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According the Medieval Life and Times website,

Farm animals were small, for scientific breeding had not yet begun. A full-grown ox reached a size scarcely larger than a calf of to-day, and the fleece of a sheep often weighed less than two ounces.

This is more or less echoed by The Finer Times (or maybe one copied the other?):

The size of a full-grown bull reached the size slightly larger than a calf today, and the fleece of an entire sheep weighed an average of two ounces.

The assertion that an ox wasn’t much larger than a calf is unsatisfactory (perhaps even dubious): the size of a calf obviously depends on its age and some breeds (e.g. Limousin) are much larger than others (e.g. Jersey) - I grew up on a farm so I know a little about this. Wikipedia has this image of Anglo-Saxon ploughmen but I’m not sure how reliable the scale is (and the animals’ faces are a little odd!).

enter image description here

Even more implausible is 2 ounces for the fleece of a sheep. According to sheep101, a fleece in the US today might weigh anything from 2 to 16 pounds (32 to 288 ounces). Even just taking the lowest figure, the difference between medieval and contemporary fleece weights seems improbable, or is at least in need of more authoritative sources.

Were the animals cited in the sources really so much smaller (on average) than they are today? Was the same true for other farm animals such as chickens and pigs?

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    "In 1700, the average weight of a bull sold for slaughter was 370 pounds (168 kg). By 1786, that weight had more than doubled to 840 pounds (381 kg). " - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_breeding#History – Denis de Bernardy Jan 9 '18 at 14:23
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    You really can't trust the scale – Chris H Jan 9 '18 at 15:40
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    Note that there was selective breeding of cows, just like with other farm animals (obviously). However, cows weren't bred for their meat - they were too expensive for that. Instead, the primary selection was for their use as "farming equipment" - to pull plows, carts etc. You wanted an animal as small as possible (to keep the feeding costs low), while it was still strong enough to do its job. It's certainly true that better breeding techniques developed recently (18th century on), but the old techniques had a lot more time at their hands - they just selected for different results. – Luaan Jan 9 '18 at 19:21
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    @liftarn Bigger isn't better. Slaughtering a pig was already something that was done relatively rarely, and often had to be spread out over many families (a lot of it was for immediate consumption - preservation was expensive and tricky). While it's true that all else equal, a bigger pig is more energy efficient, it also means longer maturation, more food and bigger bulk to process at once. It's well worth it today, when you can easily distribute the products all over the country in just a few hours, but wouldn't have been too useful in medieval times. Also, they were fed mostly with waste. – Luaan Jan 10 '18 at 12:22
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    The evidence indicates we have selectively bred cattle so their faces no longer look like people so that we can feel happier about eating them. – Pete Kirkham Jan 11 '18 at 12:55
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I think both sources copied Early European History by Hutton Webster, published about a century ago. The underlying claim is true: Medieval animals were much smaller than today's. However, it is obvious that "a calf" is not a meaningful unit of comparison.

The historical weight of livestock is mainly determined from archaeological studies as well as records of butchery transactions, and reveal significantly smaller farm animals than today's. See for instance the following figures:

[A]round the year 1000, an adult pig weighed around 70-80 kg, a sheep 20 to 30 kg, and a cow or ox 200 to 250 kg . . . In comparison, at the beginning of the twentieth century, an ox weighed in the region of 650 kg, a sheep from 50-150 kg, and a pig from 100-200 kg.

Comet, Georges. "Technology and agricultural expansion in the middle ages: the example of France north of the Loire." Astill, Grenville G., and John Langdon, eds. Medieval farming and technology: The impact of agricultural change in Northwest Europe. Brill, 1997.

These are from Charavines in France, but English animals would have been similar in size. Based on remains, cattle at York were estimated to be between 220 - 270 kg, for instance.1

Of course, the weight of animals did not stay constant throughout the whole of the Middle Ages. They were even smaller during the earliest centuries,2 and seemed to have gradually became larger close to the Early Modern period.3

In any case, height differences are much less dramatic than weight. Medieval cattle were half the weight of industrial revolution ones, but only 20% shorter.4 Hence, compared to ~150cm for cattle and ~75cm for sheep, depending on the species, today:

At Hamwih . . . cattle apparently had a mean shoulder height of 115cm. The sheep were small with a shoulder height of 62 cm.

Steane, John. The Archaeology of Medieval England and Wales. Vol. 47. Routledge, 2014.

That said, only two ounces for the fleece of the sheep is quite an understatement.

The average weight of sheep fleeces per animal on the Winchester manors from 1300 to 1324 was 1.5 lb.

Clark, Gregory. "Labour productivity in English agriculture, 1300-1860." Campbell, Bruce MS, and Mark Overton, eds. Land, Labour, and Livestock: Historical Studies in European Agricultural Productivity. Manchester University Press, 1991.

