ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “England”

The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

The queen who took down the empress

Some time ago, I published a post about that rather impressive lady Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror and thereby became the matriarch of the Norman kings. Today, I thought we’d spend some time with her namesake, the equally impressive Matilda of Boulogne.

Royal 19 B.XV, f.37This Matilda was born in 1105 or thereabouts. Her father, Eustace of Boulogne, was a Crusader and a proven warrior, having participated in the siege (and subsequent massacre) of Jerusalem. Given future events, I’m guessing Matilda had inherited quite a few of her father’s more ferocious qualities, traits that were to come in handy later in her life.

Eustace married relatively late in life—all that crusading had kept him quite busy for some years—but I suspect he was quite pleased with his wife. After all, Mary of Scotland was of royal descent and came with the added bonus of being the sister to Henry I’s queen, yet another Matilda. Thereby, Eustace became a royal in-law, and even if Henry I does not come across as a man who had much time for family ties (this is, after all, the king who allowed his granddaughters to be blinded) it was probably never a disadvantage to be related to the king, however indirectly.

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Matilda, Henry I’s wife

Mary and Matilda Sr had been raised in a convent. In fact, they’d spent so much time with the nuns Henry I had to acquire the pope’s permission to marry Matilda Sr as there were those who muttered that both Matilda Sr and Mary were effectively nuns. What the sisters themselves thought of this, I have no idea, but the upside of their irregular upbringing was that they were both quite well-educated.

As to why Henry I (who seems to have had an unquenchable appetite for women, resulting in twenty plus illegitimate children) was so determined to marry Matilda Sr, this was because of her (and Mary’s) mother: St Margaret of Scotland was not only the mother of eight children, including the two sisters. She was also the descendant of Edmund Ironside, thereby contributing a dollop of Anglo-Saxon royal blood to her offspring.

Neither Mary nor Matilda Sr seem to have been all that fertile. Matilda Sr only gave Henry I two children (and, as we’ve seen above, he had no issue with fertility). Mary presented her husband with one child: Matilda, named after her aunt.

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Henry I, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth

Just to add to the name confusion, Henry I’s daughter by Queen Matilda was also named Matilda, and seeing as this Matilda and our Matilda were to play very important roles in each others’ lives, I’ve decided to call Henry’s daughter Maud, as otherwise we will all develop a headache trying to separate one from the other. (In general, I am not impressed by the variation in names during the Middle Ages. Seems to me people snowed in on a couple of them and then went on to use them ad nauseam, resulting in large amounts of Matildas and Alfonsos and Eleanors and Isabellas and Henrys and Williams and…right: no need to elaborate further, I think)

Anyway: Matilda grew up in comfort, mostly in Boulogne, but also in England—her father had estates there. Her mother died when Matilda was around 11 or so, and for some reason Matilda remained unwed throughout her teens. Maybe her father was holding out for a good marriage, or maybe Henry I had a vested interest in ensuring Matilda and her vast inheritance ended up in the right hands. Whatever the case, in 1125 Matilda was married to Stephen of Blois, nephew to king Henry I.

For Stephen, marrying Matilda was a major move upwards financially. As a younger son to the Count of Blois and Adela, Henry I’s sister, Stephen did not expect to inherit much land. Now, by right of his wife, he stood next in line to become the Count of Boulogne. Close to ten years older than his bride, Stephen seems to have found Matilda very much to his liking—a sentiment returned in full by his wife, or at least that is the impression one gets, given just how loyal she would prove to be.

1125 was the year in which Matilda gained a husband and lost a father. Upon Eustace’s death, the newly married couple became the Count and Countess of Boulogne, and for the coming decade or so, they divided their time between their large estates in England and Boulogne, their family growing with the addition of a couple of children.

And then, in 1135, everything changed.

MoB WhiteShipSinkingBefore we go there, we need to detour briefly to Henry I and the fate of his two legitimate children by Matilda Sr. By the time Stephen wed Matilda of Boulogne, Henry I’s precious male heir, William, was already dead, having drowned in the tragedy of the White Ship. All Henry had left was a bevy of eager nephews (among them Stephen) and his daughter, Maud, recently returned to England after the death of her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.

