Posted by: kljolly | October 30, 2014

cow vs ewe

The long gap in posts reflects the term-time slow down, exacerbated by a higher than usual number of evaluative tasks (dissertations, personnel, awards, conference abstracts, etc).

However, I have been reading several interesting books simultaneously that have caused me to rethink some aspects of my storyline.  In this post, my reflections on material culture are stimulated by reading Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society (Sidestone Press, 2014 available as an ebook).  Someone else posted or recommended it (thanks whoever it was!).

HolmesbookShe compiles all of the available data on animal bones in early, middle, and late Saxon England to develop a picture of what kinds of domestic animals were in use and for what, where and when.  What struck me was the higher incidence of milk from sheep rather than cows (see pp. 70-75).  Apparently cows are expensive to over-winter, so most folks did not develop dairy products from cows, although there is some evidence for small herds or small dairy farms.

This affects my story because I had written a scene where Aldred investigates a cow stolen from a widow by some viking boys.  I had imagined the widow as depending on this cow for milk and cheese to sell, along with some chickens for eggs.  But it is unlikely a poor widow would overwinter a milk cow due to the expense.  She might have an ewe, though, for both milk/cheese and wool.  So I have rewritten it accordingly.

Bede's World sheep

Bede’s World sheep

Bishop Ælfsige had called him aside after chapter meeting. “Aldred, I need to send you out into the fields to solve a dispute. You have experience in the vills, and people trust you.”

Aldred and Ælfsige had been friends since their novice days, despite serving in different churches since then. Aldred knew enough of his friend, now his superior, to not respond to the compliment, even to show appropriate humility. He waited for the details.

“Wihtred the Reeve came this morning with a tale of night walkers taking a ewe sheep right from the byre of widow Osgyth, even as she slept in the next room. He claims when this happened last year to old man Eata, the sheep was found on the lands of the Scandinavian family at Lumley. I don’t want trouble. You have enough experience on the vills to sort it out and soothe tempers.”

“On your authority?” Aldred queried. He knew it would take some careful investigating and negotiating to get the rights of the matter.

“In St. Cuthbert’s name,” the bishop replied. Same thing, thought Aldred to himself, and he knows it.

So Aldred had gone off to to the widow’s house, one of a row of small homes on the southern edge of the Chester-le-Street estate lands, where the River Wear makes a big loop. The woman had no men left to work the fields of grain, but she received a loaf of bread weekly from the church to supplement the vegetables she grew in her small garden, along with the sheep’s milk and a few chicken eggs that were her main source of protein and barter for other goods. In fact, she was long known for the excellent cheese she made, as well as her carded wool, small though it was. The ewe was allowed to graze on the common, but in the winter she, like most villagers, brought the animal indoors for the night for warmth—hers and the ewe’s.

Osgyth was old enough to be mostly toothless and almost entirely deaf. With some difficulty, Aldred ascertained that the ewe had been taken from the animal side of the house while she slept on the other side of the thin wall in the main room. She must not have heard the sheep bleating or clucking chickens disturbed by the intruder. Gesturing to the chicken roosts, she indicated that perhaps some eggs were missing as well, but hard to know.

Aldred searched around the grounds, looking for recent hoof and foot prints. It had frosted overnight, so the tracks should be sharp-lined compared to the mushy prints made in the mud yesterday. At the edge of the widow’s garden, he found a confusion of footprints, but some clear sheep tracks. He bent down to look at them more closely. Someone had dripped wax into the hoof indentations. Osgyth smiled and pulled a candle from her bag, gesturing the sign of the cross with it.

Aldred sighed. One of the finding aids for lost or stolen animals included dripping wax either on the bridle or into the hoof tracks, while saying a galdor formula beginning “may the cross of Christ lead it back.” Sometimes the prayer included references to St. Helen’s finding of the true cross—just so, may this animal be found. He sent a quick prayer via Helen, under his breath.

Finding and losing the trail, he searched along the river bank. If Wihtred was right about the vikings, the thief would have to cross the river to get the ewe to Lumley, land settled by a sprawling Scandinavian family fourteen years ago under a York viking chief named Wulf. Clever man, he had bargained with King Eadred after the Wessex monarch had expelled the viking king Erik from York. Wulf agreed to baptism for himself and all his kindred, in exchange for land to peacefully cultivate further north. But they were not quite friendly neighbors, yet, at least in the eyes of St. Cuthbert’s folk.

