The Wandering Herd: the medieval cattle economy of south-east England c.450-1450

‘The late medieval sheep of Britain have so engaged the attention of the agrarian historians that other aspects of stock husbandry appear to have been neglected. Our knowledge of the cattle of the period, and of how they were kept, is somewhat sketchy…’ (Robert Trow-Smith, A History of British Livestock Husbandry to 1700, London: R&KP).

Trow-Smith provides the starting point for Andrew Margetts’ book, examining cattle husbandry in south-east England in a determinedly multidisciplinary integration of early documentary sources, landscape archaeology, place-name studies, and zooarchaeology.

Margetts starts by setting out the history and geography of Kent, Surrey, and the two Sussexes. A sensible discussion of post-Roman continuity follows, and of the importance of ‘marginal’ agricultural areas, following on from Christopher Dyer’s work. Despite the necessary caveats, place-name evidence is used somewhat incautiously. For example, ‘-stock’ names on Sussex downland may refer to cattle-rearing places, but there is little attempt to test whether non-cattle etymologies would be equally plausible.

Roads, commons, parks, and enclosures are discussed in pertinent and interesting detail, mostly in a transect through Surrey and Sussex. The chapter on oval enclosures is well supported by annotated maps, and the author is clearly very much at home with this large-scale landscape archaeology, but an exploration of ‘valley entrenchments’ – rectilinear embanked spaces often in downland valley heads – is less persuasive.

Animal bone assemblages are discussed by the pay they are from, but not by their immediate excavation context. Sweeping up bones to get a regional overview is hazardous. Furthermore, bones represent deadstock not livestock. An abundance of cattle bones at a site need not indicate that cattle dominated the pastoral economy there.

Overall, The Wandering Herd makes an important point about the visibility of medieval cattle husbandry and demonstrates a working methodology for studying pastoral farming in past landscapes. Some chapters read well and present important new information. In places, though, it tries too hard to make a case, which consequently does not always stand up.

Review by Terry O’Connor.
The Wandering Herd: the medieval cattle economy of south-east England c.450-1450, Andrew Margetts, Windgather Press, £34.99, ISBN 978-1911188797