected in large clay pots which were placed in strategic locations – outside shops, public urinals, road intersections (!) – though the fullers deliberately avoided some, notably the pots outside inns. That’s because post-piss-up pee is lower in nitrogen and not so effective. The things you learn.

First, the fabric was soaked in a heated mixture of old urine and water in a fulling stall, and then the fullers – or more likely the slaves – would go into the stall, rest their hands on the sides and start stamping. Once the fulling process was complete the fabric was thoroughly rinsed (thank heavens), wrung out (took at least two people; a toga could be nearly 7 metres long) and then spread out over frames to dry. Once dry, the nap was raised by using thistle heads, and then trimmed to a constant height using ‘cropping shears’, which are often represented on gravestones.

Fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus, Pompeii

Incidentally, there is evidence that any dyeing often took place before weaving the cloth, which is probably not surprising given how throughly the finished fabric was worked afterwards. The effectiveness of the fulling process can be seen in reports of the spotless white togas of senators; they were woollen, and – naturally – subject to this process for cleaning as well as finishing the cloth in the first place.

If you were of more humble status your clothes were more likely to be dull and brownish rather than white, largely because they would not be so expensively produced or laundered. Harriet Fowler (in Women of the Roman Republic) thinks they may have been produced / cleaned separately, probably in different establishments, which seems highly likely to me – you’d probably be using less of the taxed constituents, maybe watering them down more, if you were doing it for people who couldn’t afford much. There were different types of fulleries: broadly, small local ones, often near market places, and huge imposing ones which clearly had many more workers / slaves. Bigger, smarter places for those who could afford them? Also highly likely, I think. (The parallels between the Roman world and our own just get stronger and stronger – for instance, they had their celebrity chefs and obscure equivalents of things like birch-sap reductions too). And, just as a final note, the slaves who did the treadling did so in bare feet.

stained glass franceMoving on, rather hastily, to Wales, though the stained glass with a fuller treading away at top left comes from France. The other panels are the next stages of cloth finishing, too.

It may seem that Ancient Rome and Mediaeval Wales have not got that much in common (apart from some vocabulary the Romans left behind, now preserved in the Welsh language), but fulling, as elsewhere, is one thing: the fact that it was almost the only part of the textile production process which not done at home. Prepping fibre, spinning, weaving: yes, all done in your home (or in the home in which you worked as a domestic servant). Fulling: nah. Not surprising, really, even when Fuller’s Earth was being more frequently used. Fulling still involved a lot of stamping about in – well – stale piss. Or it did, for a considerable time. And then came fulling stocks, which must have been a relief….

Main source for Rome: Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo, OUP, 2013. Wales next (and this time without a gap of several weeks!)

Not so full of it?

Or maybe not quite full enough. Oh, I’m sorry, enough with the terrible puns. Yet again, life has got between me and blogging, but it’s not just life. I got ever so slightly obsessed with fulling. Fulling cloth, that is. Processing it to close up the threads and make it more solidly useable.

I have been diverted from the ways of righteousness by research, partly started by Mary Beard pretending to be a Roman fuller and having a jolly old time assuring us that the slaves who did it probably had a jolly old time too (there may be reports of them singing as they fulled, but I’m not sure that singing the occasional song equals being an ecstatically happy bunny, totally thrilled with your lot). And then there are fulling mills all around me, too – no longer, generally, in use as fulling mills. But astonishingly there were thirty established in Meirionydd – where I live – between 1700 and 1810, and they joined the ‘at least’ thirty-eight already in existence.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. We have the raw materials (baaaaaaa), the skills (spinners and weavers abounded), and of course something else was abundant and necessary:

Ysgethin

No, not moss. Water: fast-flowing streams, although admittedly the Ysgethin doesn’t always flow this fast. The old walls here show attempts to control and channel the river in spate, and they are there because the Ysgethin Inn, which is downstream of this, was – you guessed it – once a fulling mill.

