Sheep: The remarkable story of the humble animal that built the modern world

It was with great excitement and high expectations that I read Alan Butler’s book; Sheep – The remarkable story of the humble animal that built the modern world. Opening with promisingly rapturous words on the importance of our ovine friends, the book goes on to deliver an account of the significance of sheep throughout the ages with a particular focus on the crucial economic role that International wool trade has played in shaping the modern world.

Sheep skull, Sussex

I admire the ambitions behind this attempt to furnish the world with a complete account of the contribution that sheep and wool have made to history. As a rudimentary introduction to the role that sheep and wool played in feudal society, the processes of enclosure, the Highland Clearances, the Industrial Revolution, Colonisation and the building of The British Empire, this book is really quite useful as a cursory guide. However I would qualify this by saying that in my opinion Butler takes a curiously censorious and self-serving approach to history, and that his account – whilst rapturously celebrating the connections between sheep, civilisations and Butler’s other historical interests* – skips glibly over slavery, displacement, class and many of the extremely difficult politics surrounding wool.


Now I am much happier with the notion that wool is an unproblematic commodity, tied only to histories of egalitarian governments, jolly farmers and honest land-acquisition than with the truth, which is that wool – like everything else that Britain produced in order to fund its Imperialist conquests – is mired in Autocracy, Colonialism and Human Rights Abuses. And I think it’s asking too much from a book on the history of sheep to expect that it will contain a soul-searching analysis of the social and cultural consequences of The British Empire as well as a complete report on the intricacies of the wool trade, but the tone of this book is so unforgiveably swollen with Nationalist pride that you may well find yourself demanding such a soul-searching analysis upon reading it. Although Butler is careful to concede that ‘there is nothing heroic or morally justifiable about subjugating millions of people in lands far from one’s own shores,’ his unfortunate ommissions and casual asides concerning Britain’s Colonial past represent such a conservative description of the world and its many cultures that I find myself mistrustful of his account.

Nonetheless I would in summary recommend this book as a good, basic introduction to the historical global movements of sheep and the wool trade and it was certainly useful for me to read in terms of the outline it provides on just how downright dark and dirty the history of wool is. Butler’s account mercifully spares sheep from comedic forms of representation and makes a fairly convincing case for our historic dependence on these animals, and this reminder seems especially relevant in contemporary times, where many sheep farmers are losing money on the wool from their animals.**


None of this means I’m comfortable with the conservative tone of Alan Butler’s book, but given the immutable nature of the past and the undeniable truth that wool is historically tied up with Empire and Domination, perhaps I should turn my attentions towards the role sheep may play in a more egalitarian and sustainable future world? Or maybe there is another way to explore the history of wool. In either case I am sure there are some nuances, tangents, regional specificities and careful details which Butler – in his overarching quest to link Sheep with Greatness – could not afford to deviate towards. So if you have any good recommendations for history books that deal with sheep or wool in any sense, do please leave them here.

*Alan Butler’s other obsession makes its way into both the references and the main writing of his Sheep book!

**According to one farmer, in 2009 a shearer will gain £1.10 for every animal that is sheared, while the Wool Marketing Board will pay only 80p for the fleece thus obtained, creating a loss of 30p on every sheep.

4 Responses to Sheep: The remarkable story of the humble animal that built the modern world

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » The Knitting Tourist and some other Knitting News

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