Eventually he found a strip of bare ground at a relatively narrow place in the river that showed recent evidence of trampling. How the thief or thieves managed to get the ewe to ford the river was hard to imagine, unless they carried it. Aldred was not about to wade into the freezing water, but doubled back to Wihtred’s house on the river to borrow a small punt. Once across the Wear, he searched along the edge for a track leading toward Lumley.

He didn’t have to go far along a path between fields before he was noticed by some boys who immediately hustled back to their houses. His belted robe marked him as a member of the clergy, so they could guess he came from St. Cuthbert’s church.

As he approached the village, lo and behold a lost sheep was meandering down the path toward him, no one holding its halter. Her matted winter wool was pretty filthy—as if she had waded across a muddy river—but as Aldred caught hold of the rope, he saw that her teats were clean and she had undoubtedly been milked.

Aldred looked around at a scattering of women with toddlers and boys keeping their distance, all of them looking ill-clothed and underfed. None of them made eye contact, although one woman sort of shrugged her shoulders at his glance. Hmm. He paused reflectively, looking up at the sun nearing its wintery zenith. He would certainly miss midday prayers. Oh well, here goes, he thought. Let’s see if Cuthbert’s name has power with this group.

Turning the ewe sideways to the path and facing the sun, he made the sign of the cross over her forehead, and said in the vernacular, clearly audible to his oddly intent audience, “Holy Cuthbert, God’s thegn, take this ewe home, and never let it go astray again.” Then he released the halter and stood back off the path.

The ewe swung her head one direction and the other, tail swishing, then she turned and started to trot up the path toward Chester-le-Street. Aldred trailed behind her for some ways, finally taking hold of the rope once they were some distance from the watchers. They got the message: don’t mess with St. Cuthbert’s property because he goes after his lost sheep. He assumed the community would take care of the thief. Meanwhile he planned to use his newly granted powers as provost to investigate whether the Lumley viking families were in need of food assistance. The infants on the hips of some of the women had that large-eyed, blank and hungry look.

Getting the ewe back across the Wear took time. He wasn’t going to try and get her on the punt, or wade across with her, so eventually he had to lead the beast further along the riverside path to the bridge, then double back down the other side to the widow’s house.

Osgyth was pleased with his success, but did not ask any questions about where she had been. Instead, she pressed a wheel of cheese into his hands, and asked in her loud voice, “if you please, Cuthbert’s priest, say a galdor to keep my ewe safe.”

Feeling that he had done enough with vernacular formulas, Aldred prayed a Latin house blessing over the home and byre. Fortunately, he had taken the precaution of bringing his portable kit with him that included a small vial of holy water, so he was able to asperge the house, making the sign of the cross and enjoining the Lord to send his angels to protect the small building and all who lived in it. He remembered this particular prayer well from the collectar, although he had not glossed it yet, because its margin had an amusing drawing of a man with hand raised, drawn as decoration beside a large hole in the parchment, around which the scribe had written this prayer.

Exaudi nos Domine sancte pater omnipotens aeterne Deus et mittere dignare angelum tuum sanctum de celis qui custodiat foueat protegat uisitat et defendat omnes habitantes in hoc habitaculo. Per Dominum….

He closed the prayer in a louder voice invoking Saints Cuthbert, Mary, and Helen, just so Osgyth would hear those familiar and comforting names. Aldred left her currying the ewe’s matted fur, the invisible cross marking her forehead.


  1. Nice use of local colour and especially good choice of a ewe. This provides a seamless transition from the practical to the spiritual via the metaphor of the lost sheep. The Latin word for sheep ‘ovis’ is feminine in gender and more specifically means ‘ewe’. Although Aldred glosses ‘ovis’ with ‘scip’ his glossing technique obliges him to make the feminine gender apparent. Hence part of the prayer from the quire XI booklet ‘Erraui sicut ouis QUÆ periit’ is glossed as ‘ic gidvolade sva scip ÐIO losade’. This is, of course, reminiscent of the parable of the lost sheep which, especially in Matthew 18.10-14, is associated with saving the little ones (thieving Viking brats?) from perdition.

  2. Thanks for the further layers of meaning. Yours is such a wonderfully medieval exegetical mind! I may steal the viking brats as lost sheep idea and incorporate it.

    • My daughter says I have a mediaeval mind, which is her way of calling me an old fogey!

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