So excuse me while I carry on a bit more musing and thinking and investigating the past of local hostelries. I won’t be long. Apart from anything else, Mary Beard’s magnum opus is due back at the library soon…

Woolly Wales, part the second

Hey ho, I dunno; you have a heavy workload and then when it eases off a bit you get ill – flaming contact dermatitis from synthetic fleece taking forever to shift. Not too ill, thank heavens, though I am off to the GP this morning and may well come back with bubonic plague, surgeries being what they are at this time of year. Ahem. Back to fleece. The real stuff this time, which is just as well.

Before I get myself all distracted by the history and politics of the wool industry in Wales (first-ever mail order retailer, riots, involvement of the Chartists, etc), I thought it might be a good idea to have a further whip round the National Wool Museum. If you’re careful and not like me, the route takes you round the process in a systematic way. If you are like me, you zoom from one area to another crying ‘I’ve got a modern one of those!’

wool museum again

(see that skein winder?) and ‘I never knew that!’ and playing with an interactive model of sheep shearing designed for seven-year-olds.

I was much taken with the light in some areas, noticeably on the spinning floor,

spinners

where the mule takes up considerably more room than the various great wheels they also have displayed (and no, you can’t use them). I’d love to see the mule working – which it does – but we weren’t there at the right time. Once I pitched up at Brynkir mill near me when their amazing (1905, I think I remember being told) mule was running, and it was astonishing: so smooth, so hypnotic. Bet it wasn’t so astonishing once you’d been spinning for a while, mind. You’d probably have started in the mill where your parents worked at about the age of 10, and would most likely have been on the carders. You’d have been poor (generally, except during the first-world-war boom, and even then you’d still have been pretty poor) and, as one commentator put it ‘weavers marry young and die young’.

More in another post, ahem…

Some pieces of kit called to me, not just the various great wheels (‘a piece of equipment that could be constructed by any competent country carpenter’). Also in the same room as the spinning mule is this, a machine for ‘raising the nap’ of the woven cloth with teasels:

teasels

This ‘teasel gig’ contained 3000 prickly seed heads and was electrically powered, which seems like a curious – no, that’s not the right word, interesting is better – combination of the the traditional method of working and the modern. I wonder how long it continued in use? Our helpful guide was chatting to other people by this stage, but the next time I go I will make sure to ask.

Along the way, I fell in love with flannel. Really. Astonishing fabric. Everyone knows and loves the Welsh double-weave ‘tapestries’, but flannel strikes me as their somewhat overlooked little sister, and not so little. It’s been going for much longer (as far as anyone can tell) and it kept the mills going too, for decades. It clothed miners, soldiers, ordinary people; it even saw off the last invasion of Britain – the French mistook the red flannel of the women’s clothing for soldiers’ uniforms and fled. At least that’s the story; personally I think they’d probably run across irate Welsh women before (try barging into a queue for tea) and were being circumspect.

weaving red flannel

It’s beautiful stuff, good flannel is (and yes, a flannel loom is narrower than what we’ve all come to think of as a ‘normal’ loom). Incidentally, the weaving sheds also had to be light enough for the weavers to see what they were doing – but the windows are opaque up to a certain height,  so they couldn’t also see what was going on outside. Keep your eyes on your work, you!

The tenter area, where the cloth was finished, isn’t quite so light, and the tenter box – the blue-walled structure – barely needs light at all:

tenter area

Right at the end of the museum, if you’re organised and progress as you should instead of going back to front, is a sewing shop and the reconstruction of a market stall, and an exhibition gallery. Here, even though the light is very subdued, you can just see the fact that some of the blankets have been woven on narrow looms, something which would be much more practical for a handloom weaver in a domestic context. Rather like the taatit rugs of Shetland, they’ve been made in two halves and sewn together down the middle.

fabrics

It’s hard to see, but in the second section from the left, for instance, the fourth blanket up is like that. In the middle section there’s another, the one immediately above the red and white geometric one: the check doesn’t quite match up at the join. I don’t care; I want the lot.

How soon can I go back, I wonder?

Woolly Wales, part the first

A gap between deadlines – I’m not complaining about work, I like to eat, buy food, that sort of thing – saw me and a friend head off on a two-hour drive to get into Foreign Lands (well, deepest Ceredigion, so far south that you’re on the edge of Camarthenshire / Sir Gaerfyrddin, so it’s foreign when you live in North Wales*). In the fog. We only got lost once, mind. I know how to enjoy myself.

