How sheep changed human culture: A review of Follow the Flock

Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization by Sally Coulthard

Sally Coulthard, author of the book Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization, begins the story by asking: “What have sheep ever done for us?” To answer this question, she devotes 14 chapters of fascinating stories and ovine facts about the immense impact that sheep have had on human civilization. She explains how the humble sheep have fed, clothed, and housed us; how they have changed our language and have won wars; how they have financed industries, churches, and farming land; and even how they have been involved in scientific and medical breakthroughs.

Coulthard narrates the story of the “Asiatic mouflon, a dark-coloured, hairy beast with a soft, woolly undercoat” that our ancestors hunted for its delicious meat. This archaic ovine had big horns and molted every year naturally. Nearly 10,000 years ago, our ancestors shifted their attention from hunting animals to domesticating them as a source of meat, milk, and hides. Sheep were the ideal animal to domesticate because it coped well with the demands of breeding in captivity. Humans intentionally bred different sheep that produced thick, soft wool that they could use to weave into fabric. Over time, sheep migrated all over the world and their wool became a valuable commodity.

Much of what we know about ancient woolen textiles came from burial sites, frozen mummies, bog bodies, and written histories. The discoveries of the Ice Maiden, the Huldremose Woman, and the Arjan Tomb are only a sample of the fascinating archaeological findings that reveal how integral sheep were in the life, culture, and economy of ancient peoples. The Scythians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Chinese, for example, depended on sheep’s wool for clothing and housing because they favored its natural properties. The Celts used sheep for their meat and milk. They drank sheep’s milk straight from the pale, but they also made butter, yogurt, and cheese with it. Some ancient tribes even used sheep—and humans–for sacrificial rituals.

From the time that ancient humans shifted their attention from hunting wild animals to domesticating them for food, sheep and their wool became central to human civilization. The domestication of sheep brought about several societal, medical, technological, and scientific changes:

