Friday, February 24, 2017

Of gambolling lambs and woolly economics

by Anna Belfrage

This post is about sheep. Well, if we’re going to be correct, it is about wool, not sheep, but seeing as no sheep equals no wool, that per definition means you cannot talk about one without mentioning the other.

Sheep have a reputation for being incredibly stupid. Not that I can boast of any in-depth relationship with a sheep, but what interaction I’ve had indicates that they couldn’t care less about us humans, they’re more into grazing and staring unstintingly at us if we get too close. Somewhat uncomfortable, that eye-balling of theirs. Had they been carnivores, I’d have suspected they’re selecting just where to bite me. Fortunately, sheep rarely bite. They can, however, butt—hard.

Sheep are one of those animals that were domesticated very early on. Originally, as meals-on-hooves, but overtime as a source of wool, our forebears having discovered that wool is quite the thing if you want clothing that retains warmth even if it is damp. I imagine those nomads from whom we all descend quite often found themselves at the mercy of the weather, ergo damp clothes were probably a recurring event in their lives.

Wild sheep tend to be brownish. Domesticated sheep quickly went white, seeing as it is far easier to dye white wool brown than brown wool white. It was something of a lucky coincidence that white is a dominant trait – at least for our forebears who were doing their first forays into genetic modifications – and so sheep are mostly depicted as being white. Except for the black sheep, that is. This perennial scapegoat sticks out like a sore thumb among its conformist brethren.

Anyway: man ambled along with his sheep, his goats. At some point, man domesticated cows and pigs, and pigs aren’t that much for ambling. Besides, man had discovered how to sow crops, and wheat does not go walk-about, which is why man eschewed the nomadic existence to instead become a farmer. Well, not all men. Some preferred to hunt and trade their meat for whatever the farmer produced.

Over time, man began amassing wealth. Lots of land was wealth. Lots of sheep, cows, goats were wealth. Lots of wives…yes, also a sign of wealth, but hopefully that ancient male distinguished between his sheep and his women. And I guess most men weren’t rich enough to have more than one wife, which probably upped the potential for domestic bliss. Women are somewhat possessive when it comes to their men.

British Library, MS 42130
Civilisation picked up speed, and we’re going to take a couple of giant leaps here, thereby ending up in medieval England. At the time, sheep were everywhere, one could say. Sheep were the mainstay of English wealth, the English sheep having quite the reputation for their high quality wool.

Monasteries financed their human flock by keeping huge flocks of sheep, the lord of the manor did the same, the income generated by the wool adding that little extra to a life mostly dominated by a lot of pea-soup and porridge. Wool was used to pay the ransom for Richard Lionheart (50,000 sacks of high-quality wool were put forward to contribute. To put into perspective, approximately 40,000 sacks of wool were exported during the peak years of the wool trade in the 14th century).

Despite having its own fledgling weaving industry, England was essentially a raw material producer. English sheep were sheared, the fleeces were washed, skirted, picked and bundled and transported abroad where others carded and spun after which the wool thread was woven into high quality cloth by Flemish or Italian weavers. Eventually, some of all this high quality stuff found its way back to England where it was bought by the well-to-do. As a result, Flemish and Italian cloth merchants grew very fat and happy.

However: no wool, no cloth, no income—not even for our Flemish and Italian textile workers. Obviously, there was more than English wool around – specifically a lot of Spanish wool. Spain was the leading supplier of high quality wool, even more so since they cross-bred English sheep with their own native breeds in the 12th and 13th century, thereby creating that jewel among sheep, the Merino. Merino wool was of superior quality to anything else on the woolly planet, and prior to the 18th century attempting to smuggle a Merino out of Spain was punishable by death. Before Spain “discovered” all that gold in the New World, their primary source of wealth, just as for England, were their sheep.

British Library, MS 42130

So imagine you were the purchaser for a Tuscan mill. Off you went to scour the various markets for high quality fleece, and in this case you decided to skip the expensive Spanish stuff and look for a bargain elsewhere. England was full of sheep – and other eager merchants swooping down to buy up what they could. Chances were you might end up with no wool unless you got there early or offered a premium price. Alternatively, a new approach was needed to ensure constant supply.

