Traditionally shepherds counted their sheep in scores – or lots of twenty – twice a day, morning and evening, just to check that they hadn’t lost any in the night. When the shepherd got to twenty he or she would place a pebble in their pocket and start again and so on until they ran out of sheep or pebbles.
There are various regional versions of sheep counting but my own favourite is Cumbrian sheep counting. Some sources believe that this form of counting goes back to the Vikings – and given that there are studies that suggest that iconic Cumbrian sheep,the Herdwick, was introduced by non other than the Vikings it is easy to see how this conclusion was arrived at.
Others identify this particular form of counting as a Celtic form of counting – Brythonic Celtic if you want to be accurate. The ancient kingdom of Rheged of which Cumbria was a part was Celtic and for those of you who like unexpected links – was once ruled by Coel Hen – or Old King Cole (the merry monarch).
There is also a theory that sheep counting, which is rhythmic, is the reason that counting sheep is supposed to send you to sleep: yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yan-a-dick, tyan-a-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit, yan-abumfit, tyan-a-bumfit, methera bumfit, giggot. It’s also hugely repetitive with only the light relief of number fifteen as a diversion.
Wool is historically one of England and Wales most important industries. Dre-fach Felindre in the Teifi valley was once the centre of a thriving woollen industry, earning the nickname ‘The Huddersfield of Wales’ – the two don’t have many other similarities. It is now home to the National Wool Museum of Wales. We visited one very wet summer’s day to find out more about sheep farming and the production of textiles and in its turn it inspired me to create the cross stitch sampler at the start of this post with its varous methods of counting and various sheep or wool related images including the teasels which were once grown in industrial quantities to tease the tangles from the wool.
In medieval England wool was produced for export to the Low Countries where weavers were prepared to pay best prices for English wool. Even before that time sheep had been important – the Domesday Book reveals that there wherefore sheep than any other kind of animal. From the thirteenth century onwards wool generated huge wealth for the country and it explains why from Yorkshire to the Cotswolds not to mention East Anglia there are so many magnificent churches. Let’s not forget that Norwich was once England’s second city based entirely on the wealth generated from wool. The Merchants of the Staple are one of the oldest corporations still in existence. The Cistercians built their great monasteries on the wealth of wool based on their use of the grange system – or specialist farms. By the fourteenth century there were something like 150,000 sheep in Yorkshire alone. The sheep in question turn up in sculpture and manuscripts. Interestingly whilst sheep milk and sheep cheese was important to the agrarian society of the time meat was a later addition to the sheep’s versatility with mutton finding it’s way onto the menu.
Mutton, incidentally, comes from a sheep which is more than a year old. Sheep of course can be ewes, rams, tups, hoggets or wethers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Cheviot sheep with their startled ears and dense wool have been around since the fourteenth century whereas the blackfaced suffolk sheep with their black legs, faces and downturned ears have only been recorded since the eighteenth century. An article in Country Life identifies twenty-one native breeds of sheep and provides a handy identikit summary for sheep spotters. It can be found here http://www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/shaggy-sheep-stories-21-native-british-sheep-breeds-recognise-153367
Inevitably it wasn’t long before someone came up with the bright idea of taxing wool – let’s not forget that the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack. Edward I was the first monrch who slapped a tax on wool. Henry VI licensed the export of Cotswold Sheep such was their value. Even Henry VII got in on the act in 1488 with his own wool act in Wakefield and the west Riding encouraging skilled foreign workers to settle in the country to promote the wool industry. He also prohibited sale abroad as detrimental to the making and finishing of cloth . In 1523 dyers found themselves coming under regulation thanks to Henry VIII and the Capper’s Act of 1571 required every male in the kingdom aged six and above to wear a wool hat on a Sunday. A three shilling fine could be levied for anyone not conforming to the sartorial requirements. And that’s before we get to the Dissolution of the Monasteries or the land enclosures which troubled the Tudors (e.g. Kett’s Rebellion of 1549). No wonder Sir Thomas More had something to say about sheep in Utopia – that the sheep ate the men. Or put more simply the big landowners kicked their tenants and little men off the land so that their herds of sheep could increase in size.
James I was persuaded by Sir William Cockayne to launch a project designed to boost the earnings of those involved in the manufacture of undyed cloth setting up a dyeing industry to do the job at home. The government was promised £40,000 p.a. from increased customs through the importing of dyestuffs. James gave control to Cockayne and the new company was given permission to export in 1615. It was clear by 1616 that Cockayne had not the resources to buy the cloth from the clothing districts and hold it until it could be marketed. Matters became worse when the Dutch banned the import of cloth. Merchants went bankrupt, weavers rioted, cloth exports slumped and the industry stagnated. By 1617 James abandoned Cockayne and the Merchant Adventurers regained control. It should also be noted that James wasn’t without his own share of riot and rebellion related to sheep and enclosure – the Midland Revolt of 1607 demonstrates that problems didn’t go away for a few years before returning with a vengeance during the eighteenth century.
Times change and by the mid seventeenth century there was a requirement to be buried in a woollen shroud to help keep the wool market going (The Burying in Woollen Acts) This act of 1666 required all the dead to have woolly shrouds apart from plague victims and presumably that was because no one wanted the job of checking to see whether the deceased was complying with the law – families were liable to a five pound fine if the shroud was anything other than English wool. The law was in force for about a century although it remained on the law books for much longer.
James I banned the sale of untreated wool to Flanders and ultimately the ban on sales of wool was not lifted until 1824. In 1698 there was even an act that meant that farmers with flocks of sheep near the cost had to give an account of the numbers in their flocks to prevent wool smuggling.
In 1699 it was forbidden that any of England’s colonies should export wool anywhere other than England – so it was sold to Enlgish markets and then sold on elsewhere. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the colonists felt somewhat out of sorts about the matter. And of course wool is one of the reasons behind the Highland Land Clearances that began in about 1750 and lasted for the next century.
If you like the sampler pictured at the start of this post and you do cross stitch it is now possible to buy and download it from the HistoryJar shop which can be accessed at the top of the page or by clicking on the link.
Yan yon yak.Vanna ower der, I counted my sheep on the gated fellside long ago in time and space when owing a farm in Soulby Cumbria. Methra comes after threthra .I 2 3 4.Norses men taught us how to count sheep. In 1964 a man came around schools in North West England. he asked parents to join a vast Government test. Children to give blood samples so to show where we came from originally. Results came in months later and over 70 % went back to Sweden. I came from Anjou via Normandy via Sweden and of Viking blood myself. It was all over the North down below Preston 70% of all children Viking connected. It caused research into old Norse village names and Roman Britain in all of us 87% Rome. So question is how are we Roman if Viking blooded? Well seems we all in the North ran with Vikling hordes on the South lands and so Roman first we soon found Viking women our cup of tea
Reading again Kendal ,then Kirby Kentdale motto is wool is my bread.. I have Scotti Black faced ewes and used a Suffolk tup on the gated flocks. I used lambs as followers and interchanged with top rate bought in Suffolk .Had to be careful as too much and they went softer. Hard fell sheep are blackfaced. Best taste roast is wether sheering Herdwick. Nothing to touch it in this world.One thing I miss about Cumbria. that and British beef as here is no beef eating nation.Pork only. i bring in fat chickens and beef via Germany
What a lovely post. I once wrote a poem about Yan Tan Tethera. We have a lot of sheep in our small town, and we love visiting the Yorkshire Dales on business trips (pre-Covid).
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