  • Wild sheep used to shed their coat naturally in warm weather, but domesticated sheep had to be sheared. Early farmers used different methods to shear their sheep, such as stone scrapers or plucking before metal scissors and the shearing machine were invented.
  • Sheep-related words, proverbs, nursery rhymes, and literature have permeated human culture. The children’s favorite Baa, Baa, black sheep, the proverb “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and the star sign of Aries are a few linguistic relics of a past where sheep and shepherding were an integral part of human society.
  • We have sheep to thank for the herding dogs and drovers who worked hard to keep flocks of sheep together and safe. Dogs kept sheep safe from wild predators and led them in a particular direction. Drovers drove large numbers of livestock, vast distances to urban markets.
  • Thomas Burberry invented the water-resistant gabardine cloth using lanolin (sheep’s grease.) This cloth was used to make outdoor coats, military gear, and clothes for Antarctic explorers. Sheep’s lanolin was also used for medical care and cosmetics, as lubricant and anti-corrosion agent, and more. Chemist Graham Wulff used lanolin to create the Oil of Olay face cream.
  • Learning how to spin and weave wool from childhood was an essential skill for every ancient tribe. The Viking sailors, for example, wouldn’t have survived their perilous journeys in the sea without wool clothes, bedding, and boat sails. Wool sails, in particular, were pivotal to the success of their sea explorations. They were strong and elastic to withstand the North Atlantic’s freezing waters. The sailors also used them as a tent for protection from the harsh weather elements.
  • Knitting with wool was evolved from an earlier technique called nålebinding which involved sewing the interlocking loops together. In Europe, knitted clothes were made for kings and high-status individuals. But for the poor classes, knitting was not just a craft. It was a means to support their families in hard economic times.
  • For women, knitting was not only a necessary life skill but also a symbol of self-sufficiency and patriotism. Women used to homespun their own wool cloth, and make garments, blankets, and other items. During the American Revolutionary War and other wars elsewhere, women contributed their knitting skills to clothe thousands of soldiers with warm woolen socks, hats, sweaters, and blankets. Even spies used knitting as the perfect vehicle to code messages in the innocent loops of specific patterns. In a few words, knitting helped win wars.
  • Sheep’s wool has brought great wealth and political power to several monasteries and families. Monasteries made a fortune from sheep farming because they owned or were gifted vast pasturelands suitable for sheep grazing. Several families, such as the Medici, became global bankers from producing and trading wool. Other families, who also became wealthy from wool, financed the construction or enlargement of their local churches. These churches employed hundreds of artists, architects, carpenters, embroiderers, painters, metalworkers, and many other craftspeople—all were paid with money made from the wool trade.
  • After Black Death wiped out entire populations in Europe, there were very few people alive to cultivate the land. Sheep farming increased at that time because it required little labor. So, landlords and some farmers began enclosing parcels of land for sheep grazing. These enclosures, however, left thousands of people dispossessed. Some were compensated for their loss of land and some moved to the cities in search of factory work. In America, the Navajo people, who raised Churro sheep, were also displaced when the US army slaughtered countless of sheep and forced the Navajo to leave their land.
  • The Channel island of Guernsey used to export a high volume of hand-knitted stockings, worn by both women and men. The local women would be commissioned to knit these stockings and warm wool clothes for seamen and fishermen. That’s when the Guernsey jumper was born and became a popular choice of clothing among seamen. It was knitted with unwashed wool, which meant that the lanolin on the wool helped keep it water-resistant. Several myths surrounded the Guernsey jumpers. One of them supported that the pattern of the jumper helped identify a dead fisherman. However, such folklore was invented to inspire natural identity, heritage, and kinship.
  • Child labor powered the textile industry for over 150 years in both Europe and America. In England, independent laborers and their families worked part-time from their home to supplement their income. They would spin, weave, and dye wool yarn or produce finished textiles. The cloth merchants would pick up and sell these textiles to markets all over the country. The most prominent market was the Halifax Piece Hall in West Yorkshire, that was built with the purpose of trading woolen cloth. With the invention of the textile mills, the need for workers increased. The solution was to employ thousands of orphaned, destitute, and imprisoned children. With their small hands, slight bodies, and quick reflexes, children were ideal to crawl beneath machinery and clean them, thread bobbins, or mend broken threads.
  • The wool industry generated wealth in several cities. Bradford, West Yorkshire in particular, became the textile capital of the world because of its rich natural resources that powered the wool factories. Soon, Bradford’s population exploded with workers and immigrants who came hoping to find work in the wool industry. The city was overcrowded, dirty, filthy, polluted, and rendered with wool diseases such as anthrax. Thanks to French chemist Louis Pasteur, his research, and his experiment on sheep, we now have a vaccine for anthrax.
  • Sheep intestines had been used as condoms for hundreds of years. The Romans were among the first adapters of these condoms. Most men used them to protect themselves from syphilis, an incurable and deadly condition at that time.
  • Balloons and footballs were made of inflated and dried sheep offal such as bladders and intestines.
  • Sheep made history on 19 September 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated the first hot-air balloon flight to King Louis XVI. The passengers were a sheep, a duck, and a cockerel. They lifted off nearly 1,600 feet and, after eight minutes, they landed gently and safely.
  • Because sheep were thought to have similar physiology to humans, they became attractive targets for medical experiments. For example, in 1667, the French physician Jean-Baptiste Denys transfused about 12 fluid ounces of lamb’s blood to a 15-year-old boy who suffered blood loss. The boy miraculously lived. Denys repeated the experiment on a laborer who also survived. But his third patient wasn’t as lucky and died. It wasn’t until 1901 when Austrian physician and immunologist Karl Landsteiner discovered that humans have different types of blood. His discovery made it possible to perform safe blood transfusions between people with compatible blood groups.
  • Sheep have been at the center of major scientific and medical discoveries. The most famous of all is Dolly, the Sheep. In 1996, scientists at Roslin Institute in Scotland experimented with cloning an adult six-year-old Finnish Dorset sheep and they created Dolly. Dolly lived to the age of six and a half, and gave birth to six healthy lambs.
  • Another lesser known scientific breakthrough occurred when animal scientist Steven Salamon bred sheep with artificial insemination. Salamon’s methods of freezing and storing sperm long-term for sheep farming have changed our expectations in genetic science. By conserving genetic material, scientists can now treat patients with fertility issues and preserve endangered animals.

All these fascinating stories in Coulthard’s book reveal the connection of humans with sheep. They offer us an insight into the impact of sheep on human society and culture from ancient to modern times. Coulthard prods us to view sheep not merely as animals we see grazing in the countryside as we drive by, but rather as the warp threads on the tapestry of human culture.

Coulthard is uniquely qualified to write on this subject. She is an acclaimed columnist and author of books on interior design, outdoor living, nature, history, and crafts. Armed with degrees in archaeology and anthropology from Oxford University, she spends your time designing, making, and writing about her experiences in rural living. From restoring houses to raising animals, her books inspire readers to create workspaces of their own.

Anyone who loves history, sheep, textiles, crafts, or simply captivating stories on human culture will find this book an informative and engaging read.

  • Copyright © Harikleia Georgiou Sirmans 2011-2023. All rights reserved.
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