Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Eena, Deina, Pitera, Pimp

I'm reading "Lost Country Life" by Dorothy Hartley, based around Thomas Tusser's famous 16th century farming calendar.

Being totally unsourced and written in a know-it-all tone, some of the book seems a tad dubious; you wonder if, being 87 herself when the book was written, she held more stock than she should have in her own intuition, memories, and the homey parables of her mysterious gardener.

But at the very least the book is full of beefy (if scattered) information about the smallest tasks of the medieval farmers. If this isn't really how it was, then it is how it SHOULD have been.

Many of her insights provoke interesting questions, even if you don't exactly believe her answers. For instance: how did people with no education manage to separate a specific number of animals -- say twenty -- from a herd? With "shepherd counts," apparently, regionally-specific "four-finger" counts that used words instead of numbers. "Eena, deena, dina, das; catiler, weena, winer, was," you'd say in the West Riding, or -- if you were in Rochdale -- "Eena, deina, pitera, pimp."

She also explains how all those beautiful British hedgerows were built, and the crazy methods for making rennet, and the various uses of both cows and oxen.

It's taken me a week to actually start enjoying this book (due to its informal and poorly-organized preface), but now I'm learning all sorts of things I've always wondered. I'll never USE these tips for plowing a strip of land or washing a sheep, but it's fascinating to learn how medieval mind explained the mysteries of land and animal, and how they slowly began to innovate.

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