King Henry was determined to ensure his bloodline retained the throne. He’d hastily wed again after the death of William, but so far no royal babies were forthcoming. Maud had not presented her first husband with an heir, but she was still youngish (as per the standards of the time), so Henry decided to marry her again—to the very much younger Geoffrey of Anjou. Not a marriage made in heaven, one could say. Maud resented the fact that her husband was not much more than a child and only a count. She, after all, was an Empress, albeit without the adjoining empire. However, Maud needed a husband as Henry had obliged his barons to recognise Maud—and her legitimate heirs—as his heirs. Just in case, Henry had his barons swear allegiance to his daughter twice.

In 1133, Maud gave birth to a son whom she named Henry. In 1134, she gave birth to a second son, Geoffrey. Henry I could expel a relieved breath: he now had two male heirs, albeit at present no more than infants, but still.

In December of 1135, Henry I died, supposedly after having gone wild and crazy over a dish of lampreys. The more likely reason is that he fell sick after an autumn campaigning against rebels in Normandy—rebels supported by Maud and Geoffrey.

No sooner was Henry dead but a fight over the succession broke out. Several of the barons decided not to honour their oath to Maud (many of them disliked the ambitious Geoffrey) and Theobald of Blois, Stephen’s eldest brother, prepared to go to England and claim the crown.

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Stephen being crowned

Stephen moved faster. Upon hearing the news of his uncle’s demise, he set off like greased lightning, accompanied by his household knights. Some weeks later, he was crowned, which no doubt caused big brother Theobald to grind his teeth, but once anointed always anointed, and so Theobald could do nothing but bow to the inevitable.

Not so our Empress Maud. To give this lady her due, Maud was not the type who gave up. Oh, no: the crown was hers by right—those perjured barons had sworn on it—and she wasn’t about to let this juicy price slip away from her or her sons. Geoffrey agreed, and while these two were often at odds on a personal level, they were scarily alike when it came to ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence. No wonder their son, the future Henry II, would turn out as he did.

We don’t know whether Matilda supported her husband’s bid for the throne. It seems likely, if nothing else because he consulted with her on various other matters, and such a life-changing decision would reasonably be something he’d have talked over with her beforehand. Maybe they’d been planning for this for some time, both of them fully aware of how unpopular Geoffrey d’Anjou was among the English barons.

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Stephen as king

In difference to Geoffrey, Stephen was universally liked. He was rich, easy-going, good-looking, a proven warrior—and, most importantly, a man. What baron in his right mind would prefer Maud to this charmer? Initially, it would seem very few, but Maud was nothing if not determined, and some years into Stephen’s reign, civil war flared up. The anarchy (as it was dubbed by those who lived through it) was to plague the rest of his reign, the barons divided between those who supported Maud (led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester) and those who held with the king.

One of those who definitely held with the king was Matilda. Just like her cousin Maud, she also had a son to look out for, little Eustace. So when Stephen at times leaned towards leniency, she’d prod him into action, reminding him it wasn’t only his future that was at stake, it was their future, the future of their children.

That her husband trusted her abilities implicitly was made very clear in 1138, when Matilda was dispatched to handle the rebellions in Kent. Later that same year, she was entrusted with brokering a peace with Scotland—in general, 1138 was a bad, bad year for Stephen, what with rebellions in Kent, the Scots attacking from the north, Robert of Gloucester declaring for Maud, and Geoffrey of Anjou harassing Normandy.

Stephen was an impressive fighter, preferring to lead from the front. This is precisely what he did at the Battle of Lincoln in early 1141, but no matter how well he wielded sword and a battle axe, ultimately his forces were overrun by the much larger armies captained by Robert of Gloucester. King Stephen was taken prisoner, and all, it seemed, was now lost.

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Empress Maud

Matilda succumbed to some moments of desperation. She sent messengers to Maud, pleading that her husband be restored to her, but Maud was no fool and had no intention of releasing Stephen until she’d been properly acclaimed as the ruler of the English. So while Stephen kicked his heels in captivity at Bristol Castle, a triumphant Maud rode for London, there to prepare for her coronation. Like rats on a drowning ship, those who had so far been loyal to Stephen started to defect, including Stephen’s own brother, Henry of Blois.

