Medieval Animals

I am interested in how people in the medieval village or smaller town saw their world. Animals were very much a very important and integral part of this world of mixed arable farming. However direct insights into how medieval peasants viewed their animals are rather rare. Manorial court rolls and manorial accounts tend to emphasise that animals had values attached to them. Oxen were valued plough beasts and tended to come at a rather high price, next came cows and horses, although some horses were valued more highly than others, one might think of a well – bred and trained war horse, or a fully trained plough horse for example. Chicken were at the bottom of the ladder and most peasants kept a few for eggs. So animals sold and bought were most consistently

My dog Lacey helping me to think about medieval people and their animals
My dog Lacey helping me to think about medieval people and their animals

entered alongside a monetary value. Peasants also sometimes sued others who had caused damage to their animals, a horse driven too hard by a neighbour so that it became lame, a cow mistreated, or indeed an animal stolen, or borrowed and not returned. It indicates the level of informal bartering and borrowing that went on in medieval communities, families sharing plough animals for example in return for money or favours. But what about any emotional attachment? Can we find out something about what people felt about the animals in their care? It is perhaps difficult to imagine that people would not become in some ways emotionally attached. some peasant families still shared roofs with their cows or horses into the 14th century. We also do know that people named their horses, and naming animals has often been seen as a sign of emotional value or attachment. However such evidence is still comparatively rare. Manorial court rolls in their legalistic language is also often too detached to note down any names of animals which might have been made lame or stolen. So today I came across a lovely case which bucks the trend. in 1286 Matilda of Heacham went to court accusing Robert not only of having  ‘badly beaten’ herself, but also Abilla, her lamb, her lambkin as the court roll noted. Matilda registers her outrage not by noting that the lamb was worth 2d., but by demanding damages amounting to a total of 20s. for the assault. Surely a clear indication of emotional attachment and emotional value to the young sheep.

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