Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Animals of Cottage and Castle: Cows, Bulls and Oxen

by Katherine Ashe

Cattle are among man’s most ancient domesticated creatures; they were common in Egypt and Mohenjo-daro, and have been serving mankind ever since. Our cattle are the descendants of the prehistoric aurochs, bovines native to the entire Eurasian continent. Amazingly, aurochs survived in their primordial form in the forests of Poland until 1627.

Aurochs don’t look very different from domestic cattle, but they were considerably larger than their barnyard kin. While a medieval ox might come up to a man’s chest, an aurochs bull could be 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh nearly two tons. And aurochs were wild, with all that implies.

Even the roar of the aurochs was terrifying, resonant with power. To command magical powers imitations of such sounds -- the weird bellowing noise made by a “bullroarer,” a serrated piece of wood tied to a long string and whirled in varying arcs -- have been used in rituals from ancient Ireland to present-day Australia.

The bull of domesticated breeds is far from being a docile animal that one can approach with confidence. (There’s always the odd individual: a neighbor of mine had a huge Hereford bull that liked to be ridden.) Most male calves are either castrated, becoming oxen, or are slaughtered for meat (veal) while still very young.

The complex of cultural and technological features that composed the Bronze Age, from Britain to China, included ritual sacrifice of bulls as a central element of fertility rites. The bull well deserves to be the exemplar of fertility: a single bull can keep a large herd of cows suitably pregnant.

Wealth, for cattle-raising peoples*, is counted in head of cattle, but a particularly able bull is the highest of prizes and, in one instance, purportedly was the cause of a war. The Irish legend Tain Bo Cuailgne, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, tells of a bet Queen Maeve of Connaught made with her husband, Ailill, that she was richer than he was. However, Maeve’s magnificently fertile bull, Finnbhennach, loath to be possessed by a woman, had transferred himself to Ailill’s herd. Maeve took action as only a woman can, against both her husband and Finnbhennach, by acquiring an even more potent bull from the herd of Cooley by offering its owner “the friendship of my own two thighs.”

In the Mediterranean the use of bulls in rituals took on some exotic forms. On Crete young Minoans, both boys and girls, were taught to grab onto a charging bull’s horns and acrobatically flip over the bull’s head and onto his back. Nobody but the Minoans seems to have been eager to try this.

The cult of Mithra undoubtedly brought its particular variety of bull sacrifice to Britain with the Roman legions. Roman bas reliefs of bulls, festooned with ropes of blossoms, being led by maidens to sacrifice might indicate that the animal docilely tolerating such a procession was drugged.

The magnificent animal of the Romans looks very like a handsome breed discovered in France in 878 AD, now known as the Charolais. It would be surprising if this breed was unknown to the Normans, although the British Charolais Cattle Society claims the Charolais was the first continental breed to be introduced into Britain – and that was in the 1950s. Breed societies must deal with what is on record in breeding books.

In the Middle Ages there was little interest in the pure breeding of farm animals, and even less interest in recording such animals’ genealogies. The same animals were used for milking, for meat and, as oxen, for pulling heavy loads.

The medieval plow required as many as six oxen, yoked in a line two by two, to plow a furrow. The villain house-bondsman, as the holder of a village cottage and rights to a certain number of furrows in the communal manor fields was called, would be required to keep at least one ox and would share with his neighbors to make up an adequate team for the brief time of plowing of the “spring” and wheat fields.

What did his ox do for the remainder of the year? He could pull carts, and the medieval cart could be very large and heavy. (King Henry III made an edict that roads should be wide enough for two ox carts to pass, or six horses being ridden abreast.) While the horse collar was devised apparently in the 11th century, it didn’t come into widespread use on Britain’s manorial fields until late in the 13th century. Oxen were slower, but they were a byproduct of meat and milk production and were easier to care for than horses.

Free-ranging cattle were common in Scotland where the ground was too steep for tilling. But on the manor lands of the three-field system cattle grazed the fallow field, manuring it as they munched. It was matter for immediate action if the cattle strayed from their allotted field. Little Boy Blue is blowing his horn in alarm that the cow’s gotten into the wheat (corn) field. In England, chiefly it was sheep, not cattle, which were sent in great numbers to summer pasture in hill country.

In the agrarian year-cycle of the past, meat livestock were slaughtered in November to save the cost of feeding over the winter and to make use of the cold weather to reduce putrefaction. It’s a misconception that the people of the Middle Ages used massive amounts of spices to conceal the rottenness of their meat. Meat that is partially decomposed is considered “well hung” and is preferred to this day. Spices were used because they were a demonstration of wealth and people liked the taste.