I have never really liked this Henry (albeit that one must give the man credit for commissioning the Winchester Bible) a self-serving bishop who happily changed sides depending on how it suited him best. In early 1141, he therefore did some major brown-nosing, promising Maud the full support of the church, thereby throwing his own brother overboard.

However, all was not lost. Stephen’s queen was still at large, and after her initial bout of weakness and despair, Matilda regrouped. She was probably helped in this by the fact that Maud had about as much diplomatic skill as an aggressive bull. In a matter of weeks, the haughty and temperamental Empress had alienated not only several members of the nobility, but also the citizens of London. In June of 1141, the Londoners therefore rose on behalf of their king, effectively forcing Maud to flee to Oxford.

At the time, Matilda was in Kent. She may have been a weak female, but she had the heart and guts of a born fighter, and when her husband began to cave in his confinement, agreeing to sign away his crown, Matilda was having none of it. As far as Matilda was concerned, she’d rather be force-fed horse-dung than allow Cousin Maud to plant her backside on the English throne – a sentiment she obviously shared with the Londoners. So Matilda assembled the lieutenants still loyal to her husband and began planning her next steps. Having heard that her husband was held in chains probably served as a major motivator.

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The somewhat devious Henry of Blois

This is when Henry of Blois suddenly regretted throwing his brother to the wolves (or maybe he realised just how determined his his sister-in-law was) and renewed his vows of allegiance to the king, his brother. Being a somewhat flamboyant man, Bishop Henry chose to shout his change of allegiance to the world by besieging the royal castle at Winchester. Maud was predictably not pleased by this. In fact, she was seriously enraged and ordered her troops to teach the bishop a lesson.

Upon sighting Maud’s troops, as always led by the loyal and capable Robert of Gloucester, Henry retreated to the episcopal castle on the other side of Winchester. Maud’s troops settled down for a siege, but Matilda was already marching to the rescue, and soon enough the besiegers became the besieged, trapped inside a town with dwindling resources. There was nothing to do but retreat, Robert told Maud, probably going on to say something along the lines of “better live to fight another day.”

If Robert had hoped they’d be allowed to retreat in an orderly fashion, he’d thought wrong. Someone had clearly underestimated Matilda and her loyal second-in-command William of Ypres. No sooner did Maud’s armies begin to pull out from Winchester in good order, but they were attacked by Matilda’s forces. It became something of a rout, with Maud escaping by the skin of her teeth. Not so Robert of Gloucester, who was taken prisoner and hauled before a delighted Matilda. At last the bargaining chip she needed to free her husband!

It took several months of negotiations to broker the agreement whereby Robert was exchanged for Stephen, but by Christmas of 1141 Stephen was reunited with his loyal wife. This did not end the strife, and over the coming years England lived in a state of constant chaos as men loyal to one side or the other clashed. But in 1147, Robert of Gloucester died, and without her stalwart champion Maud felt obliged to retire to Anjou—for now.

Stephen and Matilda enjoyed some years of relative peace, but in 1152 Matilda was struck down by a fever and died. By all accounts, her husband was devastated, left rudderless—at least for a while—by the loss of his dear wife.

When Stephen’s son, Eustace, died a year or so later, it seems Stephen lost all motivation to continue defending his crown. So when the young, red-haired and extremely energetic and capable Henry FitzEmpress landed in England, determined to fight for the crown that belonged to him, Stephen did not exactly charge out to meet him in battle. Truth be told, the barons of England were so sick and tired of all this strife they more or less refused to fight, telling Henry and Stephen they should get over things and negotiate a final solution to this whole mess.

After months of back and forth Henry and Stephen arrived at an arrangement: Stephen would keep his crown, but upon his death Henry would inherit it, not Stephen’s surviving son or his equally surviving daughter (Somehow, I don’t think the daughter figured all that much in these negotiations seeing as she was a nun and very happy being one, thank you very much. That would soon change, though…Future post, people).

And so, finally, England was at peace again. Stephen could at last relax and savour his kingship—a somewhat sour experience, seeing as he had neither his beloved wife nor his heir with which to savour it. Maybe that’s why he died in 1154, thereby bringing to end one of the more dismal reigns in English history. And maybe, in retrospect, it was a good thing that Matilda died when she did. Somehow, I don’t think this brave lady would have allowed her husband to come to terms with young Henry—not as long as they had a living son. And that, dear peeps, would not have been good for England, no matter how admirable Matilda’s loyalty and determination was.

Ba, ba, black sheep

wool 50px-PipeandbelldavidI seem to be on a woolly streak of late. First a post about tartan some days back, and today a post about sheep. Well: it’s not about sheep, it’s about wool, and 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 rather 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. I can also tell you they weigh a lot. With or without their fleece, lifting a sheep requires serious arm muscle.

Sheep are one of those animals that were domesticated very early on. Originally, mainly as meals-on-hooves, but over time 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, if you see what I mean. 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 genetics – and so sheep are mostly depicted as being white. Except for the black sheep, that is. The scapegoat, if you will, the one who does not conform. (Incidentally, in Sweden the nursery song is Bä,bä vita lamm – Ba,ba, white lamb. Obviously, us Swedes don’t rate black sheep all that much…)

wool British LibraryAnyway: man ambled about with his sheep, his goats. At some point, man domesticated cows and pigs, and pigs aren’t that much for ambling really. I mean, they like a good day out in the forest eating acorns, but walking long, long distances to graze isn’t quite a piggy thing. Besides, man had discovered how to sow crops, and wheat and stuff 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 even 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 markedly upped the potential for domestic bliss. Women are somewhat possessive when it comes to their men.

1899-43305Civilisation picked up speed, and we’re going to whizz by huge chunks of it, and suddenly we are 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 man 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).

Effectively, England was 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. The added value in this financial operation remained in other than English hands, with Flemish and Italian cloth merchants growing very fat and happy.

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El buen pastor, Murillo (and that’s a Merino)

BUT. No wool, no cloth, no income. Obviously, there was more than English wool around – specifically a lot of Spanish wool. Truth be told, 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 the country 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.

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 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 very early “futures” – goes to show that trade in medieval times was, in its own way, 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. Advances have been recorded, there are contractual consequences should the seller not deliver, and all in all, these are quite sophisticated financial instruments. I would imagine that in some instances these contracts were sold on, but in general the purpose was not to speculate on the price in wool, but rather safeguard its supply.

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 the wool from foreign merchants in England. He then sold it again and lined his coffers with the money required to continue his bellicose efforts. Wool was also taxed, creating a nice steady revenue – soft, fluffy stuff financing hauberks and swords, war-steeds and crossbows.

wool Edward_III_of_England_(Order_of_the_Garter)

Edward III, early 15th c depiction

Edward I’s high-handedness was quite the blow to the advance contracts on wool. And in 1337, his grandson, Edward III, attempted to create a wool monopoly, the Wool Company, with designated 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, thereby causing substantial unrest and poverty among the former textile workers. This was 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 it was definitely the death-knell to the innovative structure of the wool future, seeing as the number of new advance contracts declined sharply afterwards.

wool 07-5376373England’s wool export, however, continued to thrive, and throughout the 14th century wool remained the single most important source of wealth for England, which is why Edward III ordered that his Lord Chancellor should sit on a bale of wool, the “Woolsack”, a constant reminder to all those present that without those little critters that went ba-ba, England would plunge into obscurity and poverty.

These days, Australia is the world’s biggest wool producer, followed by the US, China and New Zealand. Together, they produce 60% of the total world production, while the UK, once such a dominant player, delivers 2% or so. And Spain is no longer on the top-ten list, although indirectly it is, seeing as the Merino remains one of the most important sheep breeds around.

P.S. Should you want to know more about the wool trade and those advance contracts, I recommend “Advance Contracts for the sale of wool in medieval England: an undeveloped and inefficient market?” by Bell, Brooks & Dryburgh (University of Reading)

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