Omniana/Volume 2/Merino Sheep

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3653989Omniana — 199. Merino SheepRobert Southey

199. Merino Sheep.

Fernan Gomez de Cibdareal, in one of his Letters (Epist. 73) mentions a dispute between two Spaniards concerning rank, in the presence of Juan II. 1437. It was objected tauntingly to one of them, that he was descended from a Judge of the Shepherds, that is, Juez de la mesta y Pastoria Real. The reply was, that this office had always been held by hidalgos of great honour. Y que el Rey D. Alfonso, quando se traxeron las primera vez en las naves carracas las pecoras de Ingalaterra a España, principió este oficio en Iñigo Lopez de Mendoza. . . and that King D. Alfonso had instituted it in the person of Iñigo Lopez de Mendoza when the English sheep were first brought over to Spain.

That merino sheep were originally exported from England, is not only remembered in this country, but even the place is specified from whence they were sent. In a work entitled England's Gazetteer, by Philip Luckombe, under the head "Dymock, Gloucestershire," it is stated, that "from the Ryelands, a hamlet in this parish, King Edward sent the sheep to Spain which produce their fine wool[1]." Martin Sarmiento, whom Mr. Semple quotes in his second travels through Spain, speaks of the introduction of these sheep from England, as a well known historical fact, and he affirms that their name implies their foreign extraction, merino being only a corruption of marino, sea-sheep, an appellation to the incongruity of which our own language affords an analogy in the common term, sea-coal. Probable however as this derivation may appear, I believe it is ill-founded. Merino[2] is an old Leonese title, still preserved in Portugal, though long since obsolete in the other kingdoms of Spain. The old laws define it thus: es ome que ha mayoria para facer jutsticia sobre algun lugar señalado; "he is a man who has authority to administer justice within a certain district." The first mention of this office is in the reign of Bermudo II. The Merinos then commanded the troops of their respective provinces in war, but before the lime of Enrique II. it was become wholly a civil office, and the title was gradually giving place to that of Alguacil Mayor. Most probably the judge of the shepherds was called the Merino, and hence the appellation extended to the flocks under his care.

It does not seem to be ascertained at what time this introduction of the English sheep took place. Sarmiento thinks under the last Alonso; but Gil Gonzalez Davila, in his History of Henrique III. (Madrid, 1638) says that Catharine, wife of that King, and daughter of John of Gaunt, brought them into Spain as her dowry. Y fue la que quando vino a España traxo a Castilla el uso de las camas de campo, y en dote el ganado que llamamos merino, p. 11.

How long was it before the merino fleece became finer than that of the original stock? Brito, who wrote towards the close of the sixteenth century, says in praise of the wool grown about Santarem, it is so fine that it may vie with that of England (Monarchia Lusitania, T. 1, p. 93). If the Spanish wool had been as fine then as it is now, he would hardly have drawn his comparison from the English.

That the merino was originally English is a fact resting upon better authority than can usually be found for facts of this kind. Is there not reason to suppose, that as the wool was improved by the effect of a better climate upon the sheep, it will gradually return to its original state when the breed is again thoroughly naturalised in England? In Denmark, Mr. Macdonald tells us, (Travels in Denmark, vol. 1, p. 101) they have already degenerated, for the wool is much coarser than any merino wool which he had seen before. This degeneracy he supposes to be the consequence of bad keeping. The climate has probably had as much influence as neglect. Wool, we know, in very hot countries becomes coarser, till it at last assumes the character of hair; but it does not necessarily follow that fine wool should be the growth of cold countries. A certain degree of temperature may be necessary for its perfection. There is no reason for supposing that the breed of English sheep has deteriorated in this country since they were introduced into Spain, and therefore inferring that the merino is now, what the original stock was then, for the breed seems to have been more attended to by our ancestors than is generally supposed. R. B. the well-known compiler of little books for the people at the end of the 17th century, says, "the best and biggest bodied sheep in England are in the vale of Aylesbury, where it is nothing to give ten pounds or more for a breed-ram; so that should a foreigner hear the price thereof, he would guess that ram to be rather some Roman engine of batteryr than the creature commonly so called."

Can there possibly be any truth in the remark of Yepes, (T. 7, ff. 134,) who says, "daily experience shews us that if a lamb is suckled by a goat the wool becomes hard and hairy; and on the contrary, if a kid is suckled by a ewe the hair becomes soft."

  1. This is transcribed from some magazine or newspaper, but I have no doubt of its accuracy.
  2. See Vol. I. p. 288