In Praise of Sheep

Today, it’s another of the König vom Odenwald’s poems:

Sheep, 14th century English illumination courtesy of wikimedia commons
VI This is a poem of sheep
Nobody shall criticise it much

I have invented a poem
A lady has brought me to do it
She has a noble husband
I shall not name her unless she allows it
Do not ask me
Since I made that promise!
So I begin straightaway
And speak of an animal:
I rhyme of the sheep
Whether awake or asleep
You profit from it and honour it
If anyone were turn around my words
He would do me an injustice
Even lords, knights and servants
Keep sheep nowadays
Princes and counts also seek
To have a share in sheep
And it is no great misfortune
To own many of them.
They bear the wool
That you wash and shear
From which rich clothing is made
You also tan the skins
And tease and dye the wool
Comb and spin it
People gain wealth with it
Wind and twist it
Before and behind
Spool, weave and full it
And they also defraud people that way
And are not ashamed
They put it on the tenter frame
Anoint it, card it, and smooth it
So they (the pieces of cloth) become one like another
Cloth merchants measure it out
And the wool is shorn with shears
And tailors put together many garments
That look differently
He whose sheep prosper
Will have full chests and casks
And also have gold and silver
(When) both rams and lambs
Prosper in numbers
So they can be blessed at Easter.
Whether they are big or small,
They dress legs and feet
In hosen and socks
And line tunics.
They clothe head and body
They adorn man and woman
Boys and girls
A feast for the eyes
As coats and tunics.
You know pelts (
They are black and white
And many people are eager for Danish lamb fleece (
Though it is not wise
To wear it against the cold.
What usefulness we have in sheep!
Tabards, long tunics and wide overcoats /
taphart, kutten, kotzen)
Cowls (
schepeler) for monks and nuns, too
That are often worn
You should also have this (garment) in church
Where a priest wears it.
Headwear, surcots, jackets (
huben, surkat, suphen)
Overcoats, felt, and headscarves (
suknie, vilze, gufen)
Coverlets (
tucher ubir bare)
This I say truly
You hang them over a wagon.
This I must say
Front and rear horsegear and saddles
Are covered in woollen cloth
And many pieces from many places
So the skin does not rub bare.
Whey, curds and sheep cheese
And also the milk please people
Makers of hard cheese
Are good fellows
Also, sheep butter,
Should not be criticised.
Sheep lamb during Lent
And you also fertilise fields with sheep (dung)
Hear the broad list:
They also make gain (literally: fish) with sheep dung
Where they stable horses
I tell this to all of you!
More useful yet, I mean,
Are meat, feet, and bones
Innards, head, brain, and good galantines,
Tongues, tallow, horns and skin
All come from sheep in quantity
And many a sweet music of stringed instruments (
Is made with sheep gut
I tell you, rich and poor,
Also, the string of the
They should move it diligently!
You shall also hear
You find in the shops (
gloves, belts and bags
That can be used to barter.
Now I will explain
That the skins are turned into
Belts, pouches, and shoes
Points for hosen, parchment and books,
Fodder bags and carrying bags
In which you put clothes.
Sheep leather is healthy
If you have an injury on your finger
Where a bad blister is
A wool thread needs to go there.
If you have a mattress (
You will lie all the better when you travel
If it is stuffed with wool.
Take care of your cover
If the blanket is folded fourfold (
It adorns it best.
You also have a rough (one/side?)
That you draw over your shoes.
Leather sheets (
lederlaken) are painted -
This is done by someone skilled -
With animals and sea creatures
You make love upon and underneath them.
The hands of gentlewomen
Work on (embroidery) frames
Cloth to cover walls
Throw rugs and wall hangings (
zyechen und teppich)
And chair covers, I say.
They have chosen (to make) belts
And especially one to hang a (hunting) horn from.
They also make many fine strings of wool
Which the braid into their hair
The short and the long
And attach hats to them.
And if they use woollen breeches
They wear them underneath
Thus they have taken counsel
Like their forebears did out of need.
From fine sheep
Come rich heraldic overcoats (
Blankets and horse covers (?
Come from excellent sheep.
Many people profit from this
And look very well
Ram’s horns are fitted to helmets
Small and large ones
The rams also carry crooked horns
Those are suited as lamps
kunig speaks much of sheep
But he himself has not even one
Very well, I will take care to be in the company
Of those who have them, here I am.
Each archbishop
If he comes to court
Must have a pallium
That must come from sheep
The sheep makes many people rich
Hear now who it is similar to:
When it is killed
it makes no sound
And be careful not to mock it
Our noble God did the same
He bore death willingly
May His kingdom be open to us
So we can all get into it
Thus help us His mother.

