If any had told me a few years ago that there would come a day when I would be completely riveted by a book on sheep and the complexities of the medieval wool trade, I would have told them to go soak their heads and laughed. But they would have been right.
Purchasing this book as research towards one I’m about to start writing (fiction), I confess I opened it with some reluctance. I mean, how interesting can such a dry subject be? Well, it turns out that in the hands of Susan Rose, it’s a fascinating subject. Remaining within the temporal parameters she’s set, Rose explains the maintenance of sheep, different breeds, regions, the production and trading of wool in England and across its major trading partners during different and very fraught periods. Through various reigns, wars, plague, and maritime disasters, markets, The Company of Staple, politics, the demands of the Crown, excise, smuggling – the role of sheep and wool in these as well as Crown finances, Rose takes the reader on a journey, exploring English dominance of the wool trade and then its decline as well as the court’s reliance on wool to rescue and/or support it in various ventures. Personal reputations and fortunes rose and fell, risked on wool and the flock upon which it depended. The various trades associated with wool, such as broggers, to the washing of fleeces and then those sorting the fleeces are explained, as are the handling and administrative tasks associated with such a multifaceted business.
But it’s the politics and personal stories of those who made some very successful livings from wool, cloth and the related industries that are the most absorbing. As well as how wool came to not only define English policies and politics, but is even to this day, an important parliamentary symbol as it’s regarded – rightly and wrongly – as having created England’s wealth. The truth, as Rose is at pains to explain, is that English wool – as a much-in-demand product for many centuries, made select people – farmers and merchants – at certain times in history, very rich and even saved a King by providing his ransom and the Crown from bankruptcy during wars. But did it make a nation rich? Unlikely. It was also responsible, as more and more landholders enclosed acres in order to run sheep, for the eviction and thus dispossession of ordinary folk. Sheep and wool may have elicited excitement from some by allowing them to transcend the ranks of their birth through the accumulation of wealth and thus power, but because of these people, wool and sheep also came to symbolise the deep resentment of the working poor at the way they were disregarded and discarded when there was money to be made.
This book surprised me in the best of ways and I am so glad I read it. Beautifully written, really well researched with an astounding number of sources, it is a terrific addition to the history of not just trade in England, but to the complex role sheep, wool and merchants played in England’s political and social history.