Between Death and Survival: Norfolk Cattle, c.1280-1370



Slavin P (2009) Between Death and Survival: Norfolk Cattle, c.1280-1370. Fons Luminis, 1, pp. 14-60.

First paragraph: The history of fourteenth-century Europe has been rightfully seen as a history of crisis, resembling, in many ways, the twentieth century. It was a century of population pressure; climate deterioration; a series of crop failures, culminating between 1314 and 1317; plague mortality known as the Black Death; violent wars and civil unrest, causing supply shocks and, hence, high prices and low real wages. Until now, the crises of the fourteenth century have been studied from an anthropocentric perspective, as a human experience, whether personal, or collective. Humans, however, were not the only inhabitants of Europe. In the pre-Industrial era, the era of organic and pastoral economy, the vast majority of the population lived and worked on the land. In other words, they lived within a larger biological environment side-by-side with other living creatures, most notably domesticated animals. Despite the fact that these animals were mere chattels of the humans, they nevertheless played an important role in the everyday life of their masters. The extent and success of productivity largely depended on rearing these animals. Despite their obvious importance and close association with the humans, modern scholarship has largely neglected the fate of the animals within the natural environment, and concentrated, instead, on their masters, humans. There are, however, some noteworthy and important exceptions to that rule. One should mention the classical book of Robert Trow-Smith; studies on horses and oxen by John Langdon; work of Kathleen Biddick on livestock husbandry on early fourteenth century estates of Peterborough Abbey; works of Bruce Campbell, sometimes in cooperation with other scholars; and also those of Richard Hoffman on fishing economies of the late medieval period. Most recently, Aleksander Pluskowski published his full scale study on wolves in the medieval landscape. These studies either concentrated on a very short period of time, or studied the problem in a very longue durée. For example, Campbell and Overton’s general study covered as much as six hundred years, while Biddick’s work was based on three manorial rolls only (1300-1, 1307-8 and 1309-10). Although these authors laid foundations for future research, because of the either too general or too specific nature of their work, they did not deal with some essential issues, such as the demographic trends of the animals; changes in the composition of herds; fertility, birth, death and replacement rates; price movements of livestock animals (in relation to grain prices); and perhaps the most intriguing one: the understudied cattle plague of 1318-25 and its economic and agrarian consequences.9 What I propose here is a case-study of a specific group of domestic animals, set in a specific geographic and chronological context: bovine animals living on landed estates of Norfolk belonging to Norwich Cathedral Priory, Great Hospital and Bishop of Norwich, between c.1280-1370.

Fons Luminis: Volume 1

Publication date31/12/2009
Date accepted by journal01/08/2008

People (1)


Professor Philip Slavin

Professor Philip Slavin

Professor, History