Meat was preserved in warm climates, and to last beyond cold weather, by smoking, salting, and the use of nitre: potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. Its use has been common since Roman times and is advocated in De Re Coquinaria, attributed to the 1st-century gourmet Apicius.

The cottager would use the slaughtered young bull almost entirely, the various innards being chopped, mixed with salt and herbs from the garden -- thyme, rosemary, sage, coriander and fennel -- and packaged into lengths of the animal’s well-scrubbed intestine. The resulting sausage would be hung from a hook in the chimney until it was dry, hard and well enough preserved to last through the summer -- by which time the tidy cottager scraped the mold off the surface and found his sausage well-aged and delectable.

In the cities cattle were driven to the Shambles, the street of butchers where they were slaughtered in small yards behind the shops. There were butchers among the shopkeepers on London Bridge who enjoyed the convenience of throwing slaughter refuse down a chute and into the river. The sounds of early morning in the cities -- the cry of the water carrier with his wheeled barrel, the calls of early vendors of fish and eggs -- were punctuated by the hysterical bellowing of cattle being killed.

Gradually, and more emphatically in the 19th century with the rise of breeders’ organizations, cattle were bred for specialization as milk or meat producers.

Here are some of Britain’s oldest breeds: a Sussex cow:

An Old Gloucestershire cow:

And an endearing Scottish Longhorn. (Both cows and bulls have horns. With most breeds the horns’ roots are burnt away shortly after the calf’s birth. But that’s not needed with these mild-tempered Scottish creatures.)

The milch breeds now have a very different appearance from the meat breeds. With most of the cow’s resources going to milk production, her body, compared to the burly meat cow, looks rather like a bag of hide strung across a frame of hip, rib and shoulder bones, with a prodigious milk-bag hanging beneath. In Britain and the United States, most milch cows in commerce are German Holsteins, those familiar white cows with big black spots that have become the cartoon images for all cows. Holsteins produce tremendous amounts of milk, the record being held by Ever-Green-View 1326ET -- she gave 72,160 pounds of milk in one year. But it was Karlie, a nice young Jersey, who sold for the record price of $170,000 in March 2013. (People still bank on cows.)

A milch cow must be milked twice a day, approximately at dawn and sunset. That herd “winding slowly o’er the lee” is lowing because they need to be milked. Their parade is led by their queen. As with other domestic animals, a strict hierarchy is observed within a particular herd. (The cow of a neighbor of mine went down on her knees and cried when she was moved to a station she perceived to be of too high precedence in the barn. She feared the outrage of her betters, and indeed there was bellowing and much butting until she was moved back to her proper place.)

A milch cow gives far more milk than her calf will need. When her milk dries up and she’s ready to breed again, she may indicate her condition by attempting to mount other cows as if she were the bull. Since it’s rather a dangerous thing to expose a valuable cow to an amorous bull, cows since the 19th century chiefly have been bred by artificial insemination. To determine the optimal moment for that large syringe or introduction to the bull, the dairyman reaches up to the elbow inside the cow to feel the presence of the ova. He will often take part as midwife in the birthing process, having to turn a breech-presenting calf within the mother, or he risks losing the lives of both animals.

A castle or manor house provided a large byre to shelter the cattle in winter -- separate from horses. A shed would serve the poor cottager. Someone wealthier might have a barn where cows, oxen, horses and goats could mingle and express their own ideas of precedence; horses have been known to be quite fond of goats.

The cow, the bull and the ox (also called steer), though little known directly by most people nowadays, have been with us since the beginnings of recorded time, and upon them we humans still depend.

In memoriam of the 30,000 cattle that froze to death -- steers, heifers and pregnant cows -- in the American Midwest in early October 2013, after heavy rains turned the ground to deep mud, then freezing winds killed the cattle where they stood locked in new-made pools of ice.

*In the early 1970’s, in pursuit of “peace through trade,” I embarked on a business of selling ampoules of quick-frozen bull sperm from Agway to China’s Inner Mongolian Grasslands Institute. I explained my happy industry to a new friend in Virginia by saying that the Mongol people of western China still followed the ancient practice of saving their earnings not in the form of currency in banks, but as heads of cattle. My new friend put me in my place by remarking that was how her farming family banked their wealth as well.


Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort, the four volume historical novel on Simon de Montfort and the thirteenth century.

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  1. Thank you for an interesting article! I esp. like the part where you set us straight about historical people using spices to cover up bad meat. I always wondered about that. If it is bad, whether tasty or not, it seems it would still make you sick. So why cover up a smell/taste that would warn you?

  2. Interesting post.
    The Charolais has a 'double muscling' gene which means it grows meat really well.
    I became vegetarian after learning about modern cattle husbandry techniques as vet school. The use of antibiotics in intensive farming defies a moral argument.
    G x


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