The Italians, being a savvy people with an innate aptitude for trade, had already in the early 13th century developed some sort of rudimentary financial market. Initially, it was more a question of advancing money to a farmer with the future crop as collateral, but soon enough these agrarian “futures” spread to other things. Like wool. That monastery out in the wilds really, really needed a new church, but at the rate of their annual income it would take them twenty years to finance it. Enter the creative wool-buyer:

“I tell you what: I’ll advance you the amount you need, and instead you sell me your wool for the coming twenty years at a fixed price.”
“What, all my wool?” the abbot said, and then they’d haggle for a while, before agreeing on fixed quantities and fixed prices.

As a financial professional, I must admit to being quite fascinated by these early “futures” – goes to show that trade in medieval times was far more innovative than we generally give it credit for. The transactions were documented – several hundreds of these contracts survive, detailing the seller, the buyer, the price and delivery schedules. In some instances these contracts were sold on, but in general the purpose was not to speculate on the price in wool, but rather to safeguard its supply.

Biblioteque National de France
Now the English kings were fully aware of how important the wool trade was for their economy. At times, desperate times required desperate measures, which was why in the 1290s Edward I confiscated all wool from foreign merchants in England. He then sold it again and lined his coffers with the money required to continue his bellicose efforts. The foreign merchants were less than pleased, but seeing as they really, really needed wool, they were back next year anyway. Wool bound for export was also taxed. Such wool had to be traded through the “Staple”, where the king’s tax collectors could easily collect the levied taxes.

By the early 14th century, the English were more than aware of the fact that they were exporting wool at, let’s say, a price of 100, and importing the finished fabrics at 200. Someone else was pocketing the difference, and this was not good. Not at all. Which was why, in 1331, Edward III invited several Flemish master weavers to come and settle in England, thereby taking a giant leap forward when it came to domestic textile production.

To further strengthen the English position, in 1337 Edward III attempted to create a wool monopoly, the Wool Company, its buyers purchasing all English wool and selling it on as it benefited the crown. Not only did Edward “borrow” the income generated by all this wool to finance his armies, he also took the opportunity of starving the Low Country textile mills of wool and diverting the precious fleeces to his own weavers, thereby causing substantial unrest and poverty among the former textile workers in Flanders. This was not only done to develop the English textile industry. It was also Edward’s way of punishing the Flemish rulers for their support of the French King in what was soon to escalate to the Hundred Years’ War.

Ultimately, the Wool Company was not successful, but England’s wool export continued to thrive, and throughout the 14th century wool remained the single most important source of wealth for England, which is why Edward III had his Lord Chancellor sit on a bale of wool, the “Woolsack”, a constant reminder to all those present that without those critters that went ba-ba, England would plunge into obscurity and poverty.

In the 16th century, the English weavers were further strengthened by large numbers of Huguenot craftsmen fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France. By then, England was already recognised as one of the larger producers of “undressed” woollen cloth, but with the influx of the French weavers, the English milling industry became even more efficient – and started moving from “undressed” cloth (which essentially means the fabric was still in its raw form, more or less as it was lifted from the loom, i.e. it had not undergone any fulling or been dyed) to fully finished fabrics, ready to be made into clothing or other articles. Yet again, this meant a larger proportion of the added value remained in English hands rather than ending up with the middlemen. By the end of the 17th century, close to two-thirds of English export (in value) came from textiles. Raw wool no longer figured among the exports, instead England was importing wool—primarily from Spain—to complement its own, homegrown variety.

The textile industry—and the required wool—remained a fundamental part of the English economy for the centuries to come. When the Industrial Revolution swept through England, one of the first industries to be modernised were the textile mills, with all those Spinning Jennies (and subsequent Spinning Mules) granting England a huge cost advantage over other cloth producers. By then, of course, England had come a long, long way from that medieval shepherd, watching over his flocks while assessing just how much money he’d get from his fleeces this year. A long, long way, and yet to this day the versatile and renewable woollen fibre still depends on gambolling lambs and eye-balling sheep.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, will be out in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


  1. This is fascinating stuff. I knew that wool was important, not least because of all those huge 'wool' churches in East Anglia, but I didn't realise how important it was.

    1. Fantastic fibre, wool. Now if more of us could go eschew cotton for wool, we'd be doing this planet a huge favour. Glad you liked it :)

  2. Who knew sheep could be so interesting - not just woolgathering ovines. So the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black sheep is all about economics.

    1. More or less everything is about economic. Or religion. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.