When we compare this poem to the ones the same author addressed to the cow, the chicken, and the goose, it becomes clear how little the sheep was esteemed in culinary terms. He dutifully mentions meat, innards, and the galantines made from it as well as the milk, cheese, and (interestingly) butter, but his heart is not in it. Not even lamb, a seasonal delicacy of spring, gets a second look. People ate sheep, there are surviving recipes, but clearly it was not something you would choose to do if you had other options.

By contrast, the wool and leather evoke lengthy and detailed verse. Clearly, this is where the author sees the true purpose of the animal: Sheep will make you rich. That was a fairly new phenomenon in the fourteenth century, when land for grazing became available as population declined from disease and famine while an ever more sophicsticated cloth industry called for more raw material. In this respect, the poem is less a tale of tradition and more investment advice. The focus is clearly on cloth and clothing that can be made of wool.

There are many other points of interest here if daily life fascinates you. From the string of the wollensleger (tasked with cleaning and preparing wool for carding) to those of stringed instruments, from horn used in lanterns to wool wrapped around blisters or coloured strings braided into hair, we get a glimpse of medieval life. I am not quite certain how to interpret the “woollen breeches” that are worn by women “underneath … like their forebears did out of need”. It may be a reference to menstrual hygiene – the question how possible devices for collecting menstrual blood was work is a vexing one for lack of evidence. Few writers are willing to discuss this topic at all, but the König vom Odenwald seems like the type who would. If that is what it means, it is certainly hidden in too many layers of euphemism to allow for a confident reconstruction.

Finally, the thing I found most endearing and tempting to reconstruct is the lederlaken, painted bedsheets made of sheepskin. Adorned with animals and sea creatures by a competent artist – the author specifically makes this point – they sound both visually attractive and pleasant to use. If I ever get to the point of making a proper tent and camp equipment, this will be an item to consider.

Der König vom Odenwald (literally king of the Odenwald, a mountain chain in southern Germany) is an otherwise unknown poet whose work is tentatively dated to the 1340s. His title may refer to a senior rank among musicians or entertainers, a Spielmannskönig, but that is speculative. Many of his poems are humorous and deal with aspects of everyday life which makes them valuable sources to us today.

The identity of this poet has been subject to much speculation. He is clearly associated with the episcopal court at Würzburg and likely specifically with Michael de Leone (c. 1300-1355), a lawyer and scholar. Most of his work is known only through the Hausbuch of the same Michael de Leone, a collection of verse and practical prose that also includes the first known instance of the Buoch von guoter Spise, a recipe collection. This and the evident relish with which he describes food have led scholars to consider him a professional cook and the author of the Buoch von Guoter Spise, but that is unlikely. Going by the content of his poetry, the author is clearly familiar with the lives of the lower nobility and even his image of poverty is genteel. This need not mean he belonged to this class, but he clearly moved in these circles to some degree. Michael de Leone, a secular cleric and canon on the Würzburg chapter, was of that class and may have been a patron of the poet. Reinhardt Olt whose edition I am basing my translation on assumes that the author was a fellow canon, Johann II von Erbach.

I only translate the poems that deal with aspects of food or related everyday life here. There are several others which are less interesting as sources. They can be found in the newest extant edition by Reinhard Olt, König vom Odenwald; Gedichte, Carl Winter Verlag, Heidelberg 1988.

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