Pests, Plagues and Pastoral Writing: Representations of Ovine Diseases in Early Modern England

Although early modern sheep were vital to the development of British commerce, they seem to have left almost no impression on the English cultural landscape. Sheep rearing provided humans with crucial commodities (meat, milk, manure, and most importantly wool), but the material conditions of shepherds and their flocks have been largely ignored. Epizootics wreaked havoc throughout the early modern period, and yet little scholarly attention has been paid to animal diseases in general, and to ovine diseases in particular.

The agrarian regime of early modern England had little to do with the idyllic scenery usually associated with pastoral writing: the growing size of herds had devastating effects on stock mortality, which in turn impacted heavily on human economies, on a regional scale at least. Not only could infectious agents disrupt agricultural production, they also affected the health of the humans who came in contact with the diseased sheep: through direct association, meat-eating or the handling of wool and dung, men and women could contract most pathogens circulating among livestock. Not unlike several contemporary health scares prompted by zoonoses related to farm animals, these epidemics were a worrying reminder of the growing intimacy between humans and the animals on which they chose to depend. The departure from the pre-existing ecological balance caused by domestication and the exploitation of animals resulted in the increased vulnerability of livestock and of humans as well.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, husbandry manuals offer detailed descriptions of the diseases that affected livestock, as well as examples of remedies and cures.[1] Several pastoral works from that period also seem to display an interest in the material practices of herdsmen, which suggests that the labour and hardships related to livestock keeping are very much present in pastoral literature.[2] The representations of ovine diseases, both literary and otherwise, tend to rely on superstitious, religious and moral interpretations, and to emphasize the bond that unites the shepherd and his flock. I argue that studying these representations will provide further insight into early modern perceptions of the natural, non-human world – a world in which men and women are subject to biological fluctuations, even within the bucolic setting of pastoral.

Meriel Cordier (Université Clermont Auvergne)

Selective bibliography

  • Brathwait, Richard. Shepheards Tales. London: R. Whitaker, 1621.
  • Fitzherbert, John. The Boke of Husbandry. London: T. Berthelet, 1548.
  • Markham, Gervase. Cheap and Good Husbandry for the Well-ordering of all Beasts and Fowls, and for the General Cure of their Diseases. London: G. Sawbridge, 1664.
  • Mascall, Leonard. The Government of Cattel: Divided into Three Books. London: J. Stafford and W. Gilbertson, 1662.
  • Sabie, Francis. Pan’s Pipe, Three Pastoral Eclogues. London: R. Jones, 1595.
  • Spenser, Edmund. Shepheard’s Calendar: Containing Twelve Eclogues Proportionable to the Twelve Months. Ed. C.H. Herford. London: Macmillan, 1932.

[1] See for instance John Fitzherbert, The Boke of Husbandry (London: T. Berthelet, 1548); Leonard Mascall, The Government of Cattel (London: J. Stafford and W. Gilbertson, 1662); Gervase Markham, Cheap and Good Husbandry (London: G. Sawbridge, 1664).

[2] See for instance Francis Sabie, Pan’s Pipe (London: R. Jones, 1595); (Richard Brathwait, Shepheards Tales (London: R. Whitaker, 1621); Spenser, Edmund, Shepheardes Calender (London: Macmillan, 1932).


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