Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed

The scientific revolution in agricultural techniques that characterized the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was largely the result of work carried out on the monastic farms of newly founded religious orders, particularly the Cistercians, who became especially well known for their scientific approach to farming and livestock raising.

Summary of Event

The twelfth century origin of the Cistercian Cistercians order is significant in that it forced the Cistercians into a consciousness of rural problems. Compared with the Benedictines and their already reformed Cluny, the Cistercians started late as an order. Since, by the twelfth century, the earlier monastic groups had preempted many of the more favorable agricultural sites in Europe and most of the best arable land of Western Europe had already been put to the plow, the new order was forced to retreat into less accessible areas. Also, since the Cistercians were encouraged by their rule to shun the general population, the monks tended to establish their houses in the wilder and more remote lands of England, France, and Germany. In these primitive surroundings, they were in a sense free, but this fact forced them to experiment with new techniques in agronomy. [kw]Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed (c. 1200)
[kw]Cattle Breeding Developed, Scientific (c. 1200)
[kw]Breeding Developed, Scientific Cattle (c. 1200)
Agriculture;cattle breeding
Europe (general);c. 1200: Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed[2160]
Agriculture;c. 1200: Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed[2160]
Science and technology;c. 1200: Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed[2160]
Trade and commerce;c. 1200: Scientific Cattle Breeding Developed[2160]
Justinian I
Narses (d. c. 302 c.e.)

Of significant importance in their freedom to plan was the actual management of the Cistercian lands themselves. The monasteries Monasticism;agriculture and divided their newly acquired areas into compact groups known as granges. Each grange included arable, pasture, and timber lands, and was put under the care of one man, a cellarer, who was responsible for its effective management. Such an arrangement lifted the granges outside the normal manorial nexus and, by freeing them from the hampering restrictions, dues, rights, and obligations involved in the established agricultural structure, provided wide opportunities for innovation.

Because other orders already held the Midlands, the Cistercians in the British Isles settled mostly in the Yorkshire dales, and in the moorlands and valleys of Wales. Here they turned into exceptionally fine sheep farmers. Their close ties in the wool trade with Flanders later had its impact on the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). In fact, the Cistercian wool trade was so highly developed that the monasteries disposed of their wool by advance contracts promising to deliver a set amount of wool for two, three, or even fifteen or twenty years. Thus wool merchants were in effect making long-term loans to the monks on the security of their future production. Because the monasteries made contracts not only for the wool of their own domains but also for that of other farmers in the area, they were actually acting as middlemen between the exporter and the small farmer. Although the Cistercians were forbidden in 1157 by their chapter general to engage in such economic speculation, they found these long-term contracts too lucrative to forgo.

Cistercian agriculture, grain production, and cattle raising were greatly stimulated on the great Flemish estates of the order when the monks began to produce for the growing towns. Intensive cultivation of the land drove out the old fallow policy, and the urban demand for meat, milk, and cheese, together with a climate favorable for pasture farming, led to a great expansion and improvement of livestock raising in the late thirteenth century.

Soon the monks became famous for their advanced concepts of animal husbandry. Cattle, sheep, and hogs were generally allowed to roam the open fields, meadows, and forests and to mate indiscriminately among their own kind, but the Cistercians began to enclose their grasslands with fencing so that undesirable strains of cattle and uncontrolled inbreeding could not contaminate their herds.

Selective breeding developed in the monks’s cattle many desirable characteristics: resistance to disease, endurance of cold weather, capacity for greater milk production, and, in the case of beef cattle and hogs, greater size and weight.

In Germany and the Low Countries, the Cistercians became expert in clearing and draining vast tracts of wasteland and low-lying swamp areas. The water obtained by the drainage of swamp and fen was ingeniously stored behind specially constructed dikes and dams to reclaim additional acres by irrigation. In central and eastern Prussia, the Cistercians actually reclaimed the entire so-called Thuringian Basin. At the same time, the monastery of Waldsassen in Germany, while largely supporting itself by the export of its dressed lumber, set a standard in the conservation of its native timber.


The Cistercians, as a twelfth century reform movement in the Western Church, preferred to establish fresh religious foundations rather than to try to reform older monasteries. More from necessity than choice, they tended to locate in places uninhabited for centuries, “thick set with thorns” in mountainous and rocky areas more suited as a “lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings.” Capital gained through donations and earned through the patience of hard work, together with the monks’s knowledge of ancient agricultural writings, helped them turn their inhospitable abodes into fertile areas despite wars, raids, diseases, great economic hindrances inflicted on the order’s trade by the state, and the sharp fall in the value of money during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As the monasteries prospered, thousands flocked to work as paid bands for fixed wages.

The wool industry of the Cistercians grew rapidly as well; within forty years of their foundation they were widely known as great wool raisers. By the middle of the fourteenth century the yearly export reached forty thousand sacks shipped mainly from the port of Boston not only to Flanders but also to distant parts of the world in vessels of many countries.

With such a reputation in agronomy and animal husbandry, the Cistercians were much sought after in Western Europe. They were encouraged by liberal grants to settle in Poland, for example, where they contributed not only to the economic advance of the country but to the uplift of its social and moral tone as well.

Further Reading

  • Biossonade, P. Life and Work in Medieval Europe. 1927. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. A survey of the economic environment of the Middle Ages with special reference to agriculture.
  • Bokonyi, Sandor. “The Development of Stockbreeding and Herding in Medieval Europe.” In Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation, edited by Del Sweeney. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Examines the impact of new scientific methods of breeding livestock upon medieval European culture and society.
  • Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Translated by Cynthia Postan. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. This extremely thorough analysis of all aspects of medieval agriculture includes significant discussions of animal husbandry, stockraising, and the Cistercian order.
  • Lekai, Louis. The White Monks: A History of the Cistercian Order. Okauchee, Wis.: Our Lady of Spring Bank, 1953. The author, himself a Cistercian, provides informative chapters on the agricultural pursuits of the Cistercians during the high Middle Ages: their improvement of the lands on which they settled; their extensive work in draining, clearing, and irrigating; and their significant contributions as livestock breeders.
  • Mullin, Francis A. A History of the Work of the Cistercians in Yorkshire, 1131-1300. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1932. This work gives a picture of the contributions made by the Cistercians in England. Preliminary chapters deal with the founding of the Yorkshire Cistercians in 1131 and with the Cistercian ideal of charity: love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God.
  • Power, Eileen E. The Wool Trade in English Medieval History. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. A monograph on Cistercian work with sheep in England.