Spain's Golden Fleece:
Wool Production and the Wool Trade from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century

Carla Rahn Philips + William D. Philips Jr

John Hopkins University Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Sheep have played an important part in Spanish history, but a long historiographical tradition has downplayed the desirability of herding relative to that of agriculture. Placing herding in its ecological context, the opening chapter of Spain's Golden Fleece suggests that "even at the end of the twentieth century, much of the land in Spain is still better suited to pasture than to any other use". The remainder of the work focuses on transhumant herding, on the long distance flocks that came under the umbrella of the Mesta, the Honored Council of the Shepherds' Conclave of Castile, from the 13th to 18th centuries.

Four chapters narrate the origins, heyday, and decline of Spanish transhumant herding. The Philips suggest that royal intervention was actually reasonably even-handed, balancing the competing demands of different factions and of agriculture and pastoralism, and that much of the decline in transhumant herding was due to a shift to local herding. They also cover topics such as the spread of the Merino outside Spain.

Part II describes the mechanics of dogs and shepherds and tame wethers with bells and the annual cycle of transhumance. After shearing finished in late June, flocks moved to summer pastures across northern Spain; in autumn, typically in September after rains began, came the trek to winter pastures in the central Meseta of Castile or in the south in Extremadura, La Mancha, and Andalusia; lambing happened from late November through December; and around April the trek to shearing places began. Separate chapters describe the shearing of the flocks and the washing of the fleece.

Part III turns to the wool trade and marketing, with a focus on the merchants of Burgos. It covers the internal market, textile manufacturing, and the transport of wool by land and sea, especially the routes from the interior to the north coast and shipping from there to North-Western Europe. The wool trade created extensive trading networks overseas; here the focus is on the Consulado of Bruges, the largest Spanish merchant community abroad. A final chapter attempts to extract, from the often patchy evidence, figures for wool production, prices, and exports over the period.

The topic is reasonably specialised, but Spain's Golden Fleece is not over-technical: most of the tables are left to appendices and the discussion of sources to a hundred pages of endnotes. Anyone curious about medieval technology or economic history should find it fascinating.

May 2004

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%T Spain's Golden Fleece
%S Wool Production and the Wool Trade from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century
%A Philips, Carla Rahn
%A Philips Jr, William D.
%I John Hopkins University Press
%D 1997
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0801855187
%P 441pp