The wonderful writer Jean Gill has a new story / book out.

Nici’s Christmas Tale:1157 Aquitaine

A standalone short story in The Troubadours Quartet

and as a huge fan of her Troubadour Series I asked her to write a blog post on the occasion.

Here is the post:

Jehan de Brie: The Good Shepherd

I meet many fascinating people while travelling in the medieval world through books, songs and poetry but nobody has entertained me more than Jehan de Brie, a 14th century French shepherd. His guide to a shepherd’s work, ‘Le Bon Berger,’ tells us the story of his life and misadventures, as well as offering vocational advice.

Jehan’s early career did not go smoothly. At eight, ‘when children still have nits, start losing their baby teeth and have not developed any sense’, Jehan looked after the geese, protecting them against magpies, cats, crows and kites. He did this for a year and then was promoted to piglets. Each day, he took them to pasture but they were ‘ill-disciplined’ and ran away from him on the way home. While the unfortunate pig-owner was still looking for his stock, Jehan thought it best that he change job (or so his version goes).

Next, he looked after cart-horses, for drovers and waggoners, encouraging them to run faster. He kept this up for three months until one trod on his right foot. Once more, he decided he was mistaken in his choice of animal. So, when his foot had recovered, he switched to cows.

He spent two years looking after ten milking cows for until one of his charges, ‘inebriated from bad grass or desperate for a bull’, knocked him over with her horns. No more cows.

Jehan’s tally of years is as approximate as the methods shepherds used for counting sheep, and he tells us that (after five years looking after different animals) he was eleven when he was given twenty-four ‘blessed lambs’ who didn’t hurt him or knock him over. He had found his metier.

From then on, he learned the ‘state, science and practice of the art of shepherding, keeping sheep and woolly beasts.’ He fed, sheared, powdered, anointed and bled them according to custom. He protected them against wolves and other predators, with the help of his dog.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds; Boucicaut Master and Workshop (French, active about 1390 – 1430); Paris, France; about 1415 – 1420; Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 20.5 x 14.8 cm (8 1/16 x 5 13/16 in.); Ms. 22, fol. 67

A shepherd had one mastiff to protect the flocks and the training methods used on Nici were those recommended by Jehan, unlikely to achieve very much with a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, in my judgement. However, the instinct of these dogs to protect those (sheep or people) they’ve bonded with, is so strong that they will usually do their work regardless of training.

In Song Hereafter: 1154 in Hispania and the Isles of Albion, I mention Pembroke herding-dogs, better known today as Pembrokeshire corgis. The breed did indeed exist in the 12th century and they are a herding breed, so my theory is that some farmers discovered and made use of the skills of such dogs, when herding cattle or sheep. Maybe this began in Pembroke, a small county in Wales – who knows! So far, I haven’t found any corroboration and collies don’t appear as a breed until several centuries later. Instead of dogs herding sheep, there were children. Wannabe shepherds and shepherdesses would run beside the flock, even stay out in the fields.

A shepherd also had to count his flock. At the start of the book, Jehan tells us that ‘Anyone frightened of losing his place can put a stone or other mark on the table of contents’. This instruction shows two of the ways that shepherds kept ‘score’ (with its early meaning of ‘twenty’). Some put tiny stones in their pockets and others kept a tally by notching (scoring) a stick, often in fives. English shepherds had local rhyming number systems from one to twenty. ‘Yan tan tethera’ is the start of one such sheep-counting system in the north of England.

Another aspect of Jehan’s treatise is the sacred nature of shepherding and he quotes Bible scripture again and again, proud of being a shepherd. The status of shepherding in medieval Christendom was that of an honourable vocation. It is no coincidence that pastor (shepherd) came to mean a Christian minister, in charge of his metaphorical flock.

The notion of ‘a good shepherd’ had spiritual and metaphorical resonance, recognized by peasant and lord alike. Equally, a ‘bad shepherd’ was worse than any shoddy worker. Sheep-stealing was a heinous crime, not just because it was theft but because it was an attack on a shepherd.

Christ and a Monk and Two Shepherds; Unknown; Thérouanne ?, France (formerly Flanders); about 1270; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 19.1 × 14.3 cm (7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 46v

Were shepherds all men? No indeed. Jehan de Brie’s treatise is written for bergers et bergères, ‘shepherds and shepherdesses’ so he acknowledges his female counterparts, who would learn the work in the same way. Wannabe shepherds and shepherdesses would run beside the flock, even stay out in the fields. There was no shortage of people for the most menial of jobs and the smallest reward.

However practical a real shepherdess might have been, the idealization of such a life is exemplified by Queen Marie-Anoinette’s game of dress-up at Le Petit Trianon. There is a tradition of pastoral literature in classical times, revived from Shakespeare’s era onwards and reaching a frenzy of rural idylls in the 18th and 19th century. Dressing up as a shepherdess, goatherd or milkmaid, frolicking with rustic men while Pan plays his pipes, is portrayed in art and literature as nostalgic and sensual, ‘back to nature’, with little understanding of what these jobs entail.

For my story I needed to know what a medieval shepherd really does each day, and Jehan de Brie made me feel I was right there beside him, as he noted the seasons and the maladies they brought. I now know not to muck out stables in May as that’s when ‘the earth opens its entrails, bringing up superfluous humours that induce fever.’ I also learned that sheep poo makes a (human) health drink though I have no intention of testing my juicer with such a concoction. From time-honoured ways of predicting the weather to the proper ways to purge yourself before castrating lambs, Jehan gives a detailed guide.

Throughout his work, he stresses that shepherding is an honourable vocation. In nativity plays all over modern Christendom, the shepherds are much-loved characters and yet few of us know what the job entailed. Thanks to Jehan de Brie I am a little wiser. As he says at the start of his work, quoting St John, ‘You must enter a sheepfold by the door and he who enters otherwise is a thief. So let us go in by the door.’ Which is where my story starts, in a sheepfold on Christmas Eve, with a blizzard blowing.


Nici’s Christmas Tale:1157 Aquitaine

A standalone short story in The Troubadours Quartet

Reference: ‘Jehan de Brie – le Bon Berger : le gouvernement main en gardant les brebis (Traduit en français moderne par Michel Clévenot, éditions Stock)

Photo credits

Pastou among the sheep – Jean Gill

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop (Flemish, active about 1480 – 1515)
The Annunciation to the Shepherds, about 1480–1485 ?, Tempera colors and gold on parchment
Leaf: 20.5 × 14.8 cm (8 1/16 × 5 13/16 in.), Ms. 23, fol. 90v
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Christ and a Monk and Two Shepherds, about 1270, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 19.1 × 14.3 cm (7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in.), Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 46v
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

About Me

Jean Gill is known for her award-winning historical fiction The Troubadours Quartet. She’s a Welsh writer and photographer now living in the south of France with two big scruffy dogs, a Nikon D750, a beehive named Endeavour and a man. For many years, she taught English in Wales and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Carmarthenshire. She is mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic.

Her twenty-one books are varied, including poetry and novels, military history, translated books on dog training, and a cookery book on goat cheese. With Scottish parents, an English birthplace and French residence, she can usually support the winning team on most sporting occasions




The Troubadours Page

Youtube channel