Main Menu - Misc. - Clothing/Textiles - Medieval Wales - Names - Other Medieval - Publications - Harpy Publications

This page last modified May 22, 2005

Shepherds Purse: Why Shepherds?

Return to main page

So the question remains -- what's up with shepherds? Why would that particular occupation require or develop a specialized method of carrying things? Comparing shepherds with other occupations -- both agricultural and not -- depicted in the same artwork, shepherds spend long periods of time away from home, at a minimum all day, but also at times for longer periods. Unlike field workers, who might also spend all day away from a home base, they would not be able to rely on caching provisions in a convenient fixed position, but would have to carry everything necessary on their persons. (The occupation doesn't seem to have been of a status that would allow for pack animals -- shepherds don't ever seem to be depicted with horses or such.)

This need they have in common with travelers -- who are also commonly depicted wearing some sort of large pouch when on foot. But the characteristic traveler's pouch is a large, deep shoulder-bag (the "pilgrim's bag"), so why don't shepherds wear a similar style? One answer is that sometimes they do. One of the more common "other" styles for pouches worn by shepherds is something in the "pilgrim" group. And the other common alternate style for shepherds is a pouch similar to the Shepherds Purse style, but worn over the shoulder rather than around the waist. But the waist style is much more common -- why? My hypothesis is the need to keep the hands free. Unlike travelers, who may carry a staff to assist walking but wouldn't need much other mobility, the minute-to-minute duties of a shepherd might involve using their characteristic staffs to rescue sheep from hazardous locations, or similar needs. (The small shovel-like end of one style of shepherds' staff argues for some sort of regular use.) Given this, I suggest that the waist style may be related to the need to keep the arms more free for activity.

Once the waist position has been established in the context of a relatively active occupation, I suggest that the other parameters of the style -- the relatively shallow extended shape -- fall out naturally. A relatively deep pouch worn at the waist would bounce awkwardly against the legs, while one that kept more of the bulk of the container close to the waist would be more stable and comfortable and would interfere with movement less. A certain amount of these judgments are based on my own prejudices, of course, but as a working hypothesis it seems a reasonable starting place.

These characteristics would be compatible with the occasional appearance of the Shepherds Purse style on swineherds. Pigs would not normally be tended as closely as sheep are, but in the seasonal scenes showing swineherds harvesting acorns to fatten their pigs, we're dealing with an extremely parallel situation: a mobile individual with no immediate fixed base who is performing active labor. If anything, the occasional use by swineherds reinforces the "reality" of the style, and its functional purpose.

Previous --------------------------------------------- Main --------------------------------------------- Next

This site belongs to Heather Rose Jones. Contact me regarding anything beyond personal, individual use of this material.

Unless otherwise noted, all contents are copyright by Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved.