The Medieval Shepherd: Read from September 14 to 27, 2013

I don’t remember exactly how I ever came across this book, but I’m so glad I did; reading this was a pleasure.

The book is a translation from French from the 17th century because the original 14th manuscript no longer survives. However, the fact that a copy did persist speaks to the quality of the information and authority Jean de Brie writes with. The book is straight-forward in its approach, and Jean de Brie has very logically divided the book up into the months of the year and how the ewes and lambs and rams should be cared for through each time of the year. He explains what the sheep should avoid eating, how to cure them of various ailments, when to sheer them, and how a shepherd should behave.

And behavior is the subtext through the entire book. Looking past the how-to knowledge of what to do with the flock, we get an insight into what kind of person Jean de Brie was. He was quite obviously a very patient man, but sure in his knowledge and I doubt he ever suffered a fool gladly. He was a loner (again, no surprise at all given his profession), but he was a very effective communicator and incredibly observant. His attention to avian behavior and how that predicts the weather to the exact ingredients needed to concoct a remedy for, say, mange, is that of someone highly intelligent and competent – the sort of person who would have been greatly valued by his employers and probably feared (either from jealousy or being intimidated by) by his fellow shepherds.

His sense of order, more than anything is what probably made him so good at his job. From explaining the mittens woven into an orderly checkered pattern, to making sure the shepherd’s dog crosses his paws when laying down speaks to a man who very much knew how to be in command and control of everything around him. I would imagine his mind being very much at rest and ease when he would look out over his well ordered flock.

Jean de Brie was born to do the job and reminded me of Mr. Stevens from Remains of the Day: a person wholly devoted to his duty and in supreme command of everything he is charged with no matter the circumstances. And while there is no mention of his personal life, we do get glimpses of how he feels men in general should behave. At one point he speaks about how the sheep will get into the blackberry bushes and their wool will get caught in the leaves because they were greedy for the delicious berries. He compares that greedy, carefree behavior to that of a man who spends all day drinking at the bar and neglecting all his other duties. In short, he seemed very pious and I can imagine he might have been a bit of a bore at parties.

Yet he was the consummate professional and was willing and able to sacrifice himself in any way for his flock. One could imagine some large company making its employees read this book during a seminar as an allusion to how the perfect employee should act and react. And it would be just as easy to feel like you could never achieve his level of competence and maybe grow to resent him a little as a real company brown-noser.

And maybe that’s why a person like him desires to be left alone on the heath: they know other people don’t really like him, but that’s just fine with him, too.