Seasonal variations aside, differences in fleece weight were mainly region dependent. A particularly poor area was East Anglia, and especially from the pastures of Breckland.5 Yet, even in Breckland the worst yield was still about ~1 lb, or 16 ounces:

enter image description here
Bailey, Mark. A Marginal Economy?: East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Notes & Refernces:

1. O'Connor, Terence Patrick. Bones from Anglo-Scandinavian Levels at 16-22 Coppergate. Council for British Archaeology, London 1989. "[For] a very lean conformation, an average liveweight in the region of 220kg would seem likely. For a heavier conformation, this average could perhaps be raised to around 270kg."
2. Crabtree, Pam J. "West Stow, Suffolk: Early Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandry". East Anglian Archaeology Report 47. Suffolk County Council, 1989.. "Based on the measurements of the trochlear breadth of the humerus, it is estimated that the average West Stow cattle would have had an average live weight of only about 150-170 kg, and a fat-free carcass weight of about 100 kg.
3. Kershaw, Ian. Bolton Priory: the Economy of a Northern Monastery, 1286-1325. Oxford University Press, 1973. "[T]he average carcass weight [was] about 430 lb. for oxen urhcased for victualling the navy in 1547."
4. Clark, Gregory. "Labour productivity in English agriculture, 1300-1860." Campbell, Bruce MS, and Mark Overton, eds. Land, Labour, and Livestock: Historical Studies in European Agricultural Productivity. Manchester University Press, 1991."[N]ote that cattle in this period were about 80 per cent the hiegh tof cattle in the late eighteenth century, which would impaly that they were about 49 per cent of thre weight."
5. Bailey, Mark. A Marginal Economy?: East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989. "Breckland's poor pastures were not conducive to producing heavy, thick fleeces, and its sheep were of the shortwool variety whose fleeces were lightweight and low in quality. This was true of East Anglia in general, but it would appear that Breckland fleeces were poor even by these standards."

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    Um, 20% less linear size, cubed, is about 50% less volume, hence 50% the weight. That seems right in line with what you'd expect something with half the weight to size. Or am I missing something? – Yakk Jan 9 '18 at 19:04
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    @Yakk I'm not saying it was strange, I was just giving the numbers. I personally did not think it was a given that shorter (in shoulder height) cows also meant proportionally less wide and less long cows, though. – Semaphore Jan 9 '18 at 19:13
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    A very 'professional' answer which gives a clear picture. At the same time, I wonder why people (MLT and TFT sites) bother making nice looking websites when they are so sloppy about the sources they use. – Lars Bosteen Jan 10 '18 at 5:41
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    @LarsBosteen I think Webster's book was a textbook in some parts of America. These tend to be less than accurate and yet disproportionally influential in popular consciousness. – Semaphore Jan 10 '18 at 10:18
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    @Juggerbot I would assume (but do not know) that we also have some examples of harnesses and yokes and the like, which would also give us an indication of size. So archaeological findings are, presumably, not limited to skeletons. – terdon Jan 11 '18 at 9:17
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There is some research on the medieval cattle topic here which lists many cattle sizes throughout the history of cattle usage. This shows the following figures for medieval times (numbers are the height to the top of the shoulder):

  • Saxo-Norman and High Medieval (11th-13th C) [110 cm (43.3") or 100-130 cm (39.4-51.2")]

  • Later Medieval (14th-15th C) [109 cm (42.9")]

and has this figure for modern:

  • Modern English Longhorn [130-140 cm (51"-55")/150 cm (59")]

The author comes to this conclusion:

Therefore, in Britain, at least, cattle in the Middle Ages were smaller than the "average" modern cattle.

I would say the cattle of the middle ages were definitely smaller than modern varieties.

(there is also a list of sources used at the bottom of the web page.)


One detailed study, West Stow, Suffolk:Early Anglo-Saxon Animal Husbandryby Pam J. Crabtree, goes into archaeological detail concerning the specific counts of farm animals being used, and detailed measurements of bones recovered at this West Stow site.

Cattle. The study gives some estimates of the weight and height of the typical cattle recovered. Samples gave a mean withers height of 117 cm (from figure 17, Table 24 pg 36) and a weight of 150-170kg:

Based on the measurements of the trochlear breadth of the humerus, it is estimated that the average West Stow cattle would have had an average live weight of only about 150-170kg, and a fat-free carcass weight of about 100 kg (Table 26). It is probably fair to say that Tacitus' description of Germanic cattle which were valued more for their quantity than their size would apply equally well to the Early Anglo-Saxon cattle from West Stow.

Sheep. The study also addresses sheep sizes, with estimates on withers heights falling into a range typically between 58 and 63 cm. Since modern sheep show ranges between 60 and 80 cm, it falls in line that the sheep were the size of smaller modern animals. From pg 50:

It is dangerous to compare ancient sheep to modern breeds since many of the characteristics that distinguish modern breeds of sheep cannot be reconstructed from animal bone evidence alone. It may nevertheless be useful to compare the West Stow sheep to modern Soay sheep since these animals have often been likened to prehistoric and early historic sheep. The Soay is an unimproved feral sheep known from the Island of St Kilda in Scotland. Ryder (1983, 41) found that Soay ewes averaged about 52cm. in height, while Soay rams averaged about 56cm. The average We:;~ Stow sheep was as tall as the largest of the Soay rams (61 cm); the smallest West Stow sheep are taller than the average Soay ewe. Thus, the West Stow sheep are larger, on average, than the Soay.

A value for Soay sheep wool production today can be found here, to give us some comparison by size:

Wool is shed naturally each year and is used for speciality hand knitting. Staple length 5-15cm. Fleece weight 1.5- 2.25kg. Quality 44s-50s.

  • Interesting that there is essentially no difference between early and late medieval cattle heights (and maybe even a decline though the data sample maybe too limited to draw that conclusion). – Lars Bosteen Jan 10 '18 at 5:45
  • While there's no doubt Soay sheep were present on St.Kilda. they might more properly be associated with Soay, just south of Skye. Or perhaps the reverse, since "Soay" translates from old Norse as "sheep island". The last quote raises one important caveat : fleece weight may not be a reliable indicator of animal size, if it is naturally shed or plucked in one measurement, and shorn in the other. – Brian Drummond Jan 11 '18 at 12:14

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