Today's post is from Platzman Fellowship winner Jamie Kreiner, Assistant Professor of history at the University of Georgia. Professor Kreiner visited SCRC to consult the Sir Nicholas Bacon Collection of English Court and Manorial Documents, for a study titled “The Premodern Pig.”
When William the Conqueror surveyed his realm two decades after taking it over, he told his agents to count everything down to the pigs. The kingdom had never seen anything like it. Even the pigs? But William got his Domesday Book, and he and we got one rich heap of data. Survey says: in 1086, there were at least twenty-thousand pigs among a population of about a million and a half people in England.
Bacon Collection, Ms. 419. Compotus of issues and exits (here: of pigs and piglets) in the year following the feast of St. Margaret (16 November) 1282.
Two hundred years later, though, it wasn’t so weird to be a pig-counter. In the middle of the thirteenth century the English countryside began to burst with farm records. Landowners across the kingdom started to keep close tabs on their estates’ operations, including the livestock that they bred, fed, purchased, slaughtered, or sold.
Thousands of these accounts still survive, and among the best is a set that was made on the manor of Hinderclay, which now lives in the SCRC. Hinderclay (or Hildercle, as the reeve writes it in the rolls) was a manor in northern Suffolk that was owned and operated by the monastery of Bury St. Edmonds. As a “manor” it included both a farm that profited the monks directly and also peasants and their holdings, too. According to a tax assessment that the crown conducted there in the fall of 1283, there were forty-one taxpaying households that comprised the village of Hinderclay, and 100 pigs—an average of 2.3 pigs per household.
The monks’ farm at Hinderclay, predictably, had more than the average. According to its own accounts, in the same year and season the demesne ended up with seventy-one pigs. But that’s not all the roll tells us. 1283 also happened to be the year a new reeve named Reginald took over the manor’s accounts, and Reginald was chatty:
In the course of these seven lines the reeve explains that among those seventy-one pigs, three are boars and five are sows (for breeding), and twenty-six were born that year. He also tracks what Hinderclay and its proprietors did with all those animals, so we know how many were given away as pay, driven up to the monastery, and so on. Two adult pigs were even given as alms to lepers. Above this section in the roll, Reginald even noted the quantities of malt dregs and peas that had been fed to the breeding sows.
This may not seem like Big Data, but it was a big deal: not just Reginald but landlords and their staffs across England were checking and double-checking the movements of their resources against previous years’ inventories, in an effort to make their farms more productive and profitable. And for an estate like Hinderclay, whose records run pretty consistently from the 1270s to the start of the fifteenth century, it’s possible to follow fluxes in yields and profits and to track how the farm’s husbandry strategies changed. For example: David Stone used these account rolls to figure out that in the following century, starting in the 1320s if not earlier, Hinderclay based the size of its pig herd on the animals’ market value. If the price was high, the manor bred more pigs by farrowing sows more frequently—and in at least one case by giving them better fodder to encourage larger litters. When prices were low, the manor bred fewer pigs, and sometimes none at all.
So the penchant for pig-counting can help historians determine if and how a farm was linked to wider systems of supply and demand, even in places like Hinderclay that had once seemed out of step with market economies. But the history of medieval agriculture and economics is not exclusively a human history. The lives, phenotypes, and ecologies of animals changed, too, partly on account of humans’ plans but partly too through the ways that the species challenged and answered them. Hinderclay’s data can be used to account for experiences that are rarely visible in other kinds of records—including the lives of common animals. We know, as with Stone’s example, what the sows at Hinderclay ate, how often they gave birth, how large their litters were, and sometimes even when they were born and slaughtered themselves. Strangely, the process of commodification is also an opportunity to individuate!
In the future we may be able to consult this data in concert with archaeological evidence, to see how certain regimes of pig-raising that are as well documented as Hinderclay’s also affected the animals’ physiology. How did grange sows differ from pigs fed on pannage? How did demesne pigs differ from village pigs or city pigs? When later kings of England looked upon a pig, did they see a different animal than William had—and not just a new physical thing but maybe also a newly significant thing? Estate records can’t answer these questions on their own, but if we want to see how two species became more complexly intertwined in the course of the Middle Ages, there are still lots of pigs to be measured and counted.
 See M. M. Postan, “Village Livestock in the Thirteenth Century,” English Historical Review, n.s. vol. 15 (1962): 219-49.
 David Stone, “Medieval Farm Management and Technological Mentalities: Hinderclay before the Black Death,” Economic History Review 54 (2001); 612-38, at 631-32.
 See the methods and discussions in Pigs and Humans: 10,000 Years of Interaction, ed. Umberto Albarella, Keith Dobney, Anton Ervynck, and Peter Rowley-Conway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).