Seriously, I do – because we ended up at the National Wool Museum, in Dre-fach Felindre. And it is FAB. I know I like mills – I’ve written about this inclination before, and not just the once – but it is genuinely fascinating.

loom

Now, I was with a non-woolly person, my mate S. But she is a) a blue badge tour guide, b) indisputably Welsh, c) fascinated by all social history, so it wasn’t going to be a hardship trip for her, plus the cafe have good cakes. And there was even a mini-loom set up so that I could demonstrate the over-and-under process of weaving (not that I’m any good at it, but I was – amazingly – taught to weave at school).

But one of the very best bits was that it was quite quiet, and that we therefore had a lot of attention from a volunteer guide, Glanmor, an ex-weaver, who was fascinating to talk to. We learned all about practicalities, like this hole in the floor.

wool museum 2

It was cut so that the spinners on the first floor could hand bobbins down to the looms below without walking the long way round and negotiating a tight staircase. I’d never have noticed it without our helpful guide, and it’s details like that which bring somewhere alive for me.

We also learned about nasty accidents, especially with the willower (which teases out the scoured / cleaned wool prior to carding),

wool museum 3

the carders and shirt sleeves. You don’t want to know, but ERGH.

But we also learned about the industry as a whole, about how central the wool industry was to large areas of Wales – and yet how limited it was by assorted factors, from the outdated machinery (Welsh mills would take machines that were being discarded – nearly a pun there, sorry – by the mills in Yorkshire) to the whole social structure. It really got me started on heaps of research on everything from nursing shawls to non-resident mill owners and the negative effects of their attitudes. You’ve been warned.

Trefriw

(This old photograph is of the mill at Trefriw, and is from the National Archives.)

*Seriously, it is foreign. The language is different in subtle but meaningful ways – even the words for something as basic as milk differ: llefrith around me, and llaeth further south – and there’s a genetic difference too: a native North Walian (a Gog) has more in common, genetically, with someone who is native to northern England / southern Scotland than with a native-born Hwntw (that’s a South Walian, in case you didn’t know it).

The wisdom (and occasional oddness) of shepherds

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about shepherds, and not just because I’ve been re-reading James Rebanks’ excellent book The Shepherd’s Life. It’s was the contrast between the role of the shepherd (as opposed to those farmers and crofters who are simultaneously their own shepherds) as both farm servant and independent individual which initially interested me. And then I got distracted…

Shepherds have always been among the most trusted and respected people on a farm; in nineteenth-century Scotland, for instance, they were often the most important of farm servants, living an independent life and frequently running their own sheep with the main flock, as they also did in Sussex. Many of the old shepherds spoke of ‘my sheep’ in interviews, and the weren’t just referring to those (if any) that actually belonged to them. Shepherds were on their own for long periods of time, often without supervision or oversight. They had to be trusted.

Sheep and Shepherd, by James Walsham; courtesy of Baldock Bassetlaw District Council

As George Ewart Evans says about Suffolk in Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, ‘a farmer would have to be sure of his man before entrusting to him a flock of sheep whose welfare depended solely on the skill and trustworthiness of the shepherd and his occasional assistant’. There’s trustworthy and trustworthy, mind – pick your definition – because trustworthiness and confidence didn’t mean that shepherds were necessarily well rewarded.

35_5184Generally, in fact, they were not: poaching and (in some areas) smuggling were almost necessary for survival. The long interior pockets in a traditional smock were useful for the first activity: they could easily hold a couple of rabbits (but they weren’t big enough to hide a hare). One ninteenth-centrury Suffolk shepherd – Liney Richardson – chose the latter option: he both helped the smugglers land and hide the cargo, and then would drive his flock over any traces of nocturnal traffic.

But, looking back from the perspective of the present, some shepherding traditions and beliefs can seem a little strange – however, they are generally anything but.

Take sheep and memory. Since, oh, biblical time (and doubtless longer, but there are no records, prehistory being just that, pre-written-history) shepherds have known that sheep can recognise different people and have quite efficient memories. Scientific research has been carried out into sheep memory and – surprise, surprise – has established that sheep do, in fact, have quite good memories.

Less logically, perhaps, in some areas it’s bad luck for a shepherd to count the animals in the flock. Apparently this is also done by wolves, so humans must not even think about it (and there are several potential posts to be had on the language of sheep counting – yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp*, that sort of thing – but it’s too huge a subject, and I’m not sure I’m linguistically qualified to do so anyway). In Mediaeval France sheep were specifically given bells when grazing near woods because of wolves – allegedly this was to scare them off, but I don’t imagine a determined and hungry wolf would be much scared by a bell. But I’m probably wrong in this assumption: in Sheep and Man, Ryder mentions ‘one South Dakota herder’ who recently [1977] put bells on his flock to ‘deter coyotes’. I don’t imagine he would have done that unless there had been good reason for it.

(Interestingly, the bells were not worn – or sounded – all the time. In some places they were muffled with grass in the run up to Easter or when a shepherd was ill, and might be muffled or removed completely when moving a flock through a town or village at night. They were also removed during mourning, so presumably the wolves respected the dead as well.)

A collection of animal bells – cow, sheep and goat

There is something incredibly evocative about the sound of bells on animals – now most frequently heard on goats in places like southern Spain (there are some clips on YouTube of belled sheep in Sardinia). But it’s a sound that would have rung out across huge parts of the world in the past, and it was common in Britain too.

One area in East Anglia had four or five flocks that used the same piece of common land. Each flock’s lead sheep had a bell and each bell had a different note – probably because they were a different size, though this is not explicit, but the most common iron bells could not be tuned – meaning that flocks could be distinguished in the dark or in fog, of course. In Suffolk the lead sheep was called the ‘cosset’ – it had probably been hand-reared by the shepherd as it was one which was particularly attached to him – and the cosset would follow the shepherd, the flock would follow the cosset and the dog would bring up the rear and keep tabs on any stragglers.

Shepherd’s crooks go right back. Biblical shepherds used a long straight staff plus a rod, which was also useful for self-defence; in ancient Greece, shepherds seem to have used something more curved. Jean de Brie, writing in 1379, said that ‘the shepherd adorned with his crook is as noble as a bishop with his crozier’ – itself modelled on the shepherd’s crook. The hockey-stick type was common in Medieval England,

Tending sheep

and in eastern Europe, quite recently, the wooden heads might be carved into things like dragons, snakes and ram’s heads, and were generally carried across the shoulders. In nineteenth century Britain crooks were often made of iron – ‘made from the barrel of an old muzzle-loading gun’ says Ewart Evans. One old shepherd interviewed by him dismissed shop-bought crooks as ‘only good for shepherd-girls in a play’. They had to be custom made, of course – to suit the particular sheep they were intended for.

Incidentally, most shepherds, all over the world, do seem to have been male – but not exclusively. Sometimes shepherding was a communal, family task, especially in nomadic societies, and sometimes – in the Balkans, for instance – many shepherds were female. I don’t imagine for a minute that they were like ‘shepherd-girls in a play’…

Eugene Verboeckhoven, A Shepherdess with her Flock

I’d just like to end by mentioning my favourite shepherd, albeit a fictional one: Granny Aching, in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. OK, she’s dead before the narrative of the first one – The Wee Free Men – takes place, but she’s left a powerful memory:

‘…Granny Aching’s light, weaving slowly across the downs on freezing, sparkly nights or in storms like a raging war, saving lambs from the creeping frost or rams from the precipice. She froze and struggled and tramped through the night for idiot sheep that never said thank you and would probably be just as stupid tomorrow, and get into the same trouble again. And she did it because not doing it was unthinkable.’

* yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp – one, two, three, four, five. It’s often stated that these are Welsh. Not quite: in Welsh, which like French has masculine and feminine genders, it’s un, dai (m) / dwy (f), tri (m) / tair (f), pedwar (m) / pedair (f), pump. Admittedly ‘pump’ is pronounced ‘pimp’, but there you go. And there are all sorts of regional variations from northern Britain – that’s one I’ve known for ever – and there’s an interesting (if unverified) summary on Wikipedia.