go to home page go to byland abbey pages go to fountains abbey pages go to kirkstall abbey pages go to rievaulx abbey pages go to roche abbey pages
The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Text only version

About the Project






Contact Us

Sheep Farming

Even the monks of the Cistercian Order … were taxed and
compelled to give up even the wool of their sheep, which is
their chief means of support, and appears to be almost the
only revenue they have for their necessary subsistence and
[William of Newburgh, Augustinian canon](53)

Cutting parchment, from the thirteenth-century account book of Beaulieu Abbey
© British Library
<click to enlarge>
Cutting parchment, from the thirteenth-century account book of Beaulieu Abbey© Bristish Library<click to enlarge

The Yorkshire Cistercians were renowned for their sheep farming. This was integral to the Cistercian economy, for sheep not only provided wool, which could be used to make clothing and blankets for the community, or else sold, but were important for the manufacture of butter and cheese. Furthermore, parchment and blankets could be made from sheep skins.(54) The mid-fifteenth century 'Memorandum Book' records that Robert Glover of Ripley who, not surprisingly, sold leather and gloves, purchased sheepskins from the abbey.(55)

Fountains was at one time the leading producer and exporter of Cistercian wool in the country, and its seventy-six sacks topped the list of wool producers in an Italian account of c. 1300. It has been estimated that the community must have had at this time c. 18 000 sheep.(56) Fountains thus required extensive tracts of pasture lands to graze its flocks. The sheep were moved between high and low pastures in accordance with the seasons. For example, the limestone uplands of Craven were used for summer grazing and the lower grounds of Bewerley for wintering; the wether flock that grazed at Bordley Hall in the summer was wintered at Braisty Woods, and the flock wintered at Bolstershaw moved to Darnbrook House in the warmer months.(57) The stretch of land from Malham Moor to Kilnsey grange was probably Fountains' most important summer pasture, and the community had a number of sheepfarms [bercaries] on the uplands here, with their associated pastures and enclosed meadows.(58) The Augustinian priory of Bolton also had lands here, and the two communities engaged in disputes over rights in the thirteenth century.(59)

What was a sheepcote?
The term 'bercary' is often the source of confusion and is applied to sheep folds, as well as to sheephouses or cotes. It has recently been stressed that the bercary was not simply a shed or store, but could refer to the entire complex - sheltered housing for the sheep, with pens, associated buildings and pasture. The sheepcote could therefore be an extensive building, constructed, in part, from stone, with pens for the sheep. It provided shelter for the sheep in winter and during the lambing season, and afforded storage space for food and perhaps also equipment.
Rievaulx's sheepcote at Skiplam survives - Wether Cote.
For an extensive consideration of sheepcotes, with discussion of their form, function and surviving evidence, see C. Dyer, 'Sheepcotes: evidence for medieval sheepfarming', Medieval Archaeology 39 (1995), pp. 136-164.

Fountains was granted pasture rights for three hundred sheep at Sawley, and was also permitted to take fern for litter and for roofing the sheepcote; as an added bonus the community could keep the sheep manure produced here.(60) Whilst this might seem a rather odd concession, manure was highly valued and this would have been considered a great boon. The base of a stone boundary cross, Lacon Cross, survives at Sawley on the road from Fountains' grange at Warsill to the abbey. Crosses such as this were often erected to indicate the road to travellers